Is the popularity of Gravel Racing changing the ethos of the sport?

By: A.V. Schmit

Much of the coverage of Unbound Gravel – 2021, formerly known as Dirty Kanza, centered around a number of interesting in-race situations. Such as the men’s elite leaders in the 200-mile event appearing to “neutralize” the final aid station while each member of the lead group took on fuel and hydration, and others worked out mechanical issues.

An agreement to “settle things on the course” strikes me as a fine example of sportsmanship to aspire to. To allow each individual the opportunity at the win based on their skills, fitness and grit. Chapeau gents.

“It wasn’t just the last stop, the five of us had a mutual agreement to neutralize the aid stations. Part of it is for survival. It’s so much easier to be out there suffering and battling the course with other competitors, than it is going it all alone.”

Ian Boswell
former UCI World Tour Pro Cyclist
winner of the 2021 200-mile Unbound Gravel event.
The lead pack at Unbound Gravel, 2021. Ian Boswell, center, in green.
Photo Credit: ©Shawn Curry, Green Curry Photography

In road racing, tradition dictates that neither the peloton nor rivals attack the yellow jersey if they crash or experience a mechanical incident. The unwritten rules, oft times more stridently adhered to than some of the written rules, are often a means of maintaining order within the peloton.

Who can forget “chain-gate” when Alberto Contador attacked Andy Schleck in the 2010 Tour de France, when Schleck, in the yellow jersey at the time, dropped his chain? In that instance, Contador attacked when the maillot jaune was clearly having a mechanical. He later claimed he did not see it happen, but photos and video later revealed Contador may not have been being completely forthright.

“We are writing the unwritten rules of gravel right now, and there are certain ladies’ and gentlemen’s agreements around certain aspects of racing.”

Ted King
veteran gravel racer and former UCI World Tour Pro Cyclist, in a recent Velonews article.

And, while unconfirmed, there was some “buzz” in the cycling community about the eventual Woman’s elite race winner, Lauren De Crescenzo, potentially being paced or otherwise aided in her victory by her team mates. It was a brutal day in Kansas, hot, humid and windy… Anyone who even finished the 200-mile event has my respect. But both of these “situations” create some interesting questions, however.

One of the great things about gravel racing, they are typically mass-start events. That is to say men, women, pros and amateurs all line up together. And since there is no official governing body of gravel racing, it’s up to the individual race organizers to set the tone and rules for their events.

Lauren De Crescenzo, behind CINCH Teammate, Angus Calder during the 2021 Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas.
Photo Credit: ©Shawn Curry, Green Curry Photography

“One of the great things about gravel racing is the mass start. Everyone lines up together, pros and amateurs, men and women. The energy of that kind of inclusivity is electric.”

John “Hutch” Hutchinson
Colorado High School Cycling League Operations Director
gravel racing enthusiast
Unidentified riders at the start of Unbound Gravel 2021.
Photo Credit: ©Shawn Curry, Green Curry Photography

But I wonder… As gravel racing becomes more, and more popular, with more sponsorship dollars on offer and greater prestige within the cycling community, will some of the grass-roots ethos of the sport be lost?

In road racing, having team mates who “work” for their leader is a time-honored tradition. The so-called “domestiques” are the work horses of the peloton. They shield their leader from the wind, and make countless trips to and from the team cars to bring nutrition and hydration to the leader.

In fact, if a team leader has a mechanical issue or punctures away from the team car, one of his or her domestiques is expected to surrender their bike and wait for a replacement to come off the team car while the leader presses on.

“If the spirit of gravel racing is to remain pure, then it has to be a one-on-one or reduced group battle. The objective, as I see it, is to discover your physical and mental limits in relation to your direct competition.”

Whitney Allison
Professional Cyclist
Co-owner / Organizer of the FoCo Fondo
The dust, wind and unseasonably high temperatures made the 2021 Unbound Gravel event a test of strength and determination.
Photo Credit: ©Shawn Curry, Green Curry Photography

However, if a more team driven model moves into gravel racing, it would put unaffiliated racers at a significant disadvantage and could decrease participation. Some may argue that the terrain, remoteness and distances of gravel racing would make more traditional road racing team tactics ineffective.

“Race as an individual in gravel events. While groups form organically in the field, do not compete as a team in support of one individual.”

Rebecca Rusch
from a 2016 attempt to write down the unwritten rules of gravel racing called the ‘Rough Road Code’

This makes a great deal of sense to me. Both from a sportsmanship and an inclusivity perspective. Every competitor is on a level playing field.

“Gravel racing is an individual sport at its core, but it does rely heavily on road racing tactics and traditions. Alliances form organically on the course. They are dynamic, informal and are only maintained while they are mutually advantageous for the group.”

Becky Furuta
Professional Cyclist at Team Novo Nordisk

This is very different than a group or team of riders working together, sacrificing their individual ambitions to help someone other than themselves win. The key to what Furuta said, was that on-course alliances are mutually beneficial.

There’s no question gravel racing is popular, and getting more popular as riders escape one of the major dangers of riding on the road — cars.

This year’s SBT GRVL, to be held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in August, sold out in 9 minutes after registration opened in December. To put that in perspective, that’s 3,000 entries with riders from all 50 states and as far away as Australia represented.

The question remains, as popularity and the cachet of gravel racing increases, how does the sport maintain its grass roots ethos and focus on sportsmanship and adventure?

“Our goal with the FoCo Fondo, was to create and atmosphere and race that we would want to do. It’s Fort Collins funky, and that’s what we want to preserve as the event continues to evolve.”

Whitney Allison
Riders kicking up dust at the FoCo Fondo.
Photo Credit: Front Range Media

When an individual like Boswell can win one of the most prestigious gravel events on the calendar, it gives us all hope for the future of gravel racing. Even at the highest level of racing, sportsmanship played a role.

“It feels pretty strange. I was so surprised to win. Now that I’m married, with a full-time job… I have so much respect for competitors that have to balance families, work and other responsibilities and can still race at a very high level.”

Ian Boswell

In my view, the unwritten rules, will play a key role in maintaining the cornerstones of the sport — Sportsmanship, Inclusivity and Adventure.

A.V. Schmit
Riding somewhere in Colorado.

Special thanks to:

Ian Boswell for being available for an interview during the workday.

Whitney Allison for providing the race organizer perspective.

Becky Furuta for making connections and answering question, after question.

Shawn Curry, Green Curry Photography, for his generosity in providing photos for this article. If you raced Unbound Gravel 2021, photos can be purchased at: https://greencurry.smugmug.com/2021-Gravel/Unbound-Gravel-2021

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