It’s a late August day in the village of Gatehouse of Fleet, Scotland. Hundreds of cyclists are rolling through the village and, after a few miles, they receive a heart-warming cheer from the schoolchildren gathered beside the road, before disappearing into the deepest Dumfries and Galloway forest to race gravel. This is a scene from the inaugural Raiders Gravel that was held last year, and it was the one that sparked me to think about what makes a great gravel event - and why are they so increasingly popular.
I'm no novice to gravel events, but that above moment at the wee Scottish village was something different. It’s something I’d compare to that of riding from London to Paris on closed streets and the people cheering at me like I was a pro rider. The very moment also made me think about how gravel events and racing really have come to be - and what is it that really makes these off-road races so enjoyable.
The number of gravel events is exploding on a global scale. 2022 was the peak of the search term “gravel race” and events from small-scale ticketed gravel rides to 3,000-participant strong mass start races are something most gravel cyclists have mulled over.
The organisers behind gravel events are at the forefront of following gravel trends and responding to them. In order to find out what exactly makes off-road riding so appealing, and what it takes to organise a gravel event, we chatted with a few major gravel organisers: Red On Group, the organisers behind Raiders Gravel and Gralloch, the very first UCI Gravel race in the UK; SBT Gravel, the organisers of the US-based SBT Gravel event and FNLD GRVL, and Matt Page, the man behind Lauf Gritfest and Battle on the Beach, all shared their expertise on the multifaceted topic.
What makes gravel events so popular?
Why are gravel events seemingly popping up everywhere around the UK and elsewhere at the moment, and attracting thousands of participants? The school children at Gatehouse of Fleet would have unlikely looked twice at gravel riders a couple of years back, but now their village is hosting mass-start gravel events, and a similar development has taken place in the US much earlier - making gravel mainstream.
“SBT started in 2019 - it was the first year and gravel was really just starting to pick up in the US for a handful of reasons. The gravel calendar didn't look like it does now when there is pretty much a gravel event in every state,” Amy Charity, co-founder of SBT GRVL explains to me when I ask how their now 3,000-participant-strong event got started.
There is no denying that gravel events are held in some stunning locations that add to their appeal. Take SBT GRVL, which is held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado - a typical winter sports location with a stunning mountain backdrop. Underneath the snow that blankets the area in the winter lays pristine gravel roads. But on top of the right gravel riding conditions, it’s the inclusivity and relaxed riding that the organisers highlighted as the main attraction for gravel event participants.
“When you get on a gravel road, you are not dealing with traffic cars, all those worries go away. You can ride side by side you can have a conversation. There are friendships that are built through riding off-road that you can't necessarily establish on the road, trying to ride a single file, and dealing with stop signs and street signs. Gravel builds a community on the dirt and I can see it going that way as well,” Ryan Steers, SBT marketing director summarises.
This question about gravel cycling events' popularity is interesting in the broader context of the cycling world. Road racing seems to be in decline - this year we saw the Women’s Tour in Britain cancelled because of lack of funding. At the same time, there seem to be more gravel events than ever before with entry fees as high or even higher than that of the Women's Tour - so it's not down to the entry fees that riders are preferring the gravel events.
As all of the organisers pointed out, gravel races and events are much more than just a single race. Multi-day gravel events often include several stages, ridden over multiple days and with pre- and post-race entertainment for the whole family - even if they are not cyclists. You can choose one of several distances but the start is still a mass start, which attracts riders of all ages and from various backgrounds.
"You compete with people very similar to you in terms of ability and you finish where you finish. This mass-start event concept really appeals to that broader group. We literally have a seven-year-old and an 82-year-old at SBT Gravel and then we have Niki Terpstra (a Dutch pro cyclist)," Charity highlights.
You might have also heard the phrase "spirit of gravel". It's often deemed that gravel is the chill, relaxed cycling discipline. Maybe something akin to those early-day mountain bike races.
“When we were developing the Raiders, we were reaching back to the early 80s, to the cross-country mountain bike racing. There was a vibe to it - more around the fan zone, beer, music, fun to be had and it was a great experience,” Malcolm Smith, the co-founder of Red On Group explains.
Is it a gravel race… or just an event?
