Wednesday, January 02, 2019

The State Of The Gravel Scene: 2019- Part 1

NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

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.
 However; from what I am reading in that linked article from "Velo News", I am not sure that USAC "gets it". Obviously, they haven't totally been asleep there since all this gravel stuff started happening. They did make a gesture in the insurance area, and waived their strict one day licensing fee requirements for gravel races several years ago. This (mostly) fell on deaf ears, in fact, many people probably are not even aware that USAC had done this.

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
That all to say that USAC should take note that perhaps no one really cares to be shunted into a pipeline which grinds out thousands of "unworthy participants" only to have a few cutthroat finalists be chosen to become "Pro" level cyclists. Of course, along the way these individuals give up literally everything to be used up and spit out the other end with not a whole lot to show for it. Sure- some will sign on for the glorious possibilities, but in the Age of Information, we all know what price that road demands.

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

4 comments:

David Van Trump said...

Nice write up.

I started adding gravel events to my riding schedule five years ago. Now, I ride as many gravel events as I can afford. Road events are almost non-existent in my planning.
I’m a rider, not a racer, a hundred mile ride is about as far as I’m going to go. As an old guy, I ride because it is fun, and I do cycling events because they are fun. To me, the truth is; ‘gravel events are a lot of fun’. The ride organizers, the riders, the volunteers, the courses; all make gravel events head and shoulders above most road events, IMO.

I signed up to do the Hotter Than Hell 100 gravel event. I’m anxious to see how a large organization handles this type of ride.

I always avoid road rides than were in anyway related to USAC, and will do so with gravel events.

Side note:
GT, keep up the good work. I enjoy your blog daily. Hopefully this year I’ll be able to meet you in person at one of our common events. I’d like to suggest that at some point, you consider making a trip to Missouri for some of our gravel rides. The Cuban Gravel Crisis and the Wild Goose Chase are a couple of October events that come to mind. (I’m not associated with these events in any manner, other being a rider.)

Guitar Ted said...

@David Van Trump- Thanks! I would probably really enjoy those events. I see what I can do to make it down. Thanks!

Robert Ellis said...

Two things:

1. My main memory of Gravel Nationals is that the first year it was held, they had some really great barbeque. It was a fun event with a great vibe! My point is, is that good food is more memorable than anything.

2. If USAC wants to get into the Gravel Scene they are going to have to keep their entry fees on the cheap, and make the fee schedule more enticing than what's out there now.

Rob E said...

A few of us used to drive down for the Gravelleurs Raid and then the Cool Hand Luke later that month but haven't been back to Gravelluers since they changed it to just a 50 mile route and replaced the longer route with the Gravel Grinder Nationals and upped the price. Not really sure why they picked this event to pick a "national champion", it's in early April before most of the gravel events have even been held. I get the concept but as you said, they will need a points series and put the GGN at the end of the season if they want it to gain some traction as THE event series to do to crown a national champion... or at least that's my opinion.