Cameron Wurf (Ineos Grenadiers) during 2022 Paris-Roubaix.

Are road and gravel incompatible disciplines?

Ineos Grenadiers’ Cameron Wurf thinks so.

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Cameron Wurf was one of a small number of active top-level road pros racing Unbound Gravel this weekend, including Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) and Emily Newsom (EF Education-Tibco-SVB), who placed third in the women’s category of the flagship 200 race.

The Australian is no stranger to juggling disciplines, but he’s not convinced that a professional road racer, besides “the odd phenom”, can realistically expect to be competitive across both road and gravel at the same time.

“I’ve said all along that guys from the WorldTour won’t be able come here and dominate,” Wurf told reporters after Unbound, “because these gravel riders, the guys that specialise in it as the sport becomes more professional, will become very good at it and you won’t be able to just drop in.”

Wurf first made a name for himself as a rower, even competing at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, and his road cycling career was interrupted by a few years devoted 100% to triathlon. The now-38-year-old signed with Ineos in 2020, and he continues to compete across multiple disciplines.

His foray into gravel racing is the latest in his multi-hyphenate athletic career. But it’s not plain sailing.

“You’ve seen [road] cyclists go to [Ironman] and they’ve struggled,” he said, “they’re not doing the sport now. They didn’t last long because it’s very competitive. Ironman – it’s very similar to this, it’s a mass participation sport with an elite category and guys making a very good living. And where there’s money involved, there’s a lot of professionalism.”

The Australian’s own Unbound Gravel story was littered with bad luck and mechanical issues, eventually culminating in 86th place. But he wasn’t there to win, in fact, it’s being seen as something of a recon mission.

He came away with 200 miles of fatigue, a faceful of mud and a renewed respect for the gravel discipline and those who have made it their life. People who, he believes, have a depth of skill not shared by the road peloton.

“Guys with incredible skills and who know how to fix a flat tyre, basically, they seem to be the two prerequisites,” he explained.

And it’s not just the terrain that sets gravel racing apart. With very few exceptions, it’s an individual pursuit, which makes the distance and terrain, not to mention the race tactics, a whole different kettle of fish.

“If it was more like a Gran Fondo, more like the fun element they try to proclaim, it might be a bit different but it’s not,” said Wurf. “These guys are very competitive and if European [road-racing] guys come, they’re going to have a big target on their back.”

Gravel racing has ballooned in mainstream popularity in recent years, and with that, the level of the field – and the money being invested – is increasing fast.

“I think what you’re seeing the depth is increasing,” he said. “Probably before, maybe a couple years ago, you could do some accelerations early on and it would probably split up quite quickly. Whereas now 40-50 guys are still there…

“It’s much easier racing a road bike because it’s just hard, not this start-stop stuff.”

The idea that a 200-mile gravel race might be decided in a sprint would have seemed ridiculous just a few years ago, but that’s exactly how Ivar Slik took victory in the men’s race this weekend, beating ex-pro roadies Laurens Ten Dam and and Ian Boswell.

With a UCI-sanctioned Gravel World Series already in progress and the first World Championships on the horizon, gravel is going to keep getting bigger and bigger, and you can bet that more road riders will be tempted to bridge the disciplines. But it’s not going to be easy.

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