Words and photos by Steve Thomas
This weekend, some 375 riders will line up in the tropical dust of the Northern Philippines for the very first round of the inaugural UCI Gravel World Series.
The Philippines has a surprisingly strong cycling scene, albeit very divided by economics. The gravel community there is small, growing and very passionate. Gravel riding and racing is something that has been a slow to non-starter in other parts of the region. So hosting the first-ever round of the series, there is great potential for this genre in the region, and indeed for the globalisation of cycling.
Ever-evolving travel restrictions and fluctuating COVID alerts in the country have meant that the organisers have had to keep potential participant numbers low for safety reasons. Despite these difficulties, organisers have managed to attract a handful of overseas riders, those who were able to navigate the complexities of travel in a continent that has been mostly sealed off for the past two years.
Entry slots for the 89km (59 miles) event filled up within a couple of days of opening (there is a 65km event too), which all bodes well for the event – and, hopefully, for the future of the series as a whole.
When, where – and what?
What is it all about? Well, the series is to be coordinated by the Belgian based company Golazo Sports, a sports marketing company whose head of off-road and gravel is former World Cyclo-Cross Champion Erwin Vervecken.
The series includes 12 rounds, each of which will be run on an age-related basis with five year age category gaps. Some 25% of the first finishers will earn the right to enter the season-ending World Gravel Championships – the UCI sanctioned version. This is still to be confirmed but looks almost certain to be held in Tuscany by the organisers of L'Erocia.
Who is it for?
The series aims to be all-inclusive, and it will be organised and pitched to similar riders and in similar ways as the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, which gets mixed reactions. Keen amateur and master riders are the target market, although to participate in the grand finale of the World Championships, you will need a UCI racing licence from your relevant federation (British Cycling).
In theory, pro riders will be allowed to compete and qualify for the World Championship, but unsurprisingly, whether or not many will do that is still uncertain.
In the recent past, some of the major pro names of the gravel racing world have not shown much in the way of enthusiasm for UCI's involvement with gravel racing (perhaps given how mountain biking changed after becoming "official" – for better or worse is debatable). Although wouldn't it be great to see the likes of Lachlan Morton and Colin Strickland battling it out for the title and racing alongside regular weekend warriors?
Many of the major gravel events, particularly the bigger US events, have held back from UCI involvement and the inevitable rules and regulations that come with it, preferring to stick to their original gravel power guns. Hence, the rounds in the new series are mostly smaller events with fewer participant numbers than the major ones.
For the goodness that is gravel
Despite the pandemic restrictions and travel impracticalities, let's hope the UCI Gravel World Series will find its feet and place in the gravel world. This can only be a good thing when it comes to recognition of the discipline within the sport, albeit somewhat relative in terms of balance when it comes to the established road racing scene, of which the UCI has a very favoured and clear leaning towards.
The Trek-sponsored series will include several European rounds, a Mexican event, a few North American races, and two Australian events.
Unfortunately, there is no sign of a British round as of yet. This is a real shame when given the great venues we have to offer, although officially racing on certain classifications of trails can be a tricky one to navigate for event organisers.
One of the closest events to home that has been listed so far is the Houffa Gravel, which is set to take place around Houffalize in the Belgian Ardennes; a wild and hilly region well know for hosting World Cup MTB races.
This is the recently confirmed calendar of events.
April 3: UCI Gravel Philippines, Bongabon, Nueva Ecija (PHI)
May 15: Seven, Nannup (AUS)
June 5: Wish One Gravel Race, Millau (FRA)
June 19: Gravel Adventure, Swieradow-Zdroj (POL)
June 25: Highlands Gravel Classic, Fayetteville (USA)
August 6: Jingle GX Gravel Race, Amana (USA)
August 20: Gravel Grit n Grind, Halmstad (SWE)
August 27: Houffa Gravel, Houffalize (BEL)
September 3: La Monsterrato-Strade Bianche Monferrato, Quattordio (ITA)
September 4: Gravelista, Beechworth (AUS)
September 17: Gravel One Fifty, Veenhuizen (NED)
September 18: Ranxo, Ponts (ESP)
It is believed that the World Championship will take place on October 3rd in conjunction with L'Erocia in Tuscany.
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