At the beginning of 2018, exactly one year ago, I wrote a series of posts dubbed "The State Of The Gravel Scene". I took the subject as a bit of a quick historical ride from the beginnings of the modern gravel road riding/racing era until that time in 2018. If you want to review what I said, please look just under the header of this site and you will see a link to the page where I have that series, all four posts, end to end, so you can read them.
In this new year, I wanted to address where we are now and where, in my opinion, we are going. Part of this will be drawn from a post I did just about ten days ago called "A Gravelly Prediction". (Hit the link to read that one)
So, oddly enough, the day I posted the "prediction" post in December a new USAC CEO was appointed which resulted in "hopeful" direction changes for the "governing body" which oversees road racing in the United States. One of those directions the polled professional riders and team managers wanted to see was a move into "grassroots", gravel events.
"Our sources want USA Cycling to expand participation at cycling’s grassroots levels, bring non-traditional events under the governing body’s umbrella, and maintain stability and consistency within its own ranks."- From a "Velo News" article posted on-line December, 26th 2018.
In my predictions, I stated the following: "My feeling is that many events are going to see Pro level teams, more Pro level riders, and Pro only gravel racing in the near future. There will be a national points series started by........someone. Probably not USAC, but maybe."
Now it looks like I was on the right track. But really, the writing was on the wall. There was an article published online three years ago, which I have referenced here several times before, that said that USAC was bleeding cash. The participation numbers were falling. It was pretty obvious then, as it is now, that the move toward gravel racing was in full swing and that was negatively affecting USAC's coffers. Not to mention their athlete pool. It has been obvious for years to this writer, along with many others early to the gravel scene, that this "grassroots" development was in reaction to what USAC had created over the years. That being an elitist, non-welcoming atmosphere with events laden with rules and monetary expenses for its participants.
USAC probably should have seen the train-a-comin' ten years ago, but you knew they had to react, or become completely irrelevant. Pro riders, semi-Pros, and developing youngsters are all now heading to gravel events, and have been, which has become a big problem for USAC. Coupled with the demise of several road races, criteriums, and time trials which had been the mainstay of their business, and it doesn't take much to understand that without a major overhaul, this business is in big trouble.
|Many gravel rides are not fueled by the "typical" competition based formats.|
Meanwhile, in an effort to jump the gun on USAC, the USECF started Gravel Grinder Nationals. This year, 2019, will be their third year of offering a National Championship jersey in several categories to a "National Champion". The USECF may not be familiar to many folks, but they have done "adventure races" for years and were a group that started off from a very similar place that the entire gravel scene has. They certainly do have rules, but their structure seems a lot less "snooty" and less cumbersome than that of the traditional road scene.
Perhaps it is the "end game" for each organization that marks the differences. USAC is the "development funnel" for Olympic and world professional cycling. This elite level of cycling is dependent upon money to survive, first, and relies heavily upon "talent" to justify its existence. They need a talent pool willing to spend money, and a categorization scheme to weed out the best of the best. A web of nearly unimaginable rules props all of this up, along with fees from licensed riders and races that pay for sanctioning. In contrast, at least from the perspective of a gravel rider, you simply register for Gravel Grinder Nationals, read a few simple rules, and show up to ride. Easy-peasey. Once you've participated you can go off and do whatever.
And in the end, no one in the gravel scene seems to really care. No offense to the Grinder Nationals folks, but you can win that USECF National Gravel Grinder Champions jersey, and you can win Dirty Kanza. Guess which one has more prestige, notoriety, and is more hotly contested? You could say the same for Barry-Roubaix, Gravel Worlds, and several other well known gravel events. Of course, this all could change, but in my opinion, I have seen no real ground swell of opinion to make me think otherwise. Maybe someday the Grinder Nationals will be THE thing, but for now it is much like any other gravel event. Other independent events have developed their own level of prestige, or not, in the gravel scene and most people take it for what it is.
|Allison Tetrick wielding her sword as the women's champion of Gravel Worlds|
Maybe training hard to do your best within your means, have fun, meet others of like mind, and see how that community is accepting and welcoming at events with simple rules and reasonable entry fees is alien to USAC and their internal mechanisms. However; unless they inherently understand why the gravel scene grew, they will be condemned to commit the same mistakes on dusty unpaved roads as they have on the paved ones.
Or they could just co-opt the scene and buy their way in. That was one of the "hopeful directions" mentioned for USAC to go in by the Pros and team managers above here. Imagine if USAC somehow got the Dirty Kanza 200, Barry-Roubaix, The Crusher in the Tushar, the Belgian Waffle Ride, and maybe Rebecca's Private Idaho, or Gravel Worlds, along with a few other marquee events, to all become "points events" for a USAC Gravel Championship. You can also imagine how then these events would have to be homogenized somewhat to be part of that. Maybe that's just too outside of the box, but it would give USAC a strong foothold into the scene.
Otherwise it is going to be a long, uphill battle for the organization to be part of what is now a pretty embedded, very independent, vibrant scene. It'll be interesting to see how the organization, which has been seen in the past as the "embodiment of evil" for gravel cyclists, try to get their feet in the door. I'm not saying they cannot do it, but from what I've heard as feedback from the gravel scene in the past, USAC shouldn't expect the welcoming mat to be set out for them.
Tomorrow- Part 2