Monday, November 21, 2016

Sooner Or Later?

Riding into the future or off to the sunset?
I remember several years ago that I had a Facebook message-fest with a rider that had the opinion that the "gravel scene" was going to change fundamentally due to the influx of "competitive road racers" who would bring in a different feel to gravel events. There would be no more of the "gentleman's" rules and there may even come a time when "real rules" and governing bodies would wiggle into the gravel road racing scene.

I also see stories in mainstream cycling media stating that the downturn in the American road racing scene is a big issue that needs to be addressed. One of the several ways suggested to bolster that ailing racing scene is to tap into the burgeoning gravel road racing scene. It is no secret that USAC has already taken a hard look at this and is already trying to woo promoters over to their ways and means of doing things.

As I sit and contemplate these things on a chilly late November evening, I am happy to say that the predictions of the inevitable fall of the gravel racing scene into a similar morass that the road racing scene seems to find itself in has not materialized. I am happy to see that the tentacles of governing bodes and sanctioning have not reached into the heart of the gravel racing scene and ripped its heart out.  I am sure that there are those that feel it is a "sooner rather than later" situation. That at some point, yes, even gravel racing will be found to be as rotten for many as other forms of racing seem to be. Maybe for a few it already is there.

A "family reunion" at Gravel Worlds registration at Cycle Works in Lincoln, NE.
I guess I have held back from writing about this for a while, mostly because I feel a bit too close to gravel racing and riding. Of course I am biased. Why wouldn't I be? But then I am reminded that I have been around the rise of this scene since the beginning of it all and I have paid particular attention to it all along. Some folks call me names that infer that I am some sort of "father" to this deal. I don't say that about myself, and maybe I downplay it, but according to some folks I have a say in this. So here are my thoughts.......

In my humble opinion, there isn't any reason to believe that the gravel racing and riding scene will end up getting to the point that road racing finds itself in now. How can I say this? Well, there were signs, and still are signs, that gravel road racing, at any rate, is an experience that many promoters understand intimately. Because of that they offer that same experience to others. That resonates with riders and since this is the case, we see things like the Land Run 100 selling out 1000 spots to its 2017 event in two hours and twenty minutes. We see things like the Dirty Kanza 200 selling out in hours as well, with 2000 riders total. The demand to have the chance to be part of the "family" and have a social and physical experience, the likes of which is not offered by any other form of cycling, is still on the rise. Obviously it is. That much is fact.

The people involved are what makes it work like it does. (Image courtesy of C. Parsons)
This is why other forms of cycling may be seeing declining numbers. This may explain why road racing seems to be having a tough go. It is maybe why articles about USAC are being published that are stating losses in revenue. I see the gravel road rides and gravel road races being a very different experience than other forms of organized cycling events.

 People come to these gravel based cycling events and they know they will be accepted. They know that there isn't a hierarchy based upon classes, points, categories, or what have you. People understand that you can show up on a Schwinn Collegiate converted to single speed and get the same amount of respect and acceptance as a guy on the latest Open Cycles UP rig. People understand that if you need help out on the course, someone, or five, will offer you assistance. In the gravel scene, there basically is only one rule. That is, "Don't be a dick", to put it bluntly. It seems to have been a widely accepted, respected, and followed rule, as far as I can tell.

There is also a social element to the gravel road racing scene that may be as big a part for many as the riding itself. At the gravel race, you simply do not just show up and ride. You come early to mingle and stay late to swap stories over adult beverages. Many events foster this by offering pre-race events, days ahead of the riding in some cases, and often post race gatherings. Some will offer the rider both. The chance to interact with fellow riders, (I wouldn't go so far as to say "competitors", because that isn't the case), will forge new friendships and reunite old friends in a way that I haven't seen in other competitive cycling events.

 I think it also must be mentioned that gravel races or rides don't require special, hard to create, hard to get to venues. Most places have roads where the surfaces are unpaved and the traffic counts are super low. That has made the creation of routes and rides easy to do. Trying to set up a road race, criterium, or even to find a good venue for mountain bike events is much more difficult to do, in my opinion. 

As long as promoters and riders still "get it", gravel racing and riding will be around a long time.
So, while road racing seems to be in decline here, and governing bodies scramble to find ways to rejuvenate their reason for being, the gravel scene is thriving. I think if the pundits in the media and those in the industry of structured cycling governance were to be completely honest with themselves they would easily agree that the rise in gravel road riding and racing was, in part, a reaction to what they stand for by common riders. The folks that are looking to escape a multitude of rules, structure that seems arbitrary, and escaping from paying fees that seem to not bring the riders any real value, are attracted to the gravel scene. There they find no license fees, no arbitrary categories, and the rules are basic and easily understood. There is a challenge to this type of cycling that is new, exciting, and pushes riders to discover new things about themselves, others, and their world. Places to hold these events are easily obtained and easy to get to.  There is the chance to ride all day with like minded folks, enjoy camaraderie, and make new friends over a beer afterward, or beforehand. I just don't think that traditional modes of cycling offer such things.

There may come a day when the whole deal fades away, gets "ruined" by something or another, or is superseded by something else we haven't discovered yet on two wheels. But until that day comes, I don't think we need to worry too much about this form of cycling getting sullied by things like too many sanctions or what have you. As long as the promoters and the riders "get it", this scene will keep kicking up dust for years to come.


phillip Cowan said...

I think it's a little depressing to see the rise of sponsored teams in events like DK and Gravel Worlds. With sponsored teams come roadie style team tactics and dependence on sponsors money. Part of the appeal of Gravel (capital g)is that the little guy feels like if he trains right and has a good day on the bike then he has a real shot at glory. If Big Corporate takes over that will be lost. It's sort like what happened to the mountain bike scene in the 80's after NORBA was formed.

Guitar Ted said...

@phillip Cowan: That's certainly one way to look at this, but I also feel that unless team cars, and the support that brings, are allowed, then it is on the riders to figure out water, food, flat fixing, and logistics that go along with that. If support of that nature is allowed, then that's where the deal could go off the rails.

You always had those guys who could whoop the field. Since "Day One" that has been the case. Dan Hughes opened up a can of whoop-ass on the 34 rider field at the first DK200, as an example. Now with 1500 riders in the long course of the DK200, there will be more "Dan Hughes" guys, don't you think? So what if many have similar jerseys. They still have to ride together AND do all the water, mechanicals, route finding tasks that a big pack of riders with dissimilar jerseys have to do. In that respect, you have teams that come in the event together, and "teams" that form during the ride. This happens at all gravel road events I have gone to over the past decade. It has not ruined the sport yet, in my opinion.

So, while I see the dismay in riders eyes when we see a team with similar kit come and do a gravel event, the reality is that nothing changes with that scenario. Everyone is still on the same footing, and even a lone guy working against a team can score a win, or close to it. Despite all the "team" worries at the DK200, as an example, the top ten and even several winners in the last five years have been independent riders showing up with no teams. They were doing that against teams that were in the event. So, again- I see opportunity for all onm equal footing at most events I am aware of.

Ari said...

I think we need to mention the importance of certain variables that governing "cycling" bodies cannot control.
1) weather
2) conditions of the gravel
3) remote locations

Exhausted_Auk said...

Hear hear said...

I find this whole "the roadies are going to ruin it" attitude by many to be off putting. There are as many stuck up, type A mountain bikers, cyclocrossers and (yes....) even "Gravel" racers. People need to lighten up.
I'm a cyclist! I'm not a roadie, mtn biker, etc. If it has two wheels I will ride it. What people need to realize is that if you put together an event with a start and a fnish, and a recognition "ceremony" for those who finish fastest then eventually competitive people are going to take notice and show up. It has nothing to do with roadies vs mtn bikers vs gravel riders. I think what people are more worried about is that as these events become popular they might lose their grassroots feeling. Becoming more corporate will happen as events gain in size. It's hard to imagine an event with 2,000+ people feeling "homey". The bigger something becomes the more logistics and resources it will need.
Just my 2 cents.

Guitar Ted said...

@onoffrhodes: Well, whether you like it or not, the fact is that cyclists are categorized. Even the industry, media, and other cyclists, (as you mention), all do this. It is part of reality we have to deal with regardless of how we feel about that.

I also will take the opposite position on the "it doesn't matter whether they are roadies, mountain bikers, or gravel riders", as that's not how many people feel, nor does it line up with my personal experiences and observations.

I will agree on your point about many fearing that grave events losing the "grassroots feeling", as you put it. That is basically what my post says as well.

Finally, have you attended any of the big gravel events, (DK200, Gravel Worlds, Almanzo 100, etc)? I'd be interested in your final comment a bit more if you have had experiences at any of those, (or similar) events that would line up with your assumption there.

Kelly&Ted said...

I think your overthinking things a bit here. Gravel races are taking off because people of varying fitness levels and ages can enjoy themselves be it at the front of the race or back of the race, road racing, not so much. Its that simple. Really, only the first 10 or so people at these 'races' are even racing, the rest have their own objectives, which is the beauty of it. They are no different than a gran fondo, whose popularity also appears to have no ceiling at the moment.

The other stuff, the comradarie, the pre race meet ups, the t shirts, the grabbing of beers after blah blah...yes, that stuff is super nice and people really appreciate it, but all most people really want is a start and finish line. Put together a decent route on a decent course, people are going to show up. Free races are nice too, but people are more than happy to pay for the effort of the promoter (myself included). I guarantee you could charge 100 bucks for TI and you would still met your racer cap with ease. I also don't think anybody would complain if you charged for TI, 100 bucks would be more than justified for the product put out.

As far as team tactics go and "sponsored teams", I can't think of any besides american classic two years ago, and now panaracer (they are the same team). American classic was truly the laughing stock of the front of the race at gravel worlds two years ago becaue of their absurd road style tactics, and their road style tactics again were on display this year at gravel worlds with zero sucess unless you consider burning up all their 'domestiques' as successfull. Road tactics early in races of the 150-200 mile range are pointless.
Thats not to say that road tactics are not there or not important in other gravel races, it is a road race after all, but their importance is really for shorter gravel races 100 miles or less, and really just to decide the end game, otherwise it is still very much a group ride mentality. Races above 100-125 miles are really just a race of attrition, tactics are not needed, the strongest dude wins the large majority of the time.

I will acknowledge that gone are the days of the 'strong man', the non- racer type who just rides their bike a lot, of winning one of the bigger races (DK, worlds, etc). There are too many super fast super strong dudes (ex pros, cat 1s) that have also figured out gravel races are fun. Other smaller gravel races can still be had by the 'strong man' though.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kelly & Ted: I don't disagree that you hit on one of the reasons why many ride in gravel events, but I will take you to task for the line, "Really, only the first 10 or so people at these 'races' are even racing. " I know that isn't the case. (Having been a participant in many of these events) I think it is fair to say that there are a limited number of folks that can stand on the podium, (if there even is one). "Winning" can be defined by many things and in many ways. To arbitrarily say only a certain number are"actually racing" is a total miss on the target here.

You then bring up what is necessary for a race. Well.....that has nothing to do with what I am saying in my post. Free racing or not, same deal. That misses what I am saying, which is simpler than bringing up those points. (Who said something about over thinking things?)

Whether or not road tactics are used or "strong men" win or not is all debatable, but again, it isn't going to ruin gravel racing, which is my point. What you say about people that have " figured out gravel races are fun" is the point. The rest, if I may be so bold, isn't going to affect the deal like many say.

Kelly&Ted said...

Dear father of gravel racing,

I also have been a participant in many of these events, I would go so far as to wager I have done many more gravel races than you. I will also stand by my statement that only the first 10 people are racing in the event. Others have different objectives (not better or worse, just different) as I originally pointed out.

if you want to call racing yourself or racing a time or whatever as racing, sure Ill give it to you. However, there is a significantly different feel to the race within the race at the front vs other places in the field, thats what im saying. Yes, you and Im guessing others will disagree with this statement, Im fine with that.

I don't know or hear from these many people fearing the demise of gravel, but I agree with your extremely bold statement that gravel racing isnt going anywhere. You went on to back up with many examples of why you dont think its going anywhere (adult beverages, friendships,etc). I think it is simpler than that, even without all of the elements in place you talk about it still survives just fine. Why? because its fun for people of all abilities and fitness, just like a grand fondo.

The rest of my comments are in response to Phillip, not your post.

Guitar Ted said...

@Kelly & Ted: I was afraid you would disappoint and not come back with a snarky reply, as you have in the past, but I see that, like my feelings about gravel racing not being changed for the worse, you haven't changed. That's good.

Again,I will say that "winning" is different for different folks, and, of course, that is going to have a different "feel" to it for every form of that. But whatever. That hasn't got anything to do with the ultimate point, which it seems we agree upon.

MG said...

Amen Brother... We see 100% eye to eye.