Saturday, January 01, 2022

State Of The Gravel Scene 2022: Crashing The Party - Part 1

 With the start of each New Year I have taken the opportunity to speak out my opinions about the condition of gravel cycling in the USA. This started as a series I posted in 2018. I've added to this ever since. 

This will mark my fifth year of offering my opinions on things. Keep in mind- these are only my thoughts and they may not reflect those of yours or many involved in gravel cycling. 

Welcome to 2022! Welcome to the year that anyone involved in trying to make money off cycling, be that in event productions or in terms of merchandise, or both, will be trying to do 'the gravel thing'. Once a niche, weird cousin of road cycling and mountain biking, gravel cycling is now the preeminent style of cycling, in terms of competitive events, in the USA. 

The traditional gatekeepers of professional road cycling have even thrown their energies at getting gravel cycling front and center with the announcements of new Pro racing gravel series events. USAC has even outright copied marketing efforts pioneered by gravel oriented companies and promoters from the recent past. Life Time Fitness, a multi-million dollar fitness oriented company, has thrown in its weight behind the gravel scene offering a new six event series split between MTB and gravel events. Independent events once deemed 'grassroots' are now taking things to new heights with their events, growing participation numbers, and championing social causes along the way. Things that would never have been thought of when those events were first formulated. 

USA Cycling used this chaise lounge in social media promotions for a CX race in December. A direct influence from marketing done by Salsa Cycles for gravel events.
To where does all this bring the gravel scene? At what point is this movement at in its history? Some will say immediately that gravel has 'jumped the shark' long ago. Some question whether or not gravel has 'lost its soul'. Some claim a 'spirit of gravel' and that it is either sick, or doing just fine, thank you very much. (One has to wonder if those of the latter group, those who claim a "spirit of gravel", even know what being 'spiritual' means, but I digress)

My take is that we are seeing the 'baroque period' of the gravel scene right now. Baroque? Yes, here is a bit from the online "Encyclopedia Britannica" article summary on Baroque period art: 

"The word, derived from a Portuguese term for an irregularly shaped pearl and originally used derogatorily, has long been employed to describe a variety of characteristics, from dramatic to bizarre to overdecorated."

You may be thinking I'm off my rocker. How does an old art and music cultural period relate to what is going on with gravel cycling? Well, give me grace here to draw you a verbal picture.....

Gravel cycling is that "irregularly shaped pearl". Once derided as 'not real racing' by certain well known editors in the cycling press early on, these same media folk can't talk up gravel racing enough now. (Hey! Who can blame them if it helps to pay the bills?) Once ignored by 'real racers', it now draws top talent to various gravel events, which themselves have elevated their productions to resemble top athletic events with all sorts of 'decorations' and accoutrements. So, the term 'gravel grinding', once so derided and seen as offensive, is now embraced by those seeking to crash the party of gravel equipment and events. 

And the term now, as with baroque, describes the dramatic, the bizarre, and the overdecorated things of the genre'. Examples I found during a brief search of gravel events and components: A " to nutrition for gravel domination... or survival", or this- "gravel cargo-bibs (?!!) or how about, Get ready for a world-class gravel race experience held on some of the greatest gravel roads on earth." 

  You can hardly find a new bike line that doesn't have a gravel bike prominently featured in their range, unless they are an electrified bike brand, and even then you see gravel bikes a lot. Gravel this, gravel that.... Clothes, gear, and training plans, everything is gravel, gravel, gravel! 

 Call it 'peak gravel', if you will. This, my friends, is the 'Golden Age of Gravel Cycling'. It has started, and who knows how long it will last. Well....wait a minute....Actually we know when it will end. That would be when the money runs out. 

By the way, this isn't me. From "The Onion" social media account.
Events Add Social Awareness/Gender Equity To Mix:

First of all, many reading this may not know that I actually have done events, put on events, and I have seen events start, grow, change, and have seen some of them go away. Events I was a part of. So, while you may not agree with what I have to say about events, I'm not some guy just pounding away at a keyboard in a basement somewhere. No, actually my desk is upstairs on the first floor, but whatever......

And by the way, no one is paying me a penny to write this up. In fact, I suspect no one really cares what I think, so there you go. 

But events..... Yes, the events have changed, well- the ones you hear about in the media. There are literally hundreds of events on gravel which you will not ever hear about unless you go looking for them. (I have) 

It seems that once an event has an aim of 'getting bigger' it takes upon itself a mantle of being a bearer of social equity and cultural change. Now, you can debate whether or not that this should or should not happen. That is something I think is worth looking at, know, it is 'their event' to use to speak to things however they want to. I am only saying that it seems that there is now something of an unspoken, unwritten rule that an event on a large scale 'has to make a statement', and I find that rather curious that this seems to be a compelling force on event directors these days. 

