Monday, January 02, 2023

The State Of The Gravel Scene: 2023

 In January 2018 I posted a five part series on what I thought was the "State Of The Gravel Grinding Scene". It really is a retrospective/editorial piece, I suppose, since it does present the historical background of what I term as "modern day gravel racing and riding", which I hold to have begun when Trans Iowa kicked off in 2004.

Now, a whole five years later, things have radically changed in the gravel scene. What is more, things are set to change even more in 2023 and beyond. This post seeks to lay out what I think will happen based upon my observations and from where we are now at the end of 2022. 

Remember- THIS IS MY OPINION. Your thoughts and views on the matter may be quite different. I welcome any reasoned and considered opinions which you can share with me at 

Thanks for reading this opinion piece and for reading Guitar Ted Productions. 

Too Much Of A Good Thing 

Last year I stated that the gravel scene was most likely at its peak and that we had entered a "baroque period"  which now has progressed quickly toward a situation which has us all overly-stimulated with all of this "gravel this" and "gravel that". At the end of 2022, where do we sit? I think it seems pretty obvious that things are quickly changing. What we know as "gravel" in terms of the culture and the competitive side of things is now at the point where it no longer resembles what it was just five years ago in 2018. 

The event originally known by the simple name "DKXL" is now this.

Some things haven't changed much, or at all. The UCI is still threatening to jump in on the gravel scene. There are still several grassroots gravel events being born all the time as well. But "corporate gravel" has a strong foothold in the scene and, of course, every manufacturer of anything cycling related has something or another in its range that is "made for gravel". 

It's actually pretty insane when you stop to think about that. But there is nothing new about any of this. It's just that I feel like people are tired, or getting there really fast, of all of the hoopla surrounding "Gravel™" and how it pervades every thread of cycling. 

The biggest competitive cycling event in Iowa was not really a gravel race.

There are new ideas percolating up that indicate to me that things are about to change dramatically. Things that will be "the next thing" in cycling, just like gravel was in 2005. 

One of those things that has increasingly been more popular is touring. Call it "bikepacking" or whatever you want, but this is classic cyclo-touring with modern day gear. At first it was about the ultra-distance stuff like Tour Divide, but as this segment of cycling has grown, it has started to spill over into gravel, and in my opinion, sub-24's, short weekend tours, and week long jaunts across the countryside will become more and more common. These activities combine the spirit of adventure, the self-discovery aspects, and the self-reliance aspects that the early gravel scene was founded upon. 

Then in terms of events, we are starting to see more "multi-surface" events emerge. Things like "Rule of Three" and "CORE4" are events that include gravel in their courses, but also have healthy doses of single track, pavement, and perhaps grass or bike path in addition to the gravel. In my early days as a compiler of gravel events, these sorts of multi-surface events would not have been categorized as "gravel events", and I still do not think that is what they are. The intent and vision for these events may have a lot in common with early gravel events, but they are their own genre. 

What is very interesting about CORE4 is that it drew more cyclists in its first year than any other Iowa based gravel event has ever. Think about that for a moment. 

I still plan on amplifying the smaller, grassroots events in 2023

Does this mean that the traditional gravel event is dying? I don't think it is dying, but I do think that things have reached a saturation point, as I described above, and the message is getting tiring. 

Events will happen, and as long as they are fun, , meaningful, and as long as they don't cost a ton of money, I think you'll see those events thrive still. But big, corporate driven, lottery based events may see a dip in participation due to a message that is getting worn out and due to inflationary pressures. 

 When "Gravel" Is "Serious" (read: It's About Pure Competition and Money. Nothing Else Matters)

And what of all of this Pro/UCI/USAC nonsense? When is USAC actually going to do anything meaningful in the space called "gravel"? Well, if what I have been reading comes true, this coming year we may finally see a USAC sanctioned National Championship of gravel, (despite there having been one run by the USE  for years called "Gravel Grinder Nationals"), and a junior development series on gravel. In other words, it is going to be the same ol' roadie program transferred to the gravel scene. 

In the "Velo News" article I linked at the beginning of this piece, USAC's CEO, Brendan Quirk, was saying that there will be a split in the gravel scene. On one hand you'll have what is essentially the gravel scene as it has been. Then on the other hand, Quirk says things will be a lot more "serious". Here's what the article quoted him as saying." The other side is hardcore racing. These athletes that want to win and are going to be doing everything possible to win. They’re not there for the afterparty, they’re there to win the bike race. Ultimately, that’s how I see this bifurcation.” 

So, what he is saying, besides insulting everyone that ever rode in a gravel event not sanctioned by USAC, (You were not "hardcore racing" apparently), is what I was saying should happen last Summer. The Pros, (and Cat-type racers) need to be separated from the gravel scene as it stands. (Here you can read my take on that) Essentially all USAC is going to do is transfer their surface that they compete on from that of a paved surface to a gravel one. Nothing else about this will be "Gravel". It is plain to see this from Quirk's statement. 

