Thursday, June 16, 2022

State Of The Gravel Scene: Mid-Term 2022- Is It Time To Separate The Pros From The Rest?

DK200 circa 2016. Mass starts meant Pro's and Amateurs, Men and Women all together.
It is mid-year and there are a few developments which have been stewing in my brain which I find need getting out again. So, here is my opinion on how things look across the landscape of gravel events at this present time. 

Note- I have written stuff along these lines before, and I have taken a bit of a different stance to it all, but I think that now, the way things are, we need to consider something a bit more drastic in terms of gravel events. 

On my inaugural podcast with N.Y. Roll, we talked about Unbound Gravel, which for all intents and purposes, at this point in time, is still the premier gravel event in the U,S.A. That may change in the future, but for now, it remains at the top. 

In that podcast episode, I made a comment that the Unbound Gravel was a "Pro road race on gravel at the front with a fondo that follows it.". Perhaps I should have said that there is a mixing of the waters between Pro, paid, sponsored riders and the amateurs, which is probably closer to the truth, at least at the start. This is well illustrated in a recent "VeloNews" article written about this year's Womens winner, Sofia Gomez Villafañe. Read that link. It gives a very pointed, valid picture from a Woman Pro's point of view on the current scene. 

Originally put out as a challenge to see what you could push yourself to do, the gravel scene has become a means to make a living for some. That changes the game.
In that article a very important point was put forth. A point which, in my opinion, will forever change how gravel events are run for everyone. here is that quote from that article from Gomez Villafañe:

“The spirit of gravel applies to the ethos of the race and the amateurs on course but not to the pros,” she said. “We need rules to make it good, safe racing. I didn’t race Unbound for an ‘experience’ or because I thought it would be super fun. I have to do it because it’s part of the Life Time Grand Prix, so I’m gonna prepare. I’m gonna show up.”

In other words, it is high-time to get Pro racers, big money pay-outs, and any hint of "a way to make a living" separate from the rest of gravel events as a whole. In the case of Unbound- I would advocate for a Pro race day on Saturday. Everyone else? They ride on Friday. All the 25 mile, 50 milers, and anyone that is not a Pro in the 100 and 200. No payouts for placing in the Unbound Gravel Fondo. 

Women would have their own event, Men their own event, both starting at different times. Like very different times. Separate the start times by two hours. That'd give the first bunch about a 30-40 mile head start on the other. Put up some pretty strict time cut-offs at checkpoints to deter riders off the back of one of the fields from mixing it up with the front end of the other field. You want to make this serious, right? Then tighten up the parameters for making the cut. 

You could rotate year by year who goes first. One year it could be the Men, the next the Women. Whatever... The point being that you keep the big crowds coming, the economic windfall for the area, people happy that want the experience, and keep the Pro's in their own corral to do whatever it is they want for the big bucks. 

And just as Gomez Villafañe said, 'The Spirit of Gravel' doesn't apply to her. Obviously, she gets what that might mean to others, but she also makes it plain that she is there to satisfy sponsors, fulfill contractual obligations, and get paid. It is a job, folks, and ya know- all the rest of you do these events to get away from that very thing. 

The challenge, the adventure, and the personal growth aspects of gravel events don't jibe with Pro racing and "making a living".

In fact, it goes further than this. Gravel events were developed, originally, as a way to circumvent the focus on money-making, "career sustaining" efforts. The original gravel events were developed with as little rules and regulations as possible in a reaction to sanctioning bodies, governing groups, and an over-abundance of rules. But Pro racing, racing for a living, means that those sorts of governing bodies, rules, and streamlining of regulations are necessary. 

The end result- where "Gravel" finds itself in 2022- is a crossroads. It is time to separate what Pro riders need, sponsors want, and the public likes in terms of entertainment from what is really "Gravel". The idea of "Pro road racing on a gravel surface" has been talked about before here, but I wasn't onboard with slicing that away from the gravel scene. Now?

It's high-time that the Pro racers have their thing and we have ours.


Jay Schuur said...

Having ridden Unboand 5x as of this year and seeing world change, I agree Ted. Only note is that pros should go friday and amateurs Saturday. many of us cant take an extra day off our day jobs!

Nooge said...

“In other words, it is high-time to get Pro racers, big money pay-outs, and any hint of "a way to make a living" separate from the rest of gravel events as a whole. In the case of Unbound- I would advocate for a Pro race day on Saturday. Everyone else? They ride on Friday. ”

I disagree there. The pros are the ones trying to (at least partially) make a living from racing. Let them take a day off work or otherwise be inconvenienced to race on Friday, not the mass of people with jobs, school and other obligations on weekdays. Or at least have the Amateur race Saturday and pros on Sunday.

