Saturday, August 14, 2021

The State Of The Gravel Scene- A Mid-Year Perspective

Will big pay-days and Pro level riding be the undoing of the gravel scene?
 On Wednesday, August 11th, another perennial winner, this time a Pro rider in the cyclo-cross ranks, was handed a four year suspension "for a banned anabolic agent in 2020", according to may media outlets. This particular rider was an annual US champion and threat at many World Cup events for years. 

The communal let-down on social media was palpable. One media pundit likened the news to receiving a brutal uppercut punch. Others were disheartened, while some expressed anger, but the disillusioned masses came out of the woodwork, once again. 

"Once again." How many times has this sort of thing happened? Athlete gets cycling glory, has a storied run at the top, then we come to find out that some- maybe all of it- was fueled by chemicals and blood doping. Things not allowed for reasons of safety and 'fairness', whatever that means these days.....

I gave up on Pro road racing when Floyd Landis got kicked out of the Tour de France. He wasn't the last person to get dinged with a suspension, and neither will this latest individual be the last. People long for 'clean' and 'fair' Pro level entertainment at races, but it will never happen. Too much at stake there to take any risk being the clean racer that got beaten. 


Gravel riding and racing doesn't seem to have this issue, yet. It will if the "big time' events get organized into a series, or if the UCI/USAC gets in there. Why? Because the stakes will be high enough that cheating at the molecular level will be worth the risks. Sponsorships and money will hang in the balance for those wily enough to evade the dope detectives, and when they do, yeah..... When they do not evade detection? The sport will die a death. This is why I don't feel that those who love where the gravel scene came from should support anything that smacks of 'big time racing'.  

Monday I am interviewing the RD for the "Dirt Bag" gravel event in central Minnesota. His name is Greg Knoll. The Dirt Bag is one of the old school gravel events that typify why gravel grinding got to where it is today. Started in 2009 by Ben Doom, and then taken over four years or so later by the late John Egbers, the Dirt Bag was your basic nuts and bolts type of event grown from the grassroots. It featured a morning coffee, a nice 100-ish mile route with an aid station stocked with cookies, followed at the finish by some hot chili, or some other soup made by Susan Egbers, John Egber's wife. Like so many other home-grown gravel events, the Dirt Bag has a flavor unique to the Dirt Bag, and the event is well regarded by those who rode in it. 

John Egbers alluded to his fears of what may become of the gravel scene in a Dirt Bag blog post back in 2015: "Also changing fast, the numbers of riders and events are encouraging for the future growth of this aspect of bicycling. In the back of some minds though is the concern that we will go "mainstream" and lose our soul. Hmmmm... how to keep it real?"

A year later he addressed those fears and concerns in a rare soliloquy for the Dirt Bag blog, which typically was all about information and that was all. Here is what he wrote which I find rather poignant and applicable for today in 2021: 

" I have a concern about these things (gravel events) becoming too big and at some point needing a governing body. Many of our events have started out like garage bands driven by the energy and pure enthusiasm of their creator. That spirit moved more people to participate and in turn multiplied to what we are seeing today, hundreds of riders arriving at start lines located on the edge of some Starbuck-less town racing through a countryside inhabited by farm dogs and pick up trucks. And we love it! We must resist corporatization but we should also not be exclusive..............

 We can be kind of a big deal without taking ourselves too seriously. All it takes is to continue to be there for our fellow gravelers when a hand, innertube, gelpack or encouragement is needed. It's not all about first, it's about finishing and sometimes it takes a village."

I could not have said it better myself. 

Unfortunately we lost John Egbers in a cycling vs car crash when a driver hit John with his car from behind on an open stretch of road in Kansas during the Trans Am Bike Race in 2018. I am sorry I never had the chance to meet John. I am quite certain I would have liked him. 

Now Greg Knoll has taken up the reins of the Dirt Bag and does so with John Egbers' legacy in mind. I'll be really interested to chat with Greg. People like Ben, John, and Greg are what made, and what make gravel grinding what it is today. It wasn't because of the 'big events'. It was literally hundreds of these smaller events that put gravel cycling on the map. These are the events that will keep gravel cycling from becoming a disappointment, a laughing stock, and a byword amongst the people, as Pro level racing has become and likely will be in the future.  

1 comment:

Phillip Cowan said...

Pro cycling like most pro sports is lousy with drugs. Cycling probably has been since the 20's. First amphetamines then steroids then EPO now god knows what. I simply assume that the GC man from each major team is doped to the gills. If they're not it's simply because the team doesn't have the budget to pay the dirty doctors. I think they should just give up and throw it wide open. Let them use whatever as long as they realise they'll probably be dead from cancer by age 40. Am I cynical? You bet. Am still a little bummed about Katie though.