Europe Goes Gravel. Sort of.
Last weekend the governing body of competitive cycling, the UCI, put on the first Gravel World Championships. And this is not to be confused with the original Gravel Worlds race held in Nebraska each year.
In late 2019 and early 2020 I spent a few months (along with my friend Tim Johnson) working with USA Cycling to understand what role, if any, there was for governing bodies in gravel events. Around that time, the UCI was sending unsolicited emails to most of the big U.S. gravel races asking if they wanted to become part of a UCI series. The events that I heard from had just immediately deleted the emails with a chuckle. Tim and I, with then USA Cycling CEO Rob DeMartini, convened a summit of the bigger gravel races (SBT, Unbound, Mid South, Belgian Waffle Ride, Grasshopper, Grinduro) in Bentonville, Arkansas. Leading up to that, I did interviews with dozens of gravel riders and industry insiders to understand the issues important (diversity, safety) to this growing sector of competitive cycling. At that time, gravel was exploding in popularity and, in spite of the pandemic, that growth continues. I summarized my learnings from that trip, and my own experience riding gravel events starting in 2017, in a blog post called The State of Gravel.
I’ve learned a lot since then working in gravel and in the bike business. I’ve also participated on calls with both the UCI and USA Cycling about off-road racing. Here are my thoughts on governing bodies and gravel:
1. It’s a net positive that the world has discovered gravel events. While the UCI World Championships event was an awkward, paint-by-numbers European replica of a gravel race, the net effect will be more people on bikes and more folks riding gravel. We should celebrate that. Remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Expect more gravel races in Africa, Asia and Australia. If you’ve not yet heard of Team Amani, the off-road cycling team based in Kenya, you will soon. Gravel racing will soon be everywhere, and each community will put their own spin on the discipline. It’s not hard to see gravel as an Olympic sport within the next 20 years.
2. Give Europe time to figure it out. While current USA Cycling CEO Brendan Quirk has made it clear he does not see a place for his organization in gravel (beyond perhaps sending a team to the new World Championships), the UCI has embraced the discipline. Unfortunately, it’s not clear they’ve ever been to an American OG gravel event to understand what has made this discipline so popular. Many folks in the American gravel community are disappointed about UCI’s tone deaf decisions to create a shorter women’s race and to award start line positions based on UCI road racing points. I don’t disagree with any of that, and this kind of rigid, male-focused organization flies in the face of the very things that have made gravel popular: inclusiveness and freedom. But I would guess Europeans felt the same way when American promoters started putting on pro stage races in the late 80s that were ham-fisted replicas of the Tour de France. Imagine the collective cringing of the French when they saw images from the Tour de Trump.
3. Don’t underestimate the passion for bikes in Europe. I rode a gravel event in England this summer, and it was clear that while growing in popularity, gravel racing is 5–7 years behind the U.S. in scale and competitive level. But it’s booming, and I would not discount the possibility that gravel participation in Europe catches or even surpasses that in the U.S. Remember that mountain biking was once an American invention that at the professional competitive level is essentially owned by the UCI and Europe at this point.
4. The landscape is different in Europe, so the gravel races will look different. One thing you immediately notice when riding bikes in Europe is how little open space and wilderness there is. That’s because there have been populations on that continent building towns and roads for well over 1,000 years. The wide open spaces we have, particularly in the Western United States, simply don’t exist there. Paved roads, often narrow ones, are everywhere in Europe. So events in there will have to look harder to find gravel. But it does exist, and the quality can be quite high.
5. Nobody “owns gravel.” While Americans may justifiably claim to have invented the modern version of the sport, Europeans were racing on gravel over 100 years ago. In the same way, no one community or country can lay claim to owning marathons, or golf, or ice hockey. It’s actually great when one community sees something fun and does their own version, no matter how close or far that version is from the “original.”
6. For participants in gravel races, community and inclusion are the most important ingredients of successful events. The critical mistake that I see both UCI and USA Cycling making is that they are not (in my anecdotal experience) consistently present at the big U.S. gravel races. If the UCI wants a playbook on what makes this discipline popular, they should be over here riding events and meeting participants. And even though USA Cycling does not need to oversee domestic gravel races they way they do road, cyclocross and other disciplines, they do need the gravel customer to donate and support USA Cycling. I do not understand why USAC is not out with a booth in the expos of the biggest U.S. gravel races to share what they do and meet hard core cycling fans who ride gravel. With road cycling (and that license revenue) on the decline, USAC needs every donation dollar it can get.
Ultimately, I hope gravel continues to grow around the world, and I hope more people are inspired to get on their bikes.