Friday, January 01, 2021

The State Of The Gravel Scene; 2021

 I have been posting a "State Of The Gravel Scene" post or series since 2018. That page can be accessed HERE. You can go back and see what I got right and what I got wrong. Obviously, in March of 2020 everything changed. The pandemic isn't over yet, and while we have vaccines being distributed, we still are a long way out from 'going back to normal' in the pre-2020 sense, if EVER we go back to that.

Seeing as how most things I posted last January were short-circuited by the pandemic in March, I posted a mid-year missive HERE. I recommend going back and reading that to get a feel for how everyone was thinking mid-year compared to now. I think you will agree that some things have been (conveniently?) forgotten while other things have been pushed ahead. This figures heavily into my missive for 2021......

When things are thrown into upheaval we have a chance to make changes, or we very hopefully would like to think we will be better for the struggles, right? 2020 was a struggle in many, many ways. As I look toward 2021, I see a few things which are- seemingly- being forgotten which- if I am reading the room correctly- are going to be looked back and seen as BIG missed chances. 

The first thing that I see going on has an over-arching effect upon the entire gravel scene. It is, frankly, the thing that is currently bringing down the gravel scene slowly but surely. It is the culture and ethos which is professional road racing as it has existed for decades. This isn't an 'anti-roadie' screed, but I am sure it will be passed off that way. But let's face facts: In terms of bringing in vast amounts of new faces, people who would never have been involved in competition, challenge, and adventure on two wheels, the 'Gravel Scene', such as it was from about 2005-2015 was the biggest success story in cycling. Think about it: What form of cycling grew leaps and bounds while road racing, criterium racing, and off-road mountain biking suffered flat, or drastically reduced rider fields year over year? What form of cycling was celebrated by the 'average cyclist' as being inclusive, fun, and laid back? You know the answer is 'gravel cycling'. There is no denying that fact.

So, it is fair to say then that the road racing scene, and to a lesser extant, the mountain bike scene, has been an utter failure at bringing in new cyclists and creating growth in cycling. Gravel cycling has been a smashing success in contrast. Not to mention the significant economic impact on the cycling industry and in terms of towns and villages seeing boosts in tourism, which gravel cycling has brought to those places. However; what are we seeing within the more talked about parts of the gravel scene in media? It's all about racing. It's all about "more former Pro road racers finding a home in gravel". It is about BIG prize purses and MORE images of fast, white male cyclists going hell bent for leather in a tight pack. Essentially, road racing adapted to gravel courses, and guess where that will lead us? Right back where we were before with the same issues USAC has now and with the same crap-attitudes about racing and racers. In other words, that is a direct path to failure. 

I like road racing. Always have. But it is an activity that is only good if a very elite level of athlete is participating, and guess what? That is an exclusionary path to no good end for the mainstream cycling public. Can everyone play basketball? Sure, but what if basketball across the nation were a highly regulated activity with an aim to 'funnel elite athletes to Pro teams' and even your garden variety backyard game could not happen unless it were organized under that umbrella? (You could argue that basketball, baseball, and other sports already are like this) Well, isn't that what USAC is all about? Isn't that the Pro road racing culture which is often elevated in cycling media and on social media platforms? Isn't that what many event promoters are trying to emulate with big finish line productions, podiums, or when they allude to road racing classics in name and deed, or when they offer 'big payouts"? 

Why would any gravel promotions team want to go down that path when, as we all know, it is an exclusionary path that eventually leads to failure when it comes to participation numbers? Again- why did gravel events flourish when road racing and mountain biking did not? Think about that. What I am seeing going on with a lot of the 'big-time' events is not what I was seeing when gravel events were happening from 2005 -2015, and you do realize that many of those events were high attendance events, right? 

Since 2015-ish, an element has crept in and has been growing which smacks of something like failure to my way of thinking. It is not what the scene was about, nor why folks were attracted to it. Cycling media in the traditional sense is partly to blame here. So are companies trying to cash in on 'gravel' since that is where people want to spend money. That's fine, but when marketing pushes extreme design, road racing fashion, and mountain biking's extremism, then something has gone off the rails. When 'inclusion' is depicted as one body type, one skin color, and done in a certain way, there is a problem. Remember, the gravel scene grew leaps and bounds without all of that. It became a force despite the endemic cycling media and despite most of the cycling industry

