Wednesday, January 01, 2020

The State Of The Gravel Scene - 2020: Part 1

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

Change- The old axiom says "The only constant is change", but when it happens it upsets people. Not everyone likes change. To be fair, some relish change, but most folks get uncomfortable when they are prodded out of their 'comfort zones" by the inevitable force called change.

My prediction for 2020 gravel riding: "There are going to be a lot of uncomfortable people."

Big changes are coming now that the racing industry and the bicycle industry are all now on the same page when it comes to what venue of cycling is going to get their attention. That would be the so-called "gravel events". This includes anything "all-road", and "gravel", or "multi-surface". Whatever you think it should be called, the industry- both racing and cycling- call it "gravel" for better or worse. Point is, what "gravel" is about is going to be heavily impacted by the captains of the very entities that made the grassroots rural cycling scene begin in the first place. In fact, it might behoove us to remind ourselves at this point just what it was that propelled this form of off-pavement cycling in the first place. The following is from my "State of the Gravel Scene" series which I published on this blog in 2018.

I think there were a few key things that helped spark the gravel grinding scene then. 
  • No oversight, no governing body. You didn't have to deal with anyone else's idea of what gravel cycling looked like. You could frame an event in any way you wanted with no licensing fee, no extras to buy, and if you wanted- no insurance. You could even charge no entry fee. This knocked down a lot of barriers to event production and rider participation. 
  • You could do this on public roads almost anywhere in rural areas. This meant you didn't have to pay a venue to have an event. 
  • You could invite anyone to come. It wasn't a "roadie event", a "mountain biker event", nor was it tailored for any specific group of cyclists. Anyone and everyone was welcomed, and as it turned out, they were accepted. 
I am going to take these three points and expound on how they are going to look in 2020 and beyond. 

Governing Bodies: The chit-chat now is that the UCI and USAC- the Pro governing bodies of bicycle racing worldwide and here in the USA respectively, are coming in to set up gravel races and possibly take control of executing rules and continuity across existing events. Already we know that Life Time Events, owners of Dirty Kanza, the new Big Sugar NWA Gravel, and now the Crusher In The Tushar, are looking at having a six event series eventually. There will be rules and whatnot across those events for the sake of continuity as well. (In fact, the new Big Sugar event has an almost word for word copy of the rule book for the DK200.) Other, smaller series of gravel events already exist in Michigan, Mississippi, and elsewhere. The potential for many of these smaller series of events to adopt rules which would allow riders to cross series, gain "points" for a season, and basically recreate the USAC criterium./road racing set up for gravel is looking more likely every year now. 

Think that sounds nuts? Well, there already is an arbitrary points system, (which no one asked for), being done by a site called "Pure Gravel" . Their criteria for inclusion is, amongst other things, having a race with a field of at least 500, and having more than 33% gravel on the course. So, if you contest smaller events, you won't get "points", and what do you think that sort of idea will do for smaller events? Yeah.....apparently being "inclusive" is really exclusive when it comes to making rules about competition. Does any of that sound familiar? 

Furthermore, on December 21st, 2019, USAC announced that it had partnered with the Grand Fondo National Championships, an organization founded by GFNC series event director, Rueben Kline, to expand his nine event series into a nationwide series which would serve to crown "National Champions" in age groups and categories. USAC says it wants to merge competitive and participatory cycling events and to "elevate" riders experiences with the chances to win a National Championship jersey and become members of USAC. 

We've already heard of a few Gran Fondo riders being sanctioned for doping, (really!), and what do you think this sort of arrangement will do for the chances of this happening again? And of course- you've got to wonder about things like Life Time's events and USAC getting together. I'm saying this is in the cards.Want more evidence? How about a reigning World Champion Juniors Road racer showing up to contest the DK200 alongside the World Pro Tour events on his calendar?

Governmental Oversight Of Public Roads: Generally speaking, most governments, (county and state) could care less about a 100 guys and gals riding in the middle of nowhere. That is, unless money is involved, expectations of people are heightened, and the possibilities of rankling the local populace comes into play. Look no further than the former Almanzo event, (for just one example I am aware of) which had issues with public urination, farm animals getting injured and dying, and raising the ire of municipalities where the event was first run out of. The Almanzo was a free event. There was no money in it from the promotions side, and the towns it was staged in and through stood to benefit from an economic boost. But with entry fees reaching triple digits, governmental officials are going to start raising eyebrows, and already are, when gravel events come knocking on their doors to stage events. The "easy to set up" gravel event may die a death due to the sheer popularity of the grand gravel events where getting money out of the scene for government uses becomes too tantalizing to resist. There will then perhaps be no distinction between gravel events of any size, and requirements of insurance and policing will quash what was once a thriving scene. It happened to paved road events, so there is a precedent here.

