Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Gravel Paper: Reactions And Comments - Part 1

Haley Hunter-Smith
In 2022 I was contacted by Haley Hunter-Smith, a professional cyclist who won the inaugural Gravel Grand Prix on the women's side and is a past representative of Canada as a Canadian Olympic mountain biker. Ms Hunter-Smith was interested in interviewing me for a collegiate research paper. I agreed to the interview and waited patiently for the paper to be completed and published. That has now happened. This post will be my commentary and reaction to the contents of the study.

First of all, you can read a portion of my interview with Ms. Hunter-Smith which I published on the blog previously. This is in two parts. Click these links to read those parts of the interview. Part 1  Part 2

 If you want to read the entire paper, I have a link which the PDF of this study can be downloaded 50 times. HERE. If that doesn't work for you, let me know as I have the PDF file and Ms. Hunter-Smith has given me permission to share that "far and wide", as she said to me. Update 4/11/24: It appears the 50 downloads have been taken, so please email me @ for a copy.

 This paper was based on the interviews of nine individuals carefully chosen for their representation across the gravel scene. Racers, promoters, influential individuals, para-athlete, non-binary, transgendered, and marginalized individuals, some representing more than one of these groups, were included.  The interviews were all conducted via Zoom and were transcribed, then the data was considered and the paper was based on this information to hopefully contextualize what the "spirit of gravel" might be and how gravel provides freedom, challenge, and connection. This information was gathered to hopefully help future gravel event promoters to further the cause of gravel cycling and to engage more people in the activity. 

Reactions: With all that out of the way I will get on with my thoughts on the paper. First of all, I am humbled to have been considered for a part in this paper. I applaud Ms. Hunter-Smith for taking up this idea for this study and I can say that I have been enlightened by what I have read.

The first theme I drew from the paper was the idea that there is a two-part way of looking at the people who sign up for a gravel event. The paper described the fields as being made up of those who were competing and those who were 'completing' events. The idea here was to try to discern the motivations for those event participants. Competitors are there for a different reason than those who are there to finish a challenge, let's say. Some might even go so far as to interpret that as being the difference between "racing and riding an event". 

My thought was that this resonated with me but not on a binary scale. In my view, this can be a multi-faceted thing for an individual in one event, or it could be internal-external in nature. A person could, for example, be competing against themselves by setting goals, not necessarily being "in it to win it". Or a person could change thier viewpoint during an event based upon circumstances. One moment you might be competing and the next just hoping that you could finish. 

That said, I thought the paper gave some good context to why people enjoin in gravel riding and this is a good way to jump off into further discussions about why people choose gravel events and what their motivations might look like. 

Image from March of 2010. I *think* this is from the Trans Iowa Tune-Up Ride. Image taker David Pals? [not sure on that]

Freedom: The paper showed that the concept of "freedom" seemed to be important in gravel. The paper divided this from 'autonomy' which the researchers felt was important "as it encompasses both autonomy and this broader sense of empowerment that participants value."

Here again I was struck by how the paper found that core values of gravel riding: self-sufficiency, freedom of choices, lack of over-arching rule structures - were important enough that the interviewees mentioned these things. The freedoms of choice were also mentioned alongside of freedom of movement, freedom from fears, and freedom to be at one with self/nature/activity as being core things in gravel. All things I could attest to or have personally experienced myself. 

October 2011 T.I.v7 recon. Image by David Pals.

Community: The theme of being at one with nature, having to accomplish a hard task being in a remote area and doing so based on one's own decision making skills alone, was there. Ironically, this was in contrast to the sense of community many found at events and the encouragement that this allowed for simply by being in a group of people who were accepting and of like mind to the event participants. That said, these were both things I always found important in gravel events and I was in agreement with the findings. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since I was involved as one of the participants in this study, but then again, the others may have disagreed with me as well. 

Conclusions: Of course, there is a lot more in the paper and that described in much more academic terms. I was impressed that this research even happened, and was astounded to read that other studies concerning gravel cycling have been undertaken. I would never have thought that gravel cycling would ever be the subject of any academic research, or that a paper of this caliber would ever have been produced about the subject. Much less that I was actually tabbed for my thoughts on the subject, which is simply mind-blowing to me. 

I think that the paper is a positive thing overall and I hope that it will be an influence, as the researchers hope it to be, upon the future of gravel cycling. Tomorrow I will consider how cycling events have been changed forever because of gravel riding.

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