Hosted around Vincenza, Italy riders navigated the 2022 UCI Gravel World Championships course that routed from Campo Marzio, eastward to Padova, then tacking north for a finish in Cittadella. Organisers chose to add a two-lap section to the men’s race, increasing its race distance to 194km, compared to the women’s 140km.
The challenge of facilitating a 100% gravel route in Europe necessitated organisers to compromise on the ride surface composition. Asphalt accounted for 31% of the route, with 36% rolling along unpaved roads, 18% on gravel and 1% on cobblestones. The latter was a steep climb, up to Monte Berico.
More an unpaved road race than a genuine gravel track
Total elevation was mild, totalling only 700m, and compared to American gravel bike races, such as the Belgian Waffle, the 2022 UCI World Championships featured a relatively smooth riding surface. There was little in the category of rocky climbs or descents and no singletrack riding, all of which are incorporated into American gravel bike events.
With its smooth and potentially fast-rolling nature, the UCI Gravel World Championships saw high average speeds and tactics more akin to traditional road racing. This contrasts with the technical ride surface management and intuition valued by hardcore gravel riders, where tyre preservation and crash avoidance on high-speed fire road descents, are graded as gravel-specific riding skills.
Cyclo-cross riders featured strongly in the men’s race, with Belgium’s Gianni Vermeersch taking the win, followed home by Italy’s Daniel Oss, and Dutch superstar Mathieu van der Poel. The men might have competed over the more extensive 194km route, but the women’s race delivered a result that resonated beyond gravel riding.
With her win, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot tallied a tenth UCI World Championship jersey. She also becomes the holder of four concurrent rainbow stripe jerseys after a dominant performance in women’s off-road cycling during the last year.
Although Ferrand-Prévot isn’t a gravel rider, her Cape Epic mountain bike racing experience earlier this year, inarguably helped.
True gravel bike pros, don’t yet exist
Two new off-road cycling World Champions, but what can we learn from the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships? It might not be a form guide for who might dominate gravel bike racing next season. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is probably the greatest off-road rider of all time, but her focus will never be exclusive to gravel riding. Strong rumours indicate a possible move to road cycling, with Ineos Grenadiers.
In the men’s category, gravel bike specialists remain few and far between, with most riders at the UCI World Championships being road or cyclo-cross pros. Tellingly, one of the world’s best legacy gravel bikers, America’s Colin Strickland, remains out of competition after his proximity to a murder case involving a fellow professional rider, Mo Wilson.
There was a poignancy to the UCI Gravel World Championship event, with the presence of Wilson dearly missed in the women’s category. Her murder investigation remains ongoing.
And the bikes? There were no restrictions on tyre width, with organisers and the UCI recognising that gravel bikers are given to rolling much larger tyres than road bikes. What remained unchanged from the conventional UCI road racing playbook was the 6.8kg minimum bike weight rule.
The absence of rocky sections influenced tyre choice, with most riders opting for a compromise between rotational mass and casing volume. Vermeersch’s winning Canyon Ultimate CFR rolled Vittoria Terreno Dry TNT tyres. Interestingly, Vermeersch chose to run two different sizes, opting for a 700x33c tyre up front and a slightly larger 700x35c casing, at the rear.
There is little question that R&D efforts pursuing gravel-specific componentry will only be accelerated after the first full season of professional World Tour and World Championships gravel bike racing. But for many recreational gravel bikers and weekend warriors, there might be a desire to see future events hosted on wilder terrain, more relatable to gravel adventure riding.
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