The State of Gravel Cycling
Based on the time I’ve spent riding and working in gravel cycling over the last few years, I wanted to share my thoughts on where we’re at. We’re in the middle of an inflection point in the growth of gravel, and it’s worth looking at where the sport might go in the near future.
Popularity: Gravel is exploding for reasons I’ve written about before. There are hundreds of events, tens of thousands of gravel cyclists, and lots of brands now selling gravel-specific bikes, tires, apparel, and components. At some point supply and demand for events will level out. Then there will be too many events, and some may be forced to shut down for lack of participants. But until then, the market will continue to explode. You can see on the google chart below that January 2018 is when search interest started trending up steeply.
Event ownership: While most gravel races are owned by hobbyists who are passionate about the sport, there will be more consolidation and professionalization of events. As has happened in both running (Rock n Roll Marathons) and triathlon (Ironman), we’ll see more and more events rolled up into larger businesses that can provide economy of scale. Life Time Events has already purchased Leadville, Dirty Kanza, and Crusher in the Tushar, in addition to launching the Big Sugar event this year in Bentonville. Expect more of that from other businesses that see these events as a ticket to engagement with an affluent and active audience. While endurance sports events are hard to monetize (as a former owner of a running event myself, I can confirm this), they can be valuable parts of a larger ecosystem. Life Time, for example, owns over 175 health clubs, some triathlons, running events, and now gravel events. With over $1 billion in annual revenue, their events business, while a tiny portion of their overall revenue, serves as a nice marketing channel for all these clubs. There’s more background on their entry into gravel on Ted King’s podcast interview with Life Time President of Events & Media Kimo Seymour here.
Diversity: For the next 10 years, diversity and inclusion will be a critical issue for gravel events and cycling in general. While gravel has made great strides on gender equality, there’s still a long way to go. Most events currently show female participation in the 20–40% range. In addition, there is almost no participation in gravel from people of color. These are not problems that events can solve on their own: getting cycling events to look more like America will take a massive grassroots outreach effort. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, our event is open to anyone.” Intentional onramps into cycling must be built in every state, in every major city. Programs like Major Taylor, and NICA can get things started, but much more foundational work needs to be done. I see the potential to prioritize diversity in competitive cycling and positively impact many areas of the sport, including gravel. In addition, the representation of cycling in the media needs to reflect diversity and inclusion. African American cyclists like Justin Williams, Rahsaan Bahati, Ayesha McGowan, and Sam Scipio are getting themselves out there at events and on social media, which is a good start. And Filipino-American pro cyclist Coryn Rivera is one of the top road racers in the world. I look forward to our country turning loose its full potential in cycling on both grassroots and competitive levels.
Community vs Competition: Over the past year, I’ve interviewed over 60 people in the gravel cycling community. The runaway #1 reason given for riding gravel is the sense of fun and the welcoming community. This is a precious resource that gravel needs to keep intact in order to continue attracting riders. At the same time, the competitive side of gravel racing will grow and professionalize. This expansion is inevitable, and human nature bends toward competition in almost any sport. While some are worried about how this will impact that community grassroots spirit of gravel, I believe that competition and community can coexist just fine. For instance, I’ve surfed my entire life, and I don’t think anyone would say, “Kelly Slater killed surfing’s vibe.” In fact, his 11 world championships have amplified the spirit of surfing by inspiring millions of us who watch his extraordinary skills. The same thing will happen in gravel as more and more pro cyclists like Pete Stetina, Alison Tetrick, and Ted King enter the sport. Nonetheless, as prize money increases, events will need to invest in drug testing and other measures to ensure fair racing.
Athletes: As more athletes defect from professional European road racing and become gravel racing privateers, many of them will learn that this is harder than it looks. When riding for a pro road team in Europe, the athlete is expected to simply train and race. Going it alone in gravel also requires those two things, but in addition marketing, finance, coaching, PR, sponsorship sales, media production, travel booking, and more. Not all athletes want to be CEOs/entrepreneurs, but the ones who do will enjoy these new roles.
Safety: This will become a bigger and bigger issue. As gravel events grow, and more and more participants join without pack riding skills or prior racing experience, the chance of someone crashing increases. This is particularly true in mass starts with huge packs going fast. Events are aware of this, and I expect some protocols (a climb at the start if terrain allows for that, or long neutral start sections) to be adopted in order to keep things calm.
