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.