Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Gravel Grinder News; Pow-Wows And The Future Of Gravel Events

Part of a problem or part of a solution?
Gravel Pow-Wows Portend A Changing Future For Events On Gravel:

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

I've mentioned here previously that there would be a meeting between officials from USAC and the gravel promoter community in Bentonville, Arkansas this month. Apparently, that meeting has happened according to this report in "Velo News".

The outcome of this meeting is seemingly that the status quo will remain for the time being, but make no mistake, as I've been saying for several years now- USAC wants in on this scene because they are bleeding membership and loosing money because of it. (Although USAC claims membership/license sales are "flat" now, they had been reporting substantial losses a few years ago.)While it may be incorrect to say that the organization is on the ropes, it is not far fetched to say that it cannot keep its status in the cycling community without getting involved in gravel events and promotions. The organization has become irrelevant and the abdication of several top athletes from road racing to gravel events is just one of many ills that USAC faces.

Obviously, from reading the article alone, you can feel that USAC has a "previous reputation" which it will have to address before it can move forward. Many in the gravel community have passionate, negative feelings about any sanctioning organizations, not just against USAC. Gravel riding and the events which fall under its banner were created and grown by individuals and groups which followed their own patterns. The sheer variety of events means that individualism and freedom from conformity is at the center of what makes gravel riding attractive to many people. It also makes conformity under an organization's license or sanctions, if you will, a  rather difficult task.

But that said, I notice a large response in the community to the false pretense that USAC "makes things easier" for promoters. Generally insurance is central to this theme. This is patently false. (Ask me how I know) Insurance for events is easily obtained through other means than USAC. Then the question remains- "What other benefit does USAC provide beyond insurance for events?". And perhaps more importantly- "What benefits USAC from becoming involved in gravel cycling besides selling insurance?" That, to my mind, is a far more important answer to get here than anything else asked.

As of now, we do not have a solid answer to that question, and neither does USAC. But rest assured, they do not want to just be an insurance provider. That much is obvious.

Evidence of  another "Gravel Pow-Wow" from this Tweet from Yuri Hauswald
Another meet-up also happened recently in Arizona, according to a Tweet by Gu Energy athlete Yuri Hauswald. This apparently happened with promoters, industry folk, and "influencers". What was going on there is not well publicized.

This activity all points to the cycling industry's malaise in terms of mountain biking and pure paved road cycling arenas where participation numbers are flat to declining. The only bright spot now is in the gravel sector, and this industry is always hip to cashing in on any trends, (29"ers, 27.5", enduro, e-bike), so why should "gravel" escape the focus of the folks trying to scrape a living out of the scene?

The talk of "growing" anything always revolves around the generating of cash. That always means some folks are going to get left off the train. This ends up with the bike industry creating another niche down the road and the whole cycle starts over again. Only this time I think things are different, and I will use the example of 29" wheeled mountain bikes to help illustrate what I mean.

29"ers were definitely not what the bicycle industry was wanting, or thought it needed.The push for the big wheelers was totally started at a grassroots level by very passionate people, (Wes Williams, Bob Poor, Gary Fisher, Mark Slate, etc.), and some of those folks just so happened to have industry ties to help it get off the ground. Then once the parts existed, the average guys and gals took it from there until the bicycle industry had to do something. Trek/Gary Fisher bet early and often, almost losing their shirts on the whole thing, but once the nut turned there was no going back. By 2007 it was fairly obvious that 29"ers were trending hard at a grassroots level to the point that 26 inch wheeled bikes were in a sales decline. Companies scrambled to hop on the bandwagon until by 2011 most all companies had jumped in.

Now, there were other trends that the industry foisted upon the market- fat bikes, 650B MTB, and aero road bikes, but none of these had the effect that 29"ers had. Meanwhile, the industry left R&D for 29"ers for several years to flounder, thinking 29"ers were "past news". Well, sales persisted, and so by 2015, you see a redoubled effort to bring 29" wheels to enduro and even down hill, which was heresy only five years previous. But 29"ers stuck because the market dictated it, not the brands. 

So what? How does this relate to gravel riding? Well, just as with 29"ers, the gravel scene grew out of a grassroots style change and was definitely not driven by Pro racing, USAC, or the bicycle industry. In fact, media, industry punters, and Pro racers derided gravel events as "not real racing" ten years ago. They said we didn't need "gravel bikes", and they laughed at the scene as being a bunch of dorky Mid-Westerners out for a good time. But now? Now that the Pro road racing ranks are jumping ship for gravel events, and USAC license sales have tanked, well "now we need to look into this". 

My, my! How the tune has changed! Well, not 100%. USAC and even some paid marketing writers masquerading as "media" experts are saying the scene is made up of "hobbyist promoters". As if competition is only "real" if professionally administered. And that is why the whole scene got started in the first place. That whiff of arrogance and pride that emanates from behind the "friendly gestures and fake expert reports by ill-informed "marketing companies" are what make the stench of having "sanctioned gravel events" so unappealing now. At least to me. And this is why the grassroots foundation of gravel riding isn't going to fade away.