Media: There will be more and more media energy devoted to gravel. We now have The Radavist, Gravel Cyclist, Riding Gravel, some coverage in VeloNews & CyclingTips, GCN, Rapha films about EF Pro Cycling, and a bunch of smaller platforms. Expect live video feeds from races, searchable database-driven event calendars, cyclist rankings, some dedicated gravel filmmakers, more mainstream race and gear coverage, and lots of technology integration with events.
Sponsorship: Mainstream brands (auto, tech, consumer goods) will discover gravel due to the affordability of activation and the opportunity to create relationships with affluent potential customers from all over the country. It’s just a matter of time before we see Subaru, Jeep, Michelob Ultra, Gatorade, Airbnb, United Airlines, and other mass appeal brands at gravel events. There will be a debate over the “authenticity” of partners like this, but ultimately most race directors will opt to take the money.
Geographic diversity: I’m willing to bet there are gravel events in every state by now. If not, there will be in the next couple years. Gravel roads are accessible to most of us, and they’re plentiful in rural areas all over the country. In fact, many of the most popular races — Dirty Kanza, Mid South, SBT GRVL, Grinduro, Vermont Overland— take place far away from metropolitan centers. While lots of urban cyclists like me travel to these events, I expect to see passionate bike communities develop around gravel way outside of the traditional (Boulder, SoCal, SF Bay Area, Austin, DC) “bike cities.” For instance, in 2019 I met a bunch of hardcore gravel riders from the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. Gravel exists almost everywhere, and expect to see more international growth as this American export takes hold around the world.
Young riders: If you’ve participated in a gravel event, you’ve no doubt noticed that most riders fall into the 35–55 age range. It’s difficult to find people under 30, let alone teenagers. This is due to a couple reasons: a) It’s usually somewhat expensive to enter and travel to a gravel event, and b) cycling is like running in that many people don’t even begin to participate until their 20s or 30s. I’ve seen some debate about whether gravel events should even bother targeting young riders, but I believe it’s really important. Youthful energy inspires and enriches the lives of those us in middle age. And it’s important for the sport’s longevity to build a pipeline of athletes who come into gravel cycling. Fortunately, we have the booming NICA program to help with this. It’s the high school mountain bike league, and there are now about 25,000 kids racing MTB in middle and high school. This will become (or maybe it already is) the largest grassroots bicycle program in history. I believe in 10 years that number will grow to 100,000. NICA will have an impact on grassroots cycling (people who ride to work, people who advocate for bike lanes) and also competitive cycling. It’s not a coincidence that three current US world champions — Quinn Simmons, Megan Jastrab, and Kate Courtney — all started out riding on NICA teams at their high schools.
Non-profit and advocacy work: I’m fascinated by what’s going on with bikes in Bentonville, Arkansas. There is a huge network of brand new MTB trails funded by the Walton Personal Philanthropy Group. The scope of this bike endeavor is staggering: they’ve built almost 1,000 miles of manicured bike trails in 10 years, they’re bringing the UCI World Cyclocross Championships to Fayetteville in 2022, and people are now moving to Bentonville just so they can ride their bikes. The entire area is being transformed by a commitment to building bicycle infrastructure. While few cities and states have the resources that the Walton family does, there are many lessons here about using bike infrastructure to attract cyclists and change how a region is perceived and experienced.
Bikes: I expect to see gravel bikes go in two directions: 1) a splintering of bikes into many different configurations and flavors. Smaller tires (30–35) vs larger tires (38–45), 700c vs 650b wheels, all mountain adventure rigs, handmade steel frames, etc. There will be something for everyone depending on how they use their bike. 2) At the same time, we’ll see more and more people coming directly into gravel with no prior bicycle experience. They’ll want an affordable “one size fits all” endurance bike that can work on pavement or dirt. So the under $2,000 price point will be increasingly important. I expect retailers like French discount chain Decathlon, with a $999 gravel bike, to do well with entry level cyclists.
Collaboration: It’s my hope that by collaborating with each other, events, NGOs, non-profits, athletes, bike brands, government, and retailers can work together for the common good to grow cycling in general and gravel in particular. The opportunity is to make the 2020s “the bicycle decade.” It’s within our power to make this happen, and we can use bikes to change the world.