I also find it interesting that many of these social/cultural elements are mainly focused on women. That's fine, and it is necessary in my experience to reach out to women. That said, I don't see a whole lot of other efforts when it comes to other issues of our times. The whole 'inclusion' movement is sometimes a bit ironic when it comes to the gravel scene. Gravel events early on were 100% inclusive, if you bothered to show up. Now it seems that we still are inclusive, but somehow we're only focusing that message on certain groups of folks. There are groups of people showing up at gravel events which may surprise you, but event directors don't seem to be putting that out there. At least, I don't see any evidence for it. 

I guess maybe if these people were featured as being included, maybe others who looked like them might be encouraged to show up next time. It's one thing if some old white dude like Guitar Ted says, "C'mon out!", and quite another if Black, Hispanic, Asian, or whatever race, creed, gender, shape or size people are there show up in the event reports, event promotions, and are talked about by the event promoters over whatever Pro rider is lining up. I mean, if you are paying the Pro, comping an entry for a Pro, or offering a prize purse, they don't need you to talk about them. But yeah......there is prestige and whatnot tied up there. Maybe talking about minorities and under-represented folk at events is not very sexy or a monetarily advantageous play for event directors. I dunno....... But let's be clear- these folks are showing up to gravel events and have been for some time. Did you know that? You should, and event promoters are not doing a very good job showing that part of gravel culture off. If they did, I think it would be a big difference maker.

Maybe it has all ended up this way because we, as "the gravel family" were just so open to whomever came to ride that we became complacent. But to my mind it is a big missed opportunity and an easy way, an organic way, to make gravel events seem more inclusive and less scary for folks who 'don't fit the mold'. Showing the Pro riders isn't going to make anyone who doesn't look like Pro riders, doesn't have the performance of Pro riders, or is outside of that small niche group, feel any better about showing up. 

When The Big Bucks Come In:

I know I pick on this event a lot. But this event makes it too easy because of what they have done with historical events and social issues. Unbound Gravel is a gravel event based out of Emporia, Kansas which is owned and operated by Life Time Fitness. So, this is about as corporate as it gets when it comes to events on gravel. 

But that isn't necessarily the problem with Unbound. No- the big issue I see here is historical revisionism and avoiding cultural issues. Let's think about this for a minute- Why is this event called "Unbound Gravel" in the first place? 

Well, maybe you don't know. A very brief story then: This event was once known as the "Dirty Kanza 200". It was named that because the roads are dirty and it traverses an area where the Kanza people once lived. (I knew both the originators of this event, and why they named it what they did, by the way) However; some small element of people brought it to light that by combining "dirty" and "Kanza", that it could not just be understood as, but in their view, in fact was, a racial epithet against the Kanza. So, the name was changed. 

Okay, so what? Well, instead of allowing past history to be used as a launch point to educate and inform people about the plight of the Kanza people, Life Time just 'erased' the Dirty Kanza name, ignored the cultural issues, and said that the event I attended in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 was not called the "Dirty Kanza 200". Hmm...... That is not true. Life Time, and many who parrot their take, say it was "Unbound Gravel". This reminds me of "Harry Potter". The DK200 is now "He Who Shall Not Be Named", and we all know how foolish and unhelpful that tactic was in that story. Life Time seems to think that by whitewashing the history of the event, the whole "Kanza" thing will just go away, I guess. I mean, you never hear anything about that anymore, right?

And that's the result of the corporatization of gravel events. If it isn't good for business, well then, find a way to bury it, burn it, or otherwise get rid of it. It is about the 'making of money', and the party will go on just as long as the money keeps coming in. Once that money flow gets dried up? Bye-bye! We weren't like that in the gravel scene when we started out. In fact, this was one of the very things we rebelled against.

And things don't have to be that way- Inclusion and social issues, history and cultural healing- this all could be a part of the gravel scene very easily and in a way that makes a big difference. But apparently those crashing the party and some that are jaded by what it means to "get bigger" are not seeing it that way. We could be growing- not just in numbers, but in wisdom and harmony. Once it becomes more about money than humans, that's when the party will start to end. 


Ari said...

It’s weird to reference an event by the “New” name when talking about it before the name change.

Phillip Cowan said...

USA Cycling might be soul-less money grubbing copycats but I'll give them credit for being smart enough to upholster their chaise in vinyl. Mud,blood,sweat,urine and cow shit all wipe off with ease,lol. Happy New Year all.

