Monday, April 22, 2024

Pro Gravel Riders Push For Separation

 NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

First of all, you long-time blog readers all know that I have advocated that Pro gravel riders need to be a separate entity from the amateur/recreational riders that fill the fields of events like Unbound, SBT GRVL, the Belgian Waffle Series franchise events, and others. I have pointed out that the rise of prize purses and riders that are trying to make a living off racing would be the end of mass-start gravel events at these bigger events where "lining up with the Pros" is seen as a benefit/feature for riders that are attracted by those sentiments. 

But I am "just Guitar Ted" and maybe I'm just a ranting old bicycle mechanic that has little to nothing to do with what any "serious gravel cyclist" would need or want in a race setting. What do I know about any of that? Who am I to say?

If that was your take, I understand. Okay, how about this then? One of the top female contenders on the Pro gravel circuit, Lauren De Crescenzo, says essentially the same things in a recent article on the site recently. 

A few choice quotes from the article to illustrate:

"In addition to my racing, I am actively engaged in shaping the future of gravel through my involvement in an athlete advisory group collaborating with Life Time. Our focus is refining the start protocols and drafting rules for the Life Time series."

So, from this quote we can surmise that change is imminent. If Life Time changes their protocols in accordance with Pro gravel riders, you can bet that, if it is successful, other events will look seriously at changing likewise. Does this foretell a "governing body" which would oversee Pro gravel in the US? Does USAC adopt these new stances? It certainly is interesting and does open up possibilities for this and other outcomes in the future. 

Now on to what Lauren De Crescenzo thinks should happen:

"I have advocated for increased intervals between start times to optimize race dynamics. For instance, proposing that pro-men begin at 7 a.m., followed by pro-women at 8 a.m., and then other racers at 9 a.m. Ideally, I envision a future where women's races start on separate days, mirroring the successful approach used at the UCI World Championships in Italy in 2022, where I represented the US team."

Boom! Now if this happens, and I've said it would, and still believe it will, then how do you sell people on your event when they used to be able to "line up with the Pros" and ride the same course as they did in similar conditions? Does a separate "fondo" day happen, and is it competitively timed? How is this  not like typical Pro road events that exclude people because they are not elite athletes

Specific to the Unbound 200, would this mean that the cut-off time for the amateurs would be extended three hours? Or two if the Pro Men went at 6:00am? Would the City of Emporia allow that to go on until 4:00 - 5:00am in the morning? Lot's to think about there..... 

The so-called "spirit of gravel" has to give way to the "business of gravel", and when it becomes a thing that affects business and livelihoods, then those things, whatever they may be, have to be eliminated.

One of the main reasons gravel got started in the first place was so that elitism and exclusion would be eliminated. Also, rules, attitudes, and entry fees which were out of control were a part of the early rejection of oversight by a committee of competitively minded, for profit promoters. (USAC, NORBA, et al) 

And finally, this quote which makes it unmistakably clear:

"Gravel races and events with significant purses necessitate separate starts to ensure fairness. "

De Crecscenzo couldn't have been more succinct. This was a sentiment that N.Y. Roll and I covered last year in the podcast episode "Gotta Keep'em Separated" and which we also touched upon in our "The End Of The Age Of Gravel" podcast episode as well. In my opinion, the separation of the amateur classes at Unbound, and other big-time gravel events, and the Pro fields is inevitable when prize purses reach the level that they have reached. The so-called "spirit of gravel" has to give way to the "business of gravel", and when it becomes a thing that affects business and livelihoods, then those things, whatever they may be, have to be eliminated. 

And where does it go from there? I'm going out on a limb and saying the pursuit of the "business of gravel" will "kill" that part of the sport, just like it did with any other cycling discipline that "went big" and went for the dollars and forgot its roots. The latest form of cycling to feel this inevitable evolution being cyclo-cross which will have zero World Cup events in North America for 2024. None. Not to mention that cyclo cross has also been losing rider's interest in the Mid-West and elsewhere as well. Oh, and crit racing's supposed savior, the NCL? Well that got cancelled recently after a truncated 2023 season. Guess the venture capitalists that were behind the scenes didn't see enough return on investment. Once the grassroots elements of any cycling discipline get spurned/turned off, this is what happens. Support for those events erodes. That may well point to the same fate for gravel on the big stage. 

The "spirit of gravel" may survive all of this, thanks to a huge base of grassroots activity and events that hold true to serving the base that brought gravel to its current popularity. But it will have to deal with a media that sees only the "business of gravel" as being legitimate and an industry that is mostly blinded by traditionalism. There are outliers, and let's hope that they prevail. But when you see Pro's like De Crescenzo claiming that they speak for all of "gravel" and its interests, then it is hard to fathom that any of the other Pro riders, their sponsors, or the media that covers them will think or say otherwise. 