It also has to be noted here that USAC and endemic media are only speaking with the "most important/biggest events" as deemed by........? Well, I suppose themselves. This is dangerous, because the narrative for the entire gravel scene cannot be dictated, or even known, by a very few promoters of the "most prestigious gravel events". This "representation" of the gravel scene by such a small subset of the events held every year is not a bellwether for all events. So, again: The sheer variety of events means that individualism and freedom from conformity is at the center of what makes gravel riding attractive to many people. It also makes conformity under an organization's license or sanctions, if you will, a  rather difficult task.

Just as with 29"ers, the gravel scene is genuine movement not motivated by profits, having a standing in the World at Large, or by competition itself. We have competitions, to be sure, and they are very real, but competition is not our idol where we kneel down to worship. And that is baffling to many who don't understand the gravel scene in the first place. Get that straightened out and I think only then will any sort of deal with USAC or any other organization have even a sniff of success.


bnelson said...

the last paragraph sums it up. Thanks for your input gt

tntmoriv said...

It seems that if USAC wants to save road cycling, they should save our roads. I mean, one huge reason people are flocking to gravel is they are being driven (pun intended) off of our paved roads by unsafe drivers and insufficient infrastructure. You have mentioned this and probably preach it daily. Perhaps USAC advocating for real bike lanes, connected greenways, and a network of connected and separated paved routes would save road cycling and reverse their losses. Sharrows don’t work, and “share the road” signs don’t work when road conditions or driver distractions are as unsafe as they have become. I like riding on safe paved roads. I like going to actual places that cars can go, but at a human-powered speed. Many people do. But not if we are going to get run off then road or hit.
Bike infrastructure: build it, and you will build the cycling community as a whole; they will come. Thanks for the post GT!

Guitar Ted said...

@bnelson - Thank you!

@tntmoriv - Yes, I agree. The bottom line is that competition cannot be the sole reason for USAC to exist anymore. The vast majority of cyclists could give a rip about "funneling talent to the Pros/Olympics" when the rubber hits the road. Sure- we all like being entertained, so when an American does make it (Lance) we cheer and get behind it, but otherwise, not so much.

USAC has to be involved in getting all types of people to cycle and be able to do it safely everywhere. Period. Otherwise we don't need that organization at all.

Doug M. said...

About participation in mountain biking being flat/down, I only have anecdotal evidence, but I see mountain biking exploding in North America. Just not at races, outside of enduro and NICA XC maybe. Big developments in trail building, growing trail advocacy orgs,
inclusion/diversity initiatives, more MTB festivals, municipal pump tracks and skills parks being built, etc. Not without growing pains, namely high cost of entry and access issues (exacerbated by E-bikes), but I see good things ahead for the MTB scene. Let's hope the industry doesn't fumble the opportunity.

Guitar Ted said...

@Doug M - It's a mixed bag for MTB. Here in the Mid-West participation is flat to declining. Sales for MTB's is in slight decline over 2018-2019 as seen by numbers posted in the cycling trade magazines. Yes- there are hot spots of activity and events that are being created. But without NICA, I would argue that MTB is not on the uptick, and some folks I know are afraid it is on the verge of another downturn, as seen in the late 90's/early 00's.

We can argue that going forward, but I would say that gravel events, as a form of cycling, have grown at a rate that makes whatever is/is not happening in MTB look like nothing. That's the point. That's where growth is happening that is tangible to most anyone. That's what is attracting the interest from USAC, from the cycling industry, and from media.

graveldoc said...

@Guitar Ted and @Doug M Along the lines of MIdwest MTB events, the Buffalo Headwaters Chanllenge taking place in northern Arkansas this week and weekend bears looking into. The folks from the LBS I most often frequent are participating.

jdc said...

I can only comment on our own experience, but at our shop here in Ontario things have changed. Mountain bike sales are up and have brought along with it a whole new crop of fresh faces, eager to hit the singletrack. We haven't seen a new group of mountain bikers in a very long time. After playing it safe for the past number of seasons we've gone ahead and ordered a bunch of "spendier" bike models and all of the accessories that go with dirt. Gravel is doing very well, so much so that we started a gravel club. Pure road sales are way down, but participation is very strong. Our small city has just put in a new pump track and skills park. Hopefully this will give the absolutely dead BMX market a shot in the arm.

Guitar Ted said...

@ jdc - Please understand that I am not talking about specific areas in the world. the trends are being documented for all to see, but it doesn't mean that pockets of the world are not experiencing growth, say in road bikes, or, as you point out- MTB.

Good luck this season with the MTB sales! I hope it goes well as you think or better!

graveldoc said...

ONe more bit of information. The Missouri Bicycle and pedestrian federation held a meeting in the Kansass City area this past weekend regarding mountain bike leagues at the secondary school level. If this spreads state wide, it should have a positive impact on MTB sales, too. Ufortunately, I DID NOT GET TO ATTEND THE MEETING.