Raiders Gravel 2022 timing sign, by Roo Fowler
The gravel events I have participated in have involved strapping a race number on my bike and getting timed on the course. But, despite this being a common practice, some of the biggest gravel events in the UK are actually not classified as races. This means that you can smash the course but you won’t be getting the top spot at the podium regardless of how good your time was - because there simply aren't any podiums.
The lack of gravel races in the UK is mostly down to the difficulty involved in the process, one which Matthew Page - organiser of Lauf Critfest - simply describes as “a minefield”.
“In England, you've got bridleways and you're legally allowed to ride pedal cycles on those. So that's normal bikes and any bikes up to the limit speed limits. But you're not allowed to race them at any point. Then you've also got footpaths and you're not allowed to ride a footpath. But legally, you could close these, too, and then you'd be able to race on it. Which is, it's a bit crazy," Page explains.
If you wanted to close these paths, you’d need to have permission from the council and pay a fee. Similarly, if the race course involved closed roads, you’d need police and council permission and qualified people to marshal the closed sections.
“Then you've also got the issue around insurance. To get insurance for an event that's classed as a race - for a mountain bike race or a road race, you’d be getting insurance through British Cycling. But British Cycling doesn't currently don't have any way of insuring a gravel race, because they don't recognise gravel as a discipline,” Page explains.
We can quite quickly see that from the organisers' perspective, leaving the podiums out of the equation makes the process of organising a gravel event easier. But that said, there is a demand for both types of events - the chill rides and races.
2022 Raiders Gravel, by Roo Fowler
Red On Group founders Maximilian Wussler and Malcolm Smith both have years of experience in organising different discipline cycling events and as organisers of Kings Cup, the unofficial “British Gravel Championships”, it was easy for them to point out that gravel racing has its interest and might be benefitting from the decline of road racing.
“Looking at the past few years, there are events in a broad spectrum: anything from the sort of more adventurous bikepacking into the racing.
“What we've seen in terms of our events is a big influx of riders into the racing end of the spectrum. A lot of those are coming from road racing. We're all well aware of the challenges of the road racing scene in the UK,” Wussler says, acknowledging what seems to be widespread financial difficulties in setting up road races. It's also increasingly popular for those that professionally race on the road wanting to get into gravel racing as an alternative.
But some might argue that bringing competitiveness into gravel could ruin “the spirit of gravel”, the relaxed chill vibes and having a beer with pals at the finish line.
“Everyone is sort of catching on to this brilliant thing that is gravel and a bit of a concern that it might lose its sort of heart and soul. But not every event needs to cater for the full spectrum. There will be more races because there are people who are maybe more competitive in their nature. That doesn't mean the more adventure and sort of social-focused events go anywhere,” Wussler confirms.
Road vs gravel events - what are the major differences?
So if we have now figured out that most UK gravel events are still more like road sportives held off-road, but what is the appeal of a gravel event and racing compared to road cycling, then? Obviously, you’re off the busy roads so you eliminate the traffic but, as touched on earlier, the mass start concept of gravel racing makes signing up easier.
When it comes to road racing it's very structured and you usually need at least some sort of licence, insurance and membership. From talking with the organisers, they all mentioned the aim of gravel events to be inclusive, which means removing the possible barriers that road racing imposes - be it licences, categorisation based on racing success or limited gender groups. Road racing has not always been the best at doing things right - as Red On Group's Malcolm Smith also emphasised when I talked with him - and gravel racing is an opportunity to learn from those mistakes.
Amy Charity, who used to be a professional road racer, doesn't hesitate to explain how complicated the process of signing up for road races is compared to gravel.
“You go on to a website to sign up and it's you know, Cat1 through to Cat4 and you check what you are, and then you pay for a one-day or an annual licence which is really expensive. I think if you're if you're someone who hasn't done a bike event before, that's incredibly intimidating.
“I think that the gravel just opens up that door without having those barriers. You can have an opportunity to go to a world or nationals or champs or you can just participate and that's kind of the beauty of gravel – it is a race but you define what that race looks like,” Charity says.
Bringing US gravel racing to Europe
It is true that gravel events are plentiful in the UK as much as in the US but the racing side of the events is still well behind - about five years according to some of the organisers we spoke with. Rather, unfortunately, some of this is to do with the land access regulations we covered earlier.