So, all of this talk about USAC "getting into the gravel thing" is empty talk. (Besides being about 10 years too late) USAC is not at all interested in being a part of the gravel scene. Not as it was formed over the years. If USAC participants are lucky, the men and women will race equal distances on the same course and get equal prizing. But don't hold yer breath. Again, this is all a ruse to increase USAC's numbers, monetary intake, and influence on American competitive racing. They lost the money when all their support (read lower category riders) went gravel racing a decade ago or more. Then they lost their competitive clout when Pros started flocking to the gravel scene domestically and things like Life Time Gran Prix, the Belgian Waffle Ride Series, and others have popped up providing a means for some in the gravel scene to make well over six-figure incomes, if what I read is to be believed. 

Riders on the UNBOUND course in 2022: Big events like this have taken the wind out of the sails of USAC.

USAC could negotiate partnerships with some of the more important events, and Quirk intimates that this is what is going on in the "Velo News" piece. It remains to be seen whether or not big paying events like SBT GRVL, UNBOUND, or any of the series events that are under Life Time's umbrella or that are in the Belgian Waffle Ride franchise will be willing to hold USAC's hand. In the past, they have said, "No thank you!" in no uncertain terms, and as things have not really changed, and seeing as how USAC brings little clout to the table, you have to wonder what it is that USAC has to offer. 

Meanwhile, inflationary pressures, an over-supply of gear and accessories, and a saturation of events is making life very difficult for many. I think times are changing and changing faster than ever. How it all will shake out will remain to be seen, but I don't wonder when we will see the gravel scene stop growing anymore. I think we may be there now, but I could be wrong about that. 

We'll see.  

Stay tuned for more tomorrow.


MG said...

From where I sit, your perspective is spot on. It’s less than subtly ironic that one of the original appeals of gravel events was their more laid back, less competitive nature. But clearly that’s changed now that the big dollars and ‘serious racers’ have arrived on the scene. For me, the competitive aspect of gravel events is secondary to the overall experience of the event. That’s why I’ve largely stopped participating in the larger events on the calendar. Heck, in 2022 I participated in exactly zero cycling events/races… Part of that was due to injury, but part of it was simply not feeling inspired by the events that were available. Hopefully I’ll feel different about things this year… but we’ll see.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - Add inflation and fuel prices and it gets even harder to justify some events. Thanks for the comment, Brother! Love ya!

Phillip Cowan said...

I wonder if some of the larger events might morph into two day affairs where participants would have to declare as rider or racer up front. Male and female "riders" would go day one. "Racers" would go day two. To prevent female racers from using male riders as domestiques the men could start two hours ahead of the women. I guess any woman strong enough to make up two hours deserves to be allowed to draft, lol. Of course in the case of the dust up around Katie Keough and her husband the "domestique" would just sandbag along until the female rider caught up with him. Since most big rides/races are a loop maybe the men and women could could run the course in opposite directions.

Guitar Ted said...

@Phillip Cowan - It is an interesting point to note that many events have been resistant to the idea of altering field make-up and having multiple day racing because it goes against some nefarious "Spirit" thing they bring up all the time. Pfft! First of all, they have no idea what they are referring to, so whatever....

Anyway, some events are already doing multiple day events, with their ultra-distance events going off a day ahead of the actual "featured event". Since the infrastructure is already in place, it shouldn't be that much harder to have - as you mentioned - the Men go that day or the women on their own day he day afterward, however you wanted to do that.

My idea would be that you would have the ultra-distance thing go off on a Friday, as a few do this, the non-paying, non-supported, amateur events on Saturday as they always were, and if you are going to have "big time" Pro events with pay-outs and all of that, they race on Sundays. I mean, IF they are dedicating their life to making a living racing, or are supported, or both, they can afford to take Mondays off. The average person can bug out early if they race Saturday, OR stay on and watch the big dogs run. Obviously you are splitting the fields by gender and starting them at wildly different times on Sunday to prevent that dreaded male-pulling-female thing.

And some may say that Pro's on Sunday takes away from the atmosphere somehow. As in how, exactly? You are not "lining up with the Pros"? As if that is a thing after five minutes when the racing starts. You aren't really doing anything with the Pros at this point, so how does that work again? I don't see the allure. (And things never used to be this way. This development is fairly recent)

I think if you are trying to cater to all of the spectrum of riders, that's the best way to do things.

Arky said...

I’ve participated in dozens of organized bike rides over the years because I wanted the T-shirt and the post ride food/door prize/experience. NEVER ONCE did I stand on a medal platform, or think I would. Never once did I get inspired by some pro racer. I was there for the fun, and for the experience of riding in a place I normally wouldn’t ride.

As long as rides are fun, and not too pricey or difficult to enter, there is a good chance I’ll participate in 1/2 a dozen or so events a year: But when it becomes about racing, hoops to jump through to get entered, or too pricey, I’m out. Me and my friends will go make our own fun.

Alex said...

If race fields are being split up Saturday/Sunday, a men/women split might be better than pro/amateur. Would end all the questions about women drafting off of men and allow women to have their own race.