Guitar Ted said...

@Ari - Yes, and I think that is because of how I mentioned in the piece that as a society today, we seem to think that by erasing names- and by extension, memories- we will "make things better". As you and I know, that is not how it works.

Guitar Ted said...

@Phillip Cowan - HA! Thanks for the laugh! Happy New Year!

MG said...

Happy New Year, Brother… I agree with Ari’s sentiment 100%, and furthermore, I’m proud of the seven DK200 and one DKXL finish I’ve earned. I’m not ashamed about calling it the Dirty Kanza, because that’s what it was. Those finishes leave me unbound to the need to go back to the new event.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - LOL! I see what you did there. Awesome!

NY Roll said...

Politely put, gravel is jumping the shark. The political aspect races want to pursue will turn people off soon. I do not ride gravel for politics, I ride it because it is fun and you see different things you would not see elsewhere. I am up to 4 gnome sanctuary findings around Blackhawk county

Unknown said...

Interesting for sure!!

Most humans these days fall under the category as "Sheepoles". It's difficult for most to look for those 100's of alternative gravel rides that still stay close to that "grassroots" thing in life. Lots of gravel events still using the term "grassroots", when that is clearly not the case.

People have figured out that you can charge $200.00 for a bike ride, and make a living at it. All the while, relying on a army of volunteers to do everything for free. Just because you tell them you are fighting social injustice and are being inclusive. What you don't tell them is that you just pocketed $75,000.00 as part of your yearly income. It's called commercialism.

The new genre of "Gravel" events are entirely "inclusive" towards people that have an excessive amount of income, in most cases. If you go to any of the major gravel races, it's just a rollover of roadies, with shaved legs and $11,000.00 bikes. Not to mention the $3500.00 travel expenditure for the weekend.

As for the support of social programs and such. The whole more kids on bikes thing is not really what we need, unless you can guarantee those kids a future education and a job that can support an expensive hobby, such as gravel racing. What we need are programs that support education, nutritional needs, child neglect and abuse. Foundations the enable the less fortunate to have better lives.

Most of the folks that go to these larger, commercial events are doing so as a status symbol, right of passage into the gravel kingdom. Some say that they do so, as they are supporting the social and inclusivity platforms the event directors push. Really though it's just an excuse to make yourself feel better about spending a suitcase of money to ride your bike for one day during the weekend. All the while $20.00 of your entry goes towards????

Good example would be the new Jukebox Cycling Team. They want to support the grassroots of gravel and be part of the gravel community? But they are sending their team to the Lifetime Fitness series? What gives, Sheepoles?

The gravel "Community"? Another buzzword.

It's great to also see the "Pro's" have gotten into gravel racing and promotion. Using all the latest and greatest social causes, Instagram selfies and family portraits to promote themselves as event directors and professional gravel product ambassadors.

This is just to get you to think a bit. I know it's pointed and I'm a bit hypocritical in some areas, as I have participated in a few of the well known events in the past. It's your choice wether you need to tell your friends your ridden Dirty Kanza/Unbound Gravel 10 consecutive times (if you have ridden 8 DK's and 2 UB, does that even count?) or you can look for other events. It's your choice.

Look beneath the surface.

Guitar Ted said...

@Unknown - You make some interesting points, but what I think is most enlightening is how you open and close your comments- " It's difficult for most to look for those 100's of alternative gravel rides that still stay close to that "grassroots" thing in life."


"Look beneath the surface."

Isn't that pretty much the problem with many social/cultural issues? People seem to want "fast food" when it comes to complex issues and the resulting "health issues" are only too predictable.

But the paradox of all of this is that due to the inability of our culture to slow down and focus, we get influencers, BIG event productions, and BIG media speaking to these issues instead of having a reasoned discourse amongst individuals. In terms of gravel events, this leads to people "signing on" for hundreds of dollars to be in events which in turn means they lend their support to whatever social/cultural issues that event supports. And yes- then they can feel "good" about that instead of- you know- ACTUALLY thinking and doing things themselves.

So, are the big corporate events and those who are professional athletes and professional influencers the cause of gravel's demise, (if in fact we can say that), or is the root cause actually "We The People" who have collectively passed on our liberties in order that others might decide for us? (We are a representative democracy, right?)

It is an interesting idea to ponder. It - obviously- goes way beyond the realm, and therefore the scope and focus, of "Gravel" or this blog to have that complicated discussion, but I would submit that "gravel" and the larger issues are inextricably entwined and we see the results as we do because of that.