Maybe I'm wrong about all of that. Let's hope that I am.....


A-A-Ron said...

I think there is alot of hand wringing over nothing here.

My supposition is that the average participant doesn't care at all if they start an hour after the pros. They were never going to ride with them anyway. They want to see the pros at the expo/finish. They want to compare their times, but very few in the field see racing at the exact same time as a true benefit. The only people who do are the wanna-be pros who want to see if they can hang with the pros. This crowd is not a spirit of gravel crowd. This is your Category 1 road racer who has turned to gravel for a competitive outlet. The average participant at Unbound is never gonna see a pro on the course. Heck, they are already starting 5-10 minutes behind the pros by the time the back of the field crosses the start line.

This very much seems to be the model for Triathlon, which I think has had its ups and downs, but in general is still very successful. Same with NYC and Boston marathons.

I agree that the only successful model is a participation model (see NCL among other problems). But this thought that separate starts will be the downfall is far fetched for me. I think that they may have challenges and participation could wane. But I would guess that it would be more related to cost of these mega events, experience for the average rider, number of injuries.....but again, these things don't seem to have slowed down triathlon.

Owen said...

It amazes me how many people still don't get this, insisting that anything other than a mass start for everyone (pros, amateurs, men, women, non-binary, etc.) is somehow against some kind of scared thing that gravel racing supposedly represents. They ignore all the pertinent issues--many of which you cite--but especially the format's impact on the professional women's field and safety concerns pros face by not having closed courses. What I find tedious is not events marketing the "you get to line up with the pros" angle to amateurs, but rather the hordes of amateurs who still do line up pretending it's 2005 and oblivious to, as you put it, "the business of gravel" and their role in that system.

Guitar Ted said...

@A-A-Ron - No "hand-wringing" here. I'm not at all worried about the future of gravel events as a whole.

I've noted several comments over the years regarding how people were attracted to gravel and one recurring comment was the ability to "line up with Pros and ride the same course". Perhaps you've never noted that, and that's fine. I have. It is a real sentiment out there.

I think you also missed that this isn't going to just be a "separate starts" thing, but an entirely different day thing, as it is in Europe with regard to many Pro races on roads and gravel. This is a request being made now, especially by women Pro gravel racers. I saw another video on social media of another Pro woman rider voicing this exact request. It will happen sooner than later.

American gravel events that reached big participation numbers weren't built on that model. My guess is that separating out the events to be Pro-only and then amateur events on a different day won't go over well. Could I be wrong? Yes, of course, but my feeling is that this won't be a positive development for the bigger gravel events and that they will try to solve this by staggering starts and extending the end of the event out further as a result. This tension between Pro riders, especially the female Pros, and the events will be interesting to see play out.

That may or may not work, as I point out in the post, but one thing is clear: These big events cannot fund their existence without big participation numbers, UNLESS they start getting sponsored. See Pro road events in the USA for how that works out.

Guitar Ted said...

@Owen - I agree with you there. I think it really only affects the bigger, very popular events which provide a venue for Pros to garner larger prize purses, sponsorships, and the like. We won't see this being an issue at the approximately 600 other gravel events world-wide, but only the top series and events which the cycling media is covering now.

There are still events you can go to and "pretend its still 2005", and where none of these issues outlined in my post matter at all. Of course, no Pro riders will likely want to waste their efforts going to such events either, and that's all fine. So, as I stated to A-A-Ron, no worries at all with regard to gravel losing something it has had all along.

S.Fuller said...

If the model in the future is going to be separate starts for the pros vs the amateurs, then the pro level events should move to Sunday, to mimic how we have college football on Saturday and pro football on Sunday. As the costs of attending big events continues to increase, I don't feel most amateurs will want to take another day of vacation and incur the expense of an additional night's hotel stay for the sake of a separate pro start and the opportunity to see them leave and then cross the finish line 6 - 10 hours later. I know I wouldn't.

Since there's no live in-race coverage (currently), it's not like racing on Sunday will cause a loss of eyeballs on the pro-race or a loss of income for its participants.

S.Fuller said...

I forgot to add, in terms of some events, a two hour difference in start time could make a significant difference to the amateurs, especially for events that take place in the summer like Unbound or Gravel Worlds. You would be forcing those that have less fitness to spend more time racing in the heat of the day. That seems to be a recipe for "bad things".

MG said...

@S.Fuller: Good perspective…