I set out a challenge in my June 2020 post linked above and it was a reflection of what I was seeing coming out of the social unrest of late Spring and early Summer. Think about this as you sign up for events in 2021. Is the promoter making overtures to parts of society typically overlooked by cycling events? What efforts are being made to enhance relations with the average resident in the communities these events are being held in? Does this event look more like a Pro road event, or is it low key, inclusive, and fun? (Yes, you can 'race' and still have FUN) 

In 2021, we will see how people vote with their dollars. I'm thinking we will see a ravenous consumption of events in response to what happened in 2020. I'm thinking there will be little discretion in regard to the things I am bringing up here amongst some riders and that a few more event promoters will be falsely led to believe that bending the gravel scene even more toward the romanticized version of road racing will be okay.  But maybe I'll be proven wrong. That'd be okay with me. 

But there will be many events, event promoters, and riders in those events which won't be at all concerned about the "professional road racing trappings", whether or not USAC is involved, or if their event has a number of Pro road racers and former Pro racers in the field. (But, it'd be okay if there were, no biggie) Nope, these events will welcome all no matter how fast or slow they are. It won't matter if they have the latest gravel tech or an old beater Schwinn Collegiate modified to do gravel. There will be fun and smiles and someone might 'win' but really, everyone will be winners. 

That's what made the gravel scene what it is. 


Adrienne Taren said...

Love this post. That’s all.

Arky said...

Agree with your post. I also think that many of the things you said about gravel in regard to inclusiveness and welcoming people in for non-competitive bike stuff can be said about RAGBRAI (and events like it). It’s a week long state wide bicycle party. I’m surprised you haven’t embraced it as that.

Guitar Ted said...

@Arky - Thanks for the comments. I want to point out that I have no interest in RAGBRAI personally, and have said as much several times. "Personally" doesn't mean that I would dissuade anyone else from partaking. It just isn't my thing. Too many people, too much confusion and crowding for me. And yes- I have done the entire week and I have been on several day rides of RAGBRAI so this is not some 'arm-chair' opinion that I have. But once again- have at it if it is in your wheel house.

My only other comment would be that RAGBRAI has failed utterly in taking the opportunity to embed into people's minds in any intentional way that cycling could be taken as a life style, not just a one week party. They had a decades old platform from which they could have done a lot of work, but they kind of let it be an organic thing. Maybe it took for people, maybe not. But the lack of any intentional education/advocacy on the part of the Register/Gannett was a big failure in my opinion.

Finally, while RAGBRAI is being planned for 2021, there have been communities dropping out- refusing to host the ride, and whether or not it can even take place is still a question to be answered. So, I really can't even push it with any sort surety here.

Scott said...

I don't know exactly how the Gravel Scene is defined but I am wondering why the State of the Gravel Scene is always so closely tied to gravel events? Or maybe my question is should the State of the Gravel Scene be so closely tied gravel racing? I know you were an event/race organizer so that certainly shapes your perspective.
I used to be part of an mtb community that grew, prospered, and is still currently thriving. And while the weekly Thursday night rides were a huge part of how that scene grew, the growth really had nothing to do with events of the sort that you are describing (especially not events that require an entry fee).
I now live in an area that is home to a gravel scene and it seems like anyone that gets bitten by the gravel bug becomes an aspiring DK200 racer that can't stop talking about what carbon doodad they need to help them in their race against the sun. I've done the big local 100 mile event and it's actually kind of weird. Riding 100 miles isn't that hard but I'm never going to win the race. I found it embarrassing as a mid pack finisher to encounter all of the finish line hoopla hours after the race had been won by pros. Why does gravel have to be so event focused? I’m glad to support the LBS with my race fee but I find it strange to pay a fee to ride my bike on a fun but arbitrary loop of public roads.
I have an alternative hypothesis as to why at least mtb events did not flourish during the recent gravel event boom. It's because you don't need to pay an event fee to enjoy your mtb. You just need to get yourself and your bike to some good trails. I assume the most common mtb event is an XC race and it turns out for the average rider paying a fee to endure an XC suffer fest is not the best way to enjoy a modern mtb. The most fun (on average) can be found on a downhill trail. You get the endurance athlete high from climbing on the way up and if you can build up an intermediate skill set you can get the zen/flow/buzz of a surfer on the way down as you experience the weightlessness of catching the backside of jump clean and the g-out from perfectly railing a berm. You don't need a race number plate and you don't need to be on the clock.
Now I love mtb racing. I never miss a UCI DH world cup event broadcasted live before the crack of dawn on redbull tv from europe. But racing and events have almost zero impact on the local scenes of the places I love to ride. But somehow with gravel everything is about the race event calendar and DK200 and everything you see in the media is about the the stiff, light bike you need to ride 100+ miles (of course there are exceptions as you've noted, some companies like to advertise how you can ride their gravel bike on those super fun mtb trails I was talking about above). So all that to say, I think that the gravel scene is too closely tied to these 100+ mile races/events and I think it is unhealthy for the growth and inclusivity of the sport. I don't know if it's all intentional but I think there are too many signals out there telling the new cyclist that gravel=DK200.

