The State of Gravel, Revisited

Peter Abraham
14 min readJan 10, 2022
Day 2 of Rebecca’s Private Idaho stage race (photo Wyatt Caldwell)

Exactly two years ago, I participated in a USA Cycling gravel summit. Along with the race directors from many of the biggest gravel races, I spent a few days in Bentonville, Arkansas talking through the most important issues facing this rapidly growing sector of cycling. When I got home, I wrote a blog post called The State of Gravel Cycling. It became my most read post ever, with almost 20,000 views.

I thought it would be interesting to look back at the post to see what I got right and wrong. Of course, I did not foresee the oncoming pandemic in early January, 2020. COVID has accelerated some changes that were already happening in bikes and across the world. Yet, there were many other changes that were already in progress and visible to any of us who were paying attention. Let’s take a look at that post:

The Growth of Gravel

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? YES. While outdoor sports of all kinds, including cycling, exploded during the pandemic, gravel was on an upward trajectory regardless. On the graph below, even if you discount the one huge upward spike in March, 2020, the frequency of “gravel bike” as a search term is much higher generally than it was during the year before I wrote the post. The huge increase in retail bike sales (including gravel bikes) backs up this data.

Google Trends chart for “gravel bike” search term

Events

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? YES. Life Time (owners of Unbound, Crusher in the Tushar, Leadville 100, Sea Otter, Big Sugar, and other events) recently announced their Life Time Grand Prix, with 60 pro gravel & MTB racers who will compete for $250,000 in prize money. In addition, the Belgian Waffle Ride has expanded to four events and a $50,000 prize purse at their California race. The gravel calendar is starting to get very crowded, particularly during the summer months. On top of this, the global cycling governing body UCI is planning to stage a Gravel World Championships series (not to be confused with the long-running Gravel Worlds race in Nebraska) in various locations around the world. Expect the trend of further consolidation and professionalization of event management as gravel gains popularity.

Diversity

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? YES.

I certainly could not have foreseen the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement that exploded afterwards. This brought the discussion of race and diversity to cycling in a way that had never happened before. Many bike brands started prioritizing diversity (ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, age) among their sponsored athletes, their staffs and in their media. There is still a long, long way to go on this. But I am encouraged that progress is being made. I’ve spent the last 18 months working with the first Black college cycling team at St Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina. We created a video series, photography and written stories following the team through their first season. It’s been a rewarding experience for me personally. I’ve learned a lot about the Black experience and the roadblocks that cyclists of color face in this sport.

In addition, gravel races (led by Rebecca’s Private Idaho) have started dedicated divisions for non-binary & trans athletes. This is a welcome change that opens the gravel tent to include many different communities. My experience is that the more communities represented at an event, the more fun it is for everyone. What’s not to like about that?

Brandon Valentine-Parris and Finote Weldemariam of HBCU SAU at their first race (photo Joshua Steadman)
Mirna Valerio and Bethel Steele at Rebecca’s Private Idaho

Community

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? HARD TO SAY

It’s hesitate to give this one a “YES/NO” evaluation. But I do believe that, for the recreational cyclist, gravel races are still mostly about the community experience.

Pro Athletes

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? MORE OR LESS

With the increase in prize purses and the need for bike brands to have athletes promoting their popular new gravel bikes, there’s been an explosion in the number of professional gravel cyclists. In fact, there may now be more American pro gravel riders than road riders. But that’s hard to verify, and I’m not sure how we define “pro” anymore. Looking forward, we can expect to see more international gravel cyclists in races, more retired European pros coming over to the US and more team tactics (like them or not) in races.

Alexey Vermeulen and Payson McElveen at the BWR San Diego starting line

Safety

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? YES

While I got out to just three gravel races this year, I saw a range of approaches to safety. I thought Rebecca Rusch did an outstanding job managing the issue of wildfire smoke at her Rebecca’s Private Idaho stage race. (Full disclosure, I was part of the event team there, and I wrote about the experience here.) At the same time, I attended a couple other events where safety was a low priority and dangerous decisions were made in the name of either laziness, saving money or ignorance. I can’t stress how important it is for events to put participant safety at the top of the list. Given what I’ve seen, I fear that it will take some kind of catastrophic event for all race directors to wake up and operate safely and professionally.

With my friend Sean Scott (112) at an event where they ran out of water in 111 degree heat

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? YES

Gravel still has a long way to go in its media journey. But limited live streams are now a fixture at the big races, media coverage has increased and more brands are creating gravel-related content. I do think, in general, gravel races can do a better job telling the story of their race and their athletes to the wider world. I wrote a post about how they can do this.

Wahoo branded content featuring Ian Boswell

Event Sponsorship

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? NO

I believe this is still going to happen, but mainstream brands have not yet arrived on the gravel scene. Either non-endemic brands still don’t see the potential with affluent gravel cyclists, or events have not spent the time to attract mainstream brands. Give it another two years and let’s see where we’re at.

Geography

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? I DON’T KNOW

I don’t have a way to measure this one. I do see gravel events in North Dakota, Montana, Alaska, and Rhode Island. So it’s hard for me to imagine the gravel event calendar shrinking. But the pandemic has probably slowed the growth of new events somewhat.

Young Riders

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? NOT YET

I was excited to see a bunch of young riders at BWR San Diego last summer, and that event has now added junior prize categories. At the same time, I don’t see many cyclists under 30 years old at gravel races in general. I believe most gravel races would benefit from partnerships with local NICA chapters to show more young riders a path to lifelong enjoyment of bikes. NICA student participation in 2022 should be close to 30,000 students, counting the breakaway Colorado and Georgia MTB leagues. There’s still work to be done to bridge the NICA athletes into other cycling disciplines like gravel, road, collegiate racing and cyclocross. However, progress is being made. When I participated in a cyclocross event in North Carolina last fall, I was heartened to see dozens of kids in the 10–14 age range racing CX. I learned they were from NICA families who were looking for fall events (NICA is a spring sport in NC).

NICA growth 2009–2020
Young riders discovering cyclocross in North Carolina

Advocacy

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? NO

While I’m super inspired by what’s going on in Bentonville, and the infrastructure improvements I’m seeing in Europe (Paris, Milan, London), I’m equally disappointed in how most US cities have responded to the bike boom. I live and ride in Los Angeles, and I’m unaware of any major initiatives to improve bike infrastructure anywhere in the city. And this is at a time when bike usage has, by some estimates, doubled and eBike riding is exploding. I’m channeling my frustration by volunteering with People For Bikes, and I hope more recreational cyclists get involved in advocacy issues. There’s so much work to do.

Paris is changing the entire city to accommodate bikes

Equipment

What I wrote in 2020:

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.

Did I get it right? MOSTLY

There is generally a movement towards larger tires on both gravel and road bikes. It’s a challenging to fully evaluate the accuracy of my statement above, because due to supply chain issues people are buying what they can get their hands on as opposed to shopping for the “perfect” bike. So I stand by this.

The new Canyon Grizl, which I rode for a week in Idaho and really enjoyed

I look forward to feedback from readers. Feel free to post a comment or get in touch with me on LinkedIn or Twitter (@ PeterAbraham).

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