By Steve Thomas
With just over two weeks until race day, the UCI has finally released the much-awaited route and location details for the 2023 Gravel World Championships, which will take place around Treviso, in the Veneto region of North-eastern Italy over the weekend of 7-8 October. All in, it looks set to be a corker of a battle between some of the biggest names in cycling but, perhaps like last year, not so much a race for the pure off-road specialists.
There was a lot of mixed and understandable angst following the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships held last year, also in the Veneto region, on what would perhaps best be termed as a rough-cut Belgian ‘kermesse-like’ course around the walled town of Cittadella.
It was a course that was far removed from the great classic gravel race routes of the USA and elsewhere in Europe, which was not a great surprise to some of the old gravel hands around – those who have always been more than a little concerned with the UCI’s growing involvement in the discipline.
It has to be considered that UCI’s official ideals, or rather ideas, of what gravel racing is do differ somewhat from those of events such as Unbound and the other established classics of gravel racing.
Last year’s race was also somewhat of a mystery to most, right up until the eleventh hour, which was far from ideal for those trying to formulate some kind of season plan to ride the race. Despite the course and communication woes of 2022, this year's edition, and a Veneto venue, were already confirmed on a two-year deal with PP Sports (run by ex-road pro Filippo Pozzato). However, it seems that the powers that be (the UCI) feared a repeat version of the 2022 course and pulled the plug on their agreement just a few weeks ago.
Needless to say, this caused great uncertainty about what, where, or even if the race would actually happen. Now, having opted for a different organisation (Pedali di Marca) and a new venue within the same greater Veneto region, things are looking a whole lot rosier on the route front – at least on paper.
2023 UCI Gravel World Championships routes
The two showcase events will be the Elite Women’s and Men’s races, which will take place on Saturday 7 October, and Sunday 8 October, respectively. Both races will start from Lago Le Bandie, Treviso, and finish 23km north at Pieve di Soligo, with much of the route running through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Prosecco Lands.
The women’s route will cover some 140km, starting with a mostly unpaved 30km lap around the lake to get warmed up, before taking on a series of short but sharp paved climbs and then crossing the finish line for the first time at 46km. After which, the route takes on a much hillier second loop with most of the climbing ahead being undertaken in this half of the race and on mostly paved sections. There is an overall altitude gain of 1,660m, and the estimated white road/gravel to paved road ratio is 50/50 for both races.
The men’s route will be 169km long and take in 1,890m of climbing, with a similar mix of paved climbs and flat gravel and road sectors along the way. And with the lion’s share of the extra 29km being done on flat paved and gravel roads, both routes will also feature four short-but-steep climbs and a final flat run in during the closing 25km to the line in Piazza di Balbi Valier.
What to expect and who to watch?
While the 2022 Elite Men’s Gravel Championships had something of a surprise winner in Belgium’s cyclo-cross and road pro Gianni Vermeersch, given the terrain it’s unlikely that we will see a long shot taking the stripes this time around in either the men's or the women's races.
Gianni Vermeersch wins 2022 UCI Gravel Worlds, by SprintCyclingAgency
The route itself contains around double the amount of climbing as last year, which will relentlessly grind away at the riders as the many short climbs stack up the lactate. On paper the course profiles look more like those of the Belgian Spring classics than a typical gravel race, which will lend itself extremely well towards the WorldTour road riders who have history in such classic races – and it will likely be a battle of attrition between the strongest of these.
Men's race - who to watch
Although nobody will know for sure who will choose to line up for the Elite races this year (such is the nature of a World Championship), it is highly likely that we will see some of the best Spring Classics specialists on the start grid. Unfortunately, the obvious title contenders of World Road Race Champion Mathieu Van der Poel and MTB XCO Word Champ Tom Pidcock will not be among them, with MVDP resting after a hectic season and Pidcock riding the Mont St Anne MTB World Cup final round on the same weekend.
Hopefully, their arch-rival, Wout van Aert of Belgium will take the start in Veneto and, having recently turned his hand to gravel and won the Houffa Gravel round of the UCI World Series in the hilly Ardennes region of Belgium, you can guess that he will also be targeting the World title.