Scott said...

Regarding the economic impact of a weekend gravel race... I wonder if having a town like Emporia hitching it's economy to a week long event is a potentially fragile and unsustainable strategy. I think the economic growth tied to the mtb scenes in places like Bentonville, Knoxville, and Brevard are much more healthy and sustainable. The scene can be enjoyed year round and the scene is not correlated with any specific event or race.
So, since you are also an mtber, instead of lamenting your gravel calendar options in the wake of covid you might consider grabbing your mtb, family/friends and substitute a weekend in Bentonville for at least one of those weekend fee based gravel events. And if you really must pay money to ride your bike head out to Colorado, buy a lift ticket, and rent a modern full suspension bike. As someone who enjoys almost every niche of cycling (BMX/fixed gear/cargo bikes/gravel/road/CX/mtb/commuting), there is no better cycling experience than DH mtb in a bike park.

Guitar Ted said...

@ Scott (Both Scott's- Maybe you are the same person?) Here is the gist of your long comment(s): "Why does gravel have to be so event focused?" And also "...I think there are too many signals out there telling the new cyclist that gravel=DK200." And finally- Why pay when you can ride free? (Summarizing your other thoughts there)

Fair enough?

I will answer all three points

First off, any gathering of riders for a "group ride" on up to the the pinnacle of the events, (which by the way- is no longer the DK200 as it is not around anymore), is by definition an "event". So, "events" on gravel are NOT necessarily a bad thing. (See any free gravel gathering with a name on it. There are a ton out there) People LOVE events, as witnessed by the ever growing gravel events calendar, which I had tabulated and researched for over fifteen years. Events are a huge reason why the gravel scene grew- maybe THE reason why it grew, so why wouldn't I focus on that? It would be irresponsible of me NOT to focus on events.

I think what you are having issues with are the "Big Gravel Events" with the high entry fees, fancy-pants productions, and the like. (Your mention of the defunct DK200 sort of tips me off in that direction) That certainly is one "flavor" of gravel events, but again, as a person who has had their fingers dirty in producing all sorts of events, and that has researched well over a thousand different events over fifteen years of checking out this scene, I can assure you that not all "events" are like that. Not even close.

You only hear about the big events from friends and acquaintances because that is the only form of an "event" that gets mainstream media attention. This is precisely the reason I have criticized mainstream media for their pushing of this style of event. Your comments are a result of their pushing only that narrative. And as I stated in my overview in this post, THAT sort of event was not what the gravel scene was about, nor why it grew.

Obviously, if that is ALL you hear about, it will be a foregone conclusion that you would fall prey to believing that ALL gravel events are high entry fee, big, blown up deals which make no sense to you from a 'grassroots' view. But again, that is not yours- nor any other average rider's- fault.

Free, enjoyable, adventurous, low-key, long and short distance, all-inclusive events happen all over the place. (I can think of several here in Iowa) Then there are a LOT of reasonably priced events which are VERY grassroots oriented which have a community focus and give the rider a feeling of inclusion and fellowship ALL over the USA. Tell me then- What is wrong with those events? How are you going to get any sense of inclusion or fellowship on a solo ride? It has to be gotten in a group setting, a community setting- right? Well, that is an "event" worth tracking down, and has no relationship at all to highly organized racing, that false narrative Big Media puts out, or with perceptions that result from only hearing about and seeing the Big Time Events.

Certainly, one can go solo, or on an impromptu group ride, (which I would say is still a form of an 'event') anytime for free. LOTS of people do these rides. The popularity of gravel events and bikepacking/camping have also exploded during the pandemic. So, I hear you on the 'ride free anytime' theme. Trust me- I am a HUGE proponent of that. It is one of the main reasons I quit riding XC MTB in the late 1990's.

So, unless I am reading you wrong, I think that about covers it. Let me know if I have missed anything there. And thanks for reading and commenting!