Nevertheless, gravel events clearly labelled as races are happening in Europe, too. Take the Gravel Earth series, or the UK races, such as Lauf Critfest and Kings Cup.
Yet there is still no question about the much bigger US gravel racing scene. That American gravel race atmosphere is what SBT GRVL is also hoping to bring to Europe with their first-ever European gravel race, FNLD GRVL.
The event has attracted major interest on an international scale - perhaps partially because of the involvement of Finnish Formula 1 star Valtteri Bottas, whose hometown, Lahti, is the base for the event. But with a price purse of £17,000, it is also a very appealing target for any competitive pro gravel rider.
“SBT GRVL is definitely a race, and FNLD GRVL will also be a race. We have a prize purse to accommodate those cyclists to really have a great challenge and compete for the win and winning an event like SBT or Finland can really launch your career if you're just getting started.
"But something that is very unique to gravel racing is the way the event can be raced. We have attracted world tour riders, but that said you can also ride the event with your friends. You're all on the same start line and that to me is what defines gravel, that's the beauty of gravel. And that's what we hope to really bring from the US over to Europe,” Charity explains.
What about UCI involvement?
In 2022 we saw the first-ever Gravel UCI World Championships in Italy, and this year, a UCI Gravel World Series race happened in the UK. The Gralloch, as the race was called, attracted riders from both present and ex-WorldTour pros to locals who simply wanted to challenge themselves.
Despite the governing body's involvement, we're still a long way away from the UCI dictating what length socks the gravel riders can wear.
Red On Group, the organisers of the Gralloch, had a great response to the event. And even though there has been an obvious concern about what the UCI involvement will do to gravel, Wussler and Smith believe that UCI is not changing what gravel is for people.
“It was clear that the riders were after something like this. Gralloch had nearly 1,000 riders at the start line this year, on its first year, so undoubtedly there is demand for it,” Wussler says.
Raiders Gravel 2022 food, by Roo Fowler
UCI’s presence might be more prominent in Europe because of the major WorldTour races, but what do the organisers and riders across the pond think about its involvement?
“My general thought on the UCI coming into gravel is that it will be a good thing for our sport. It is that pathway for the elite cyclists - a way to progress forward into nationals and then race in the Worlds and that gets a lot of attention on the sport. And it lends some credibility to the sport as a whole.
"Our hope is not to have an officially sanctioned event where we all become a bit sterile or we all become very similar to the others,” Charity says.
What is the future for gravel?
From what we can see and hear, it is clear that the future of gravel looks quite positive. There is an ambition amongst the organisers to learn from the mistakes that have been made in road racing - and the inclusivity means that more people will have a chance to experience something similar to what I experienced at the Raiders last year.
Gravel is definitely growing, and that is also evident in the ever-increasing offerings of gravel-specific products, and cycling industry brands' interest in being present at the major gravel events.
“I think part of our job we're doing in Europe is kind of showing people what's possible with gravel as we come in. I think there are going to be events and races that are several days long, so you come and bring your family along and it's more than a race. I think those two can continue to coexist and grow. But I also see from what we found in Europe that a lot of riders are still figuring out gravel as far as what is possible on a gravel bike.
"I see this sport growing as far as a multi-surface discipline and not necessarily just gravel, but incorporating it across all disciplines and using the gravel bike as a tool to create new routes to connect ways that people haven't before,” Steers says.
Red On Group's Wussler and Smith agreed with Steers that both types of events will co-exist, but Smith also points out that in the UK, the locations for good gravel events might be limiting the burgeoning scene. Unlike the US, the British Isles lack those wide, smooth dirt roads that lend themselves so well for large gravel races.
"Certainly in the UK, there are far fewer places to really deliver high-quality gravel events -most of the country don't really lend themselves particularly well so to gravel racing, so the bridleways and tracks will always accommodate a sportive type environment with nice stops and cafes and sightseeing.
"Unlike South Africa and the States, and potentially Australia - and a number of countries in Europe where they do have a big expanse of wilderness - we are limited far more in scope in terms of where we can do this and actually race and make it safe racing. We have horses and cars getting in the way," Smith predicts, although emphasises that the UK events still cater for the needs of the audience - just on a smaller scale.
What gravel will look like in a few years' time remains a mystery, but I certainly hope that it will involve more of the great scenes it has created thus far.
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