In fact, many gravel events already deal with permitting fees and releases from the BLM and Forestry Services. MTB events in the Chequamegon area of Wisconsin are under the threat of raising entry fees to cover permitting/taxation fees which are going to go into the County's general fund. Even the Hungry Bear gravel event, which is held in the area, has to comply with this new "tax". Don't think for a minute that the popularity of gravel events is going unnoticed by government officials. There is money in it, and they will want a piece of that pie. This will help propagate more "pop up" gravel events, (see below).

Welcoming Atmosphere: Of all the original intents and attractions of the early gravel scene, this is the one that the governing bodies, the series, and the big, fancy events cannot replicate. In fact, those big events, series, and the relationships with the governing bodies are almost always exclusionary. You cannot participate unless you have "won a lottery", paid a triple digit entry fee, or unless you fit a category and accumulate "points". You are forced into a culture of increased spending on almost everything surrounding "just riding a bicycle". This ends up, almost always, keeping competitive cycling the way it has been for decades. Do we really want to perpetuate that? Because I do not see the way the series ideas work, the corporatization of events, nor any of the governing bodies doing anything significantly different than before.

That's why I feel "pop up" gravel events and smaller, less corporate events will still thrive. These are events that, most generally, are recreational, fun oriented adventures on gravel, but not necessarily always that. Some of these are competitions, but at a very low key, super-simple level. They are often times regularly scheduled group rides. I see a lot of this on Facebook, and on some other social media platforms. Typically these rides are themed, or spur-of-the-moment affairs, with little to no organization generally associated with an "event". No numbers, fees, or licenses required. Government agencies won't even know these events are happening until it is too late.  Or, they will embrace these events as opportunities for organically generated income in the form of businesses benefiting from riders who come to do an event. 

These events won't push the needle of "Big Corporate Gravel" or nosey governments. Self-important websites and "official sanctioning bodies" won't care, because the events are too small.  I see this category growing even more as a reaction to what is going on with higher entry fees and more organized rides which preclude folks from participating due to finances, lottery drawing for entries, or other limiting factors and barriers to participation. Considering the possibilities for permitting and taxation by governments, this seems to also be a factor which I believe will push gravel "pop-up" events even further under the radar. 

Next: The State Of The Gravel Scene - 2020: Part 2 

3 comments:

Anon said...

I completely agree, and I find it disheartening. Here in the KC area we have the KC Gravel Calendar, which is a loosely organized group of events that are all free and not billed as races. Some of these were long standing annual rides, and some are new for the calendar, but in part the rides are a reaction to the corporate, fee oriented events and the focus is a fun day riding bikes. It will be interesting to see how the pop-up events evolve. The only problem I see with that idea is that the very nature of them means they will be exclusive--you have to be part of the "in group" to know when they are happening.

Guitar Ted said...

@Anon - Thank you for that comment. I would say, to answer your closing question, that if inclusivity is important to the "group" (whomever that may be) then they will find a way to make invitation to join to others work For instance, on my old gravel group ride I basically continually put the word out weekly that anyone could join me by using social media and word of mouth. I ended up getting different groups coming throughout the lifetime of the group ride. (Roughly 2011-2016) So, it never became a small insular group that was exclusive.

That's just one example, but I am sure there are many others. Currently, in Iowa, we have a few rides I am aware of that are working hard on being inclusive, weekly gravel based group rides.

Happy New Year!

Tim said...

In the 3rd edition of Bikepacking Journal, Alexandera Houchin writes, "A great athlete and a great person....seek to improve their skills at all times, even in the smallest of their efforts. They take their time to succeed and invest in their community, because who you surround yourself with is who you become." (pg 78)

When rules, points, revenue generation, and trophies become what you surround yourself with there is no reason to believe "inclusiveness" will describe the community. A tenet of Christian spirituality states, "whoever tries to save their life will lose it." I believe a cycle of human nature is to seek self-recognition at the expense of others. It appears that the "gravel scene" is currently in that cycle. Eventually this too will pass by as another means to self-recognition takes its place.

For myself, I enjoy the hospitality of people and the sense of community while riding. Laughing while peddling along, seeing crops, animals, and hearing sounds of the wind cannot be encased in a trophy. When I am on gravel their isn't a finish line. Instead I envision another place to begin.