Personally, I like how the Iceman Cometh race is done. Amateur race starts a while before the pros. Most amateurs finish and recuperate a bit then can watch the pros finish. The pros do have to pass some very slow amateurs that are still on course, but if they can do that in single track, it should be no issue on roads. This keeps everything to one day, which requires vastly fewer resources than two separate days.

They can start the pro men 30-60 minutes before the pro women if mixing with the men is a concern.

Guitar Ted said...

@Jay Schuur @Nooge - Look, I only posted the suggestion for my format as a "possible solution" because complaining without offering alternatives is lame. I think you both would agree.

In the end, I don't have a horse in the race. Life Time will do what is best for their business first. If that means that they think they will make more money by pushing folks to be there longer, they will do that. And I would suggest that is exactly what they are doing by promoting Friday pre-rides, Thursday group rides, and having the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame deal on Wednesday was done because there were so many other activities on Thursday and Friday already.

So, if there weren't a LOT of people attending all those satellite activities on the days prior to the race, would they still be doing that? No. Do they want MORE people to take a vacation in Emporia to attend ALL those things? Of course they do.

Again, I don't care what Life Time does with the event. I'm not their customer, but if I were running things and wanted the Pro race to feature in getting people to show up for the - what will end up becoming a fondo, in my opinion - before hand, I'd run the fondo first, just like they do at the big Pro road events in Europe. So, that is why I suggested that solution.

But whatever happens, I think changes are in the wind for sure. What you know as Unbound is going to have to be modified for the Pro racers, and that will come at the expense of the amateurs. I predict that the event will evolve more and eventually it won't look anything like what we used to understand it as in five years.

In a general sense what Life Time has created in this Grand Prix series is also the reason why the events they own will start to look different in the future. Obviously not every event on gravel is owned by Life Time, and not every gravel event will - or should - accommodate Pro racers wants and desires. So, in the end this is such a small deal, it's just that the corporate cycling media is hyper-focused on making Pro road racing come back, only this time on gravel.

Derek said...

I wonder if the evolution will be the Pros having more of a gravel circuit race that can return past the start/ finish or viewing area a few times, or even a "dirt crit", gravel 'cross, or mtb type races. The amateurs continue to do the more "out there", self-supported type courses.
I do like Nooge's idea of an Iceman format, although a downside could be that then all participants feel like they're part of the race, vs the ride.

Owen said...

I couldn't agree more, especially on the issues in the women's race you reference via Villafañe. I do wonder though how this would affect the longer routes of events like Unbound. From my understanding, in the 350 you have a mix of pros and amateurs, but perhaps this is niche enough to where you could still run the traditional mixed format?

On another note, I'm curious when you had your bad experiences with Rene Herse tires and tubeless setup? I remember hearing of some issues when the tubeless models were first released several years ago, but more recently myself everyone I know had no problems whatsoever. In my experience the company is also extremely responsive to any technical issues and quick to respond to customer service. They're a small but will go above and beyond to help you out. For the record, I have no connection to or financial interest in RH, but I am a BQ subscriber.

I say this because since switching to RH knobbies two years ago I've completely dropped the "what tires should I run for which conditions?" question, because their tires just work. And until there's a tire that tests faster that the RHs, I'm uninterested in the latest bike industry New And Improved™ tread pattern and/or tire casing of the week. Yes the RH tires are expensive but the performance is worth it, and they're cheaper than constantly buying new tires in the hopes of something better. Put simply, these are reference tires. Set 'em and forget 'em, then go ride your bike.

Guitar Ted said...

@Owen - On the 350 miler/ultra-distance gravel: Typically smaller fields and more spread out fields during those events kind of negate the issues detailed at the fronts of these newer, Pro level gravel events which typically are less than 200 miles in length.

On the Rene' Herse tires: I will give you my canned response which I have not been convinced to modify: Either you LOVE their tires, or you do not. I know people who have - within the past year- owned RH tires and have had issues. I have heard from people like you as well. I do not want to play that game of chance when I do not have to. NOTE- I have not used their tires, and I probably won't buy them for myself.

If RH wants to take a chance on convincing me otherwise, I'm game.....

Phillip Cowan said...

I hate sound like a shill for Jan's tires but I've had 5 sets on various bikes and have been nothing but pleased. Some I've run tubeless and some tubed.It might be worth noting all are mounted on Velocity rims. Last winter I built up a '96 Trek 930 as a drop bar conversion for the express purpose of having something to run a set of Humptulip Ridge tires on. Stupid name, awesome tires. These tires could single handedly revive the 26" wheelsize. True all arounders and quite good on gravel although I didn't build the bike with that in mind.

Guitar Ted said...

@Phillip Cowan - Putting you in the "Love Them" column, then. Right. Check!