Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Pro "Un-Road" Racing: Old Is New Again

Man vs Nature: DK200 2015- Is this what Pro Road Racing should be?
The gravel racing genre has been what I have lived and breathed now for more than a decade. I often get asked why folks have tend to gravitate toward this sort of bicycling. I can think of a lot of reasons that it has been a growing genre of cycling. Many things are exciting about this type of riding. But what is it exactly?

Why has gravel racing become so popular?  I think if we look at the obvious, the biggest reason it has become the fastest growing form of bicycle racing is that it pits "man" against "nature" in a way that is exciting, attractive, and touches our innermost visceral core. Here is why......

I can pretty much sum it all up with one name: Roubaix. Of course, I refer to the seminal classic of Spring that road racers take on in Northern France. Oft called "The Hell of the North", Paris-Roubaix's name is the most often copied or referred to moniker for gravel road racing in the USA. Consider that "Barry-Roubaix" is the most popular gravel road event in North America. Or consider that there are at least 15 other gravel road based events in North America that currently use the word "roubaix" in their name. That's not even counting events that refer to the classic Euro event in their race descriptions or other race names that emulate the event without using "roubaix". Why? Why is it that this European clasic road event is so revered and emulated?

Grit, determination, fortitude against all odds. That's what we want to see. Image by Jason Boucher.
 Well, think about Paris-Roubaix and what image that immediately conjures up. Likely it is one of a mud covered face on a road bike traveling over cruel stones. We are drawn to such displays of the human spirit overcoming Nature's worst and the primitive roads and slots cut through the countryside. All those "sanitized" road races that happen the rest of the year seem somewhat less in comparison.

In fact, I believe that this is one reason why cyclo-cross has become such a popular sport. You all know that the cyclo-cross races we still talk about, the best ones, are contested in truly awful conditions. No one recalls that sunny day in dry weather when the grass was green and everyone was as clean at the start as they were at the end. Ho hum.......

Not many years ago, Pro Road racing took to the gravel again, if only in small bites, in an event called the Strade Bianche. It became an instant hit. With the sagging popularity of road racing in North America and in Europe, an event that strikes a cord like the Strade Bianche raises some eyebrows. So seeing that and working on revitalizing a declining event, organizers of Schaal Sels, an event in Belgium, went to the dirt. (Read about it all here) The event, once on the verge of anonymity, has become the shining example of a revitalized race and interest in dirt and gravel racing seems to be on the rise in Europe as well. Again, it seems that the primal attraction to dicing it up on dodgy roads is the main appeal.

“You don’t know what’s going to hit you next — but to be honest you can’t wait because it’s exciting and it’s just plain fun,” Dan Craven (Cycling Academy)- from an Instagram post after the 2016 event. (Via Velo News online story here. )
I think this is what riders want to ride and what we as spectators of the world's greatest cyclists would want to see. Riders riding in Paris-Roubaix type events more often. Events that have dirt, gravel, stones, or what ever types of road ways we can ride on. That's what the US gravel/back roads scene is all about. The crazier the conditions, the better, it seems. 

 At any rate, it would seem that the Pro Road scene is finally picking up on what it left behind those many decades ago. It is rediscovering what made cycling great to begin with. Even Ghent-Wevelgem is getting in on the action.  It sure isn't what we have gotten lately that is making people take notice. We have gotten team cars, totally pampered and prepped Pro Road racers, over-blown budgets, and doping in the last three decades. What really gets us to take notice?

A muddy Paris-Roubaix, some white gravel sections in one Italian based event, an obscure Belgian race that has taken its course out to the farm roads, and Froome running down a mountain road. That's about the extent of the highlights. 

When all we have to talk about is Peter Sagan riding wheelies and how he wears his hair, there is a big problem. We need dirt, dust, grit, and grime pitted against steely eyed riders on two wheels who are self supported and maybe a good ol' rain storm thrown in for good measure. That would make for some drama. That would be inspirational. I mean, how many bunch sprints or mountain top finishes do we have to endure? Everything else is fodder for the dust bin. 

That's why we ride these gravel events. It is an adventure, it makes us stretch ourselves, and sometimes parts and bodies don't hold up. But that's all part of the fun. Just like the quote from the Velo News story above. We cannot wait to see what's next because it is exciting and fun. 

I think it is high time we saw some fun and excitement like that in Pro Road Racing, but who knows......Maybe we'll see that happen. But...... I ain't holding my breath, I'll tell ya that much.

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