Inflection point: As gravel racing goes mainstream, can it retain its renegade status

303 Endurance Note, this is an excellent article by Neal Rogers of Cycling Tips. At the recent Endurance Exchange, the future of “Gravel” was a hot topic and it was suggested that 2020 will be an interesting year for gravel,…this offers some great insight as to why.

By Neal Rogers

The gravel phenomenon that’s taken root in American cycling shows no signs of slowing down in 2020. New events are selling out in a manner of minutes. Bike brands are marketing gravel-specific wares ahead of other disciplines. Former WorldTour pros are finding a new home in a friendlier, dust-covered peloton. Gravel triathlons are popping up across the United States. There’s even a gravel-racing commercial slated for the upcoming Super Bowl.

Photography by Adam Lapierre

Okay, that last one isn’t true — but the fact that you had to give it a double take illustrates just how popular American cycling’s latest trend has grown.

In actuality, riding a drop-bar bike on unpaved roads isn’t a trend at all — just look at photos of the earliest editions of the Tour de France. What is new, and coalescing around gravel riding and racing, is the technology: disc brakes, wider rims, wider tires, and a wider range of gears. As American roads feel increasingly less hospitable to cyclists, bike riders and racers have ventured further away from metropolitan and suburban areas, aided by better technology and enticed by events growing in number and stature.

Last year, WorldTour team EF Pro Cycling made waves by announcing that Lachlan Morton, Alex Howes, and Taylor Phinney would compete in its “Alternative Calendar.” In 2020, Americans Ian Boswell and Peter Stetina are extending their careers as gravel privateers, racing the biggest gravel events across the land, following in the footsteps of compatriot Ted King, who closed out his WorldTour career in 2015 and found a new home on unpaved roads.

And it’s not just Americans; Dutch rider Laurens Ten Dam, a top-10 finisher at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will also be racing several North American gravel events this year.

What’s truly noteworthy is how all of this happening outside of the jurisdiction of the national cycling federation. Major events such as Dirty Kanza, SBT GRVL, and the Belgian Waffle Ride are not sanctioned by USA Cycling; they don’t require a license, there’s no drug testing, and they’re not officiated by commissaires in matching embroidered polos. These events don’t fall under the IOC or UCI umbrella. There is no Olympic or world championship gravel race. They don’t need to abide by USA Cycling rules. Promoters of these events can do, or not do, whatever they want.

Instead — and an integral part of what has made these events so popular — it’s impossible to fit gravel racing into a box. Most are mass-start events, some aren’t. Some are timed start to finish; others only include timed segments along the route. Some are 200 miles, some are 50 miles. Some play out like road races, only on dirt; others are practically mountain-bike races. Some people are racing to win, others are riding to finish. Sometimes the terrain consists of large, sharp rocks; other times it’s pea gravel over graded dirt roads. Some courses are sign posted; some require self-navigation. Some are self-supported, some are not. Some, such as Grinduro, are equal parts bike race and afterparty.

The idea of regulating gravel racing has, in recent years, been the stuff of parody. It’s fun, it’s different. This is the untamed Wild West of bike racing.

But as gravel goes mainstream, how long can it retain its renegade status?

Read the rest HERE

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