Connor Swift Gralloch win , by Roo Fowler
Of the likely male Brits who could potentially challenge, the multi-disciplinarian Cameron Mason of Trinity Racing and Connor Swift of the Ineos Grenadiers are both capable of making their mark in the race. Mason has a great deal of gravel expertise behind him, while Swift made a winning gravel debut in the UK’s first UCI gravel race – the Gralloch, earlier this year, and recently finished second at Kings Cup, the UK National Gravel Championships. Swift is also a past winner of the much-prized Tro-Bro Léon event, which is a Paris-Roubaix-like race with lots of grassy fast track thrown in, and clearly has the level to take the race to the final. The rider who outsprinted the duo in the national championship was Joe Blackmore, who is also a likely starter in Italy.
Unfortunately, the Giro di Lombardia classic road race also takes place in Italy on the same weekend and this will most likely preclude several big names from having a crack at the gravel title. The scheduling will also rule out the possibility of many of the XCO mountain bikers; especially those looking to make their overall World Cup season and Paris Olympics qualification secure. All this could have been avoided with a slightly later or different scheduling of the gravel title bout.
peter-sagans-paris-roubaix-winning-specialized-s-works-roubaix-picture-credit-specialized-and.jpeg, by Liam Mercer
Of the longer shots, you wouldn’t bet against the recently retired road-pro-turned-gravel-maestro Alejandro Valverde of Spain turning out and putting on a show, too, while the ex-road pros such as Peter Sagan and Nicki Terpstra could also feature.
Of the endurance mountain bikers and gravel pros, it will be a tough ask for the specialist male off-road riders to break into the top 10-15 slots (the top 12 male finishers were all WorldTour pros in 2022). Having said that, American flyer Keegan Swenson (who has dominated many of the major US gravel and MTB classics in recent years) will no doubt be trying to stake a claim for the result board for the purists. Fellow young American allrounder Luke Lamperti could also make his mark, given an opening to make it deep into the hilly second half of the race.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, by SWpix.com
Women's race - who to watch
As far as the Women’s title race goes; all winning odds would surely be stacked on defending Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot of France, who took the XCO MTB World Championship title in Scotland in August. However, it is unclear whether she will prioritise this rainbow-striped race over the UCI MTB World Cup in Canada. One thing is for sure, if she doesn’t turn up, the women's race will be much more unpredictable.
In 2022 Ferrand-Prevot took the victory from fellow mountain biker Sina Frei of Switzerland – who is also unsure to start in 2023. Meanwhile, fellow MTB World Cup contender Anne Terpstra of the Netherlands has already been riding and winning gravel races, and should these and other top female mountain bikers choose to prioritise the gravel title over the last of the MTB World Cup rounds, they could well be leading the charge in Italy (we suspect that a few may well do this as their Paris slots are all sorted).
Gralloch Tiffany Cromwell Canyon riding , by Roo Fowler
Several Women's WorldTour pros are also venturing into the dusty world of gravel racing, including Annemiek Van Vleuten who is postponing her retirement a little longer, the Tour de France Femmes winner Demi Vollering, and Tiffany Cromwell of Australia. While the multiple cyclo-cross and road World Champion Marianne Vos did recently win a round of the UCI Gravel World Series, she has opted to end her season early following Iliac surgery and so will not be taking the start in Italy.
As is typical with gravel, racing road bikes at the WorldTour level doesn't necessarily guarantee results off-road, and we should definitely keep an eye on neo-gravel-pros such as Maddy Nutt (UK) who did very well in the inaugural Gravel Earth Series, which Annabel Fisher (UK) won and where Amity Rockwell (US) came second - both also riders that we for sure will be keeping a close eye on in Italy and at gravel races next year.
However things may unfold, this year’s race looks set to be a major step up and in the right direction when compared to 2022. With the anticipated star-studded field, the 2023 UCI Gravel World Championships looks set to be a thriller of a race.
Future UCI Gravel World Championship venues announced
The next four Gravel World Championship venues have also been released by the UCI, which should bring new dynamics and better gravel-style courses as the discipline continues to build in prominence and define itself.
2024 – Brussels, Belgium
2025 – Nice, France.
2026 – Nannup, Western Australia.
2027 – Haute Savoie, France.
You might also like: