Thursday, January 04, 2018

The State Of The Gravel Scene: Things Changed

A Guitar Ted Productions series
In my decade plus of my involvement in gravel rides and races which includes promoting, riding , competing, writing about, and reviewing products, I have seen a lot of changes. I have a lot on my mind about where the scene has been and where it is going. I have thoughts on what it is and what it should be. So, buckle up for a series of thoughts and opinions concerning gravel grinding. It goes without saying that these opinions are my own and may not reflect anybody else's. So here we go.......

If you haven't read the introduction, or Part 2, please go HERE and then HERE. This is the third part of the series.

 Things Changed

The first six or seven years of the gravel scene were heady years. The events were fun, very  grassroots oriented, and the overall vibe was of excitement and camaraderie.  For the most part, these events were cheap to enter or even free. Participation numbers in some events soared. Then about 2010 or thereabouts a shift in the scene was felt. Plans to make some events different than they were ruffled feathers. The bicycle industry was taking notice and was starting to make "gravel specific" bicycles and accessories. Series started popping up. Backlash was coming from several sources.

 Over the  past decade, gravel events have exploded in popularity and have become, for all intents and purposes, completely mainstream. One benefit to that is that the events have become incredibly easy to find and attend.  But with all of that has come bigger crowds at some of these events. Along with these crowds has come a perceived need to bring the overall level of these bigger events up to suit the monetary and attendance needs/goals of promoters, insurers, sponsors, and the host cities. Bigger, better, and many times far from where the roots of gravel grinding began.

On the other hand, riders keep pushing to get into some of these events. Riders keep paying ever increasing fees to have the opportunity to ride in some of these "bigger" events. It can also be said that many riders have a predetermined idea of what an "event" entails and expect certain features and amenities. It is important to note that riders do not have to do these events or pay for them.  But they often do just that.

So, you can argue that the demand is there, so why not satisfy it? Fair enough. In any segment of society, it seems to me at any rate, that we here in the USA feel "growth" is how we measure "success", and growth is often measured by the metric of "numbers of people" and "amount of dollars generated". This concept, in my opinion, is deeply flawed and it is why movements, genre's, products, companies, churches, and more become bloated, less meaningful, and eventually implode upon themselves. Is gravel grinding at this point? Shouldn't we be more concerned with the "growth of people" instead?

A former promoter of a gravel race sent me a message one day and he had the following to say regarding this subject:

".....when they (gravel events) become like a is a "bought and sold" experience. The money kills the spirit of the experience."

 Some Things Got Better

While some folks from the early years of gravel grinding bemoaned where some of the events were headed, there were also signs of things within the scene that were years ahead of other forms of cycling. One of these was how women were/are treated at gravel events. The all inclusive nature of gravel events meant that, much of the time, there were no shorter courses for women. Payouts generally are level across the board, and prizing has typically been fair across gender lines. This in stark contrast to Pro cycling events.

While women were not quick to flock to gravel events, the numbers of women riders has increased recently by surprising numbers. Events have embraced ways to try to encourage more female participation. In terms of gender equity, gravel grinding as a genre seems to be at the forefront in the competitive cycling world. That isn't to say that there still isn't a lot of progress left to be made there, by the way.

The move toward just having fun, recreational rides has been there from the beginning and this facet of the scene has also been on the rise. Since I have the unique viewpoint afforded to me by having kept a gravel cycling event calendar since 2008, I have noticed that recreational, fun, challenge type events, and even family oriented rides are increasing in numbers every year. These are not just some side show either. The numbers for these events are a significant fraction of the overall number of events. Many of these rides are part of larger, competitive events as well. This isn't just about competition. Like I said in my first post in this series, and it should stay that way. I would argue that this facet of the gravel scene actually needs more attention and fostering by the cycling industry. 

Some Things Stayed The Same

While there have been a lot of changes, some things haven't changed. Most gravel events still are relatively chill, low key events which still feature that welcoming spirit. There are still plenty of the self-sufficient, "You Are Responsible For Yourself" types of events out there also. Gravel grinding's roots are still on display for all to see in many corners of the country. No fear of that disappearing anytime soon, thankfully. You can still find free to enter events, like the classic Almanzo 100. The grassroots, no sanctioning body, free-form type rides and events were still being invented and produced in 2017 just like they were when we did that first Trans Iowa.

Next: Where Does It Go From Here?


Tim said...

I fully agree about the "measuring success" metric! In my vocation number of participants and dollars generated are a constant distraction from the original purpose of the group. We all have need for an accepting community and freedom to be ourselves, gravel events and the people associated with them have been one of those communities for me. The community is stronger than the success metric in my opinion, even in the midst of change.

Ari said...

The greatest thing about gravel is that if one gets frustrated with mainstreaming one can gather a bunch of friends and go for a ride on some gravel roads. Don’t like the formatting, bright lights, entry fees. Just say no.

jkruse said...

"growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell"

-edward abbey

Skidmark said...

In fact, if you have noticed lately, the metric is no longer the “number” of people it’s now become the “amount” of people. Just like the amount of money. No difference.

Doug Mayer said...

Totally agree with your philosophy on gravel riding! Our little CNY/Finger Lakes contingent has produced a couple great annual group rides and informal rides that aren't the least bit competitive, but rather social, supportive, and all about enjoyment of exploration. Hope to keep it that way!