In search of the European spirit of gravel

Mullets, moustaches and craft beer come face-to-face with European bike racing sensibilities.

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Just after the elite men set off from the start line in Vicenza on the morning of the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships, a man decked out in Team USA kit approached some journalists wearing UCI-accredited lanyards, hoping they could help.

His flight from Denver, Colorado, had been delayed and he’d arrived late the night before. Too late to pick up his race number and sign in for the age-group race event he’d qualified for. After assembling his bike and filling his Camelbak, he’d appeared just before his start time but was having some problem getting his way past security.

“It’s too late,” employees of the race organisation told him. “This is a world championship,” they remonstrated, baffled that this man thought he could rock up so unbelievably late and still start the race.

An American woman had found her way to the side of the American cyclist, who was by this point staring dejectedly into the distance. Thousands of dollars spent and thousands of miles travelled had all been for nothing. “You wouldn’t get this at an American gravel race,” she told him.

Both parties were justified in their thinking. The organisation, with an untold number of moving parts that were no doubt already causing untold levels of stress and annoyance, were understandably unable to move heaven and earth for the one cyclist who fell outside normal procedures. The cyclist, who no doubt was well-versed in the more relaxed nature of gravel racing stateside, was used to just rocking up to an event and racing with minimum fuss.

“It’s the spirit of gravel,” one of my colleagues said with a raised eyebrow as we walked away from the scene. It had become a running joke over the weekend. As we got bitten by bugs in the unseasonably (by northern European standards) warm October weather – that’s the spirit of gravel. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and her Italian rivals warming up on rollers ahead of attempting to rip the legs off their competitors on the uphill gravel drag out of the city in the opening kilometres – the spirit of gravel.

Did we find it, though? The spirit of gravel?

Flying into Venice airport, anyone arriving from the American gravel scene would have sensed the irony of the Shakespearean play also set in the northeast of Italy, in which we are shown that love is more important than money, that mercy is preferable to revenge, and that love lasts forever.

That is what American gravel racing is all about, right? Equality, inclusion, having fun. Not rainbow jerseys and grid positioning. Of course, the UCI originally wanted America to host the inaugural Gravel World Championships, but the differences between the two groups were seemingly insurmountable. There is already a Gravel Worlds, which is not an actual world championship according to the UCI, in Nebraska every year. It feels like a chasm has formed between two versions of what gravel should be. Not even a pound of flesh could have paved the way for an official rainbow race on US soil.

So what, then, were the UCI Gravel World Championships all about? For those watching on television, there was cause for a wry smile if they’d switched over to Paris-Tours, ostensibly a road race, and been witness to a semi-Classic characterised by tough gravel sectors. In contrast, some of the most interesting bits of the UCI Gravel Worlds course had already been raced by the time television came to air, and TV cameras mostly pointed at WorldTour pros hammering it through nondescript fields. The road race, for quite a while, looked more like gravel worlds than gravel worlds did.

Of course, critics shout the loudest. And, as Nicolas Roche pointed out after the race, no-one ever gets things completely right on their first try. For the riders, even those who race American gravel events, the reaction was positive. Even Lachlan Morton had a good time, though, to be fair, he always seems like he’s having a good time.

The consensus seemed to be that different doesn’t necessarily mean worse.

“It was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be,” Tiffany Cromwell admitted after the women’s race. “With a lot of sections that went between single and double track. You had wider sections too but what’s exciting about gravel is that no two courses are the same.”

For all the awkwardness of the grid position debacle – decided by accumulated UCI points and originally, somehow, not counting points earned in the UCI gravel series – cycling’s governing body swiftly fixed things before the start on Sunday morning, assuaging complaints from those racers who’d spent the time earning points in those races in view of profiting from them at the Worlds. A decidedly gravel-state-of-mind decision from the Union for Curtailing Investigative reporters.

But behind the elite category’s start line was a snippet of the UCI’s version of the spirit of gravel. Varying amateur age groups, as far as the eye could see, with cyclists from all over the world who wanted to be on a UCI start line, within touching distance of some of the biggest names in the sport and an outside chance of winning their own rainbow jersey.

Tim Borsetti is a 61-year-old retired carpenter from North Carolina. He’d set the Gravel Worlds as a target since the information about the event was released seven months ago in March. He won the qualifier in Arkansas and was very excited to be on the start line self-supported and was ready for a race “where the strong man finishes first.”

At the finish line was another amateur, a British man in his fifties who, in the real world, is a British Airways pilot. “I think I finished fourth,” he said, slightly stunned, to his compatriots as they followed across the finish line a few minutes later.

Mat Stephens after crashing.

They were then followed by an American man sporting a wondrous moustache/mullet combo. If anyone was going to be able to tell us if the spirit of gravel was alive and kicking at a UCI race in Italy, it was him.

“It was beautiful,” said Mat Stephens, who finished in the last group of the men’s elite race, and for good reason. “I crashed on the first descent somewhere. I got concussed and kept going, caught people and kept fighting. Then I remembered the start of the race and was like ‘oh yeah, that’s how I got to the start line’. I woke up and there were medical [people] with me but I just got my bike and went.”

A concerning picture painted but operating with the yeehaw freedom of a US off-road event. So, and we’ll have to assume Stephens’ opinion remains unchanged despite the head injury, is there a place for a second Gravel World Championships to the one that already exists in America?

“American crits exist because of their location, Belgian kermesses exist because of their location. The Gravel Worlds in Nebraska, the course is because of where it is, and this is the best course to make in Veneto,” Stephens offered. “The course is beautiful and very hard. Mark Twain had a quote about how stats lie. It doesn’t matter how much climbing there is. If there are turns and single track, there’s everything they can throw at you, the course is made by the racers, always.”

But the other spirit present on the road is a fighting one, where everyone wants to win.

“The spirit of gravel…there is no camaraderie out there,” Stephens half-laughed. “Maybe at the end of the race when you come in with your group but at the start it’s a world championship, everyone is sending it and they’re fighting for a jersey. I would love to design a course like this but I don’t have this terrain in America, very interesting and very exciting.”

“I’d put them as two separate things,” was Cromwell’s assessment of the differences between the UCI’s gravel and the races found across the Atlantic. “The US races have their own unique feel and it’s a lot more community-based, more about racing hard together and then having a good time afterwards with some beers, inclusion, diversity, all of those things. It would be nice to have more races on European soil but the US races are special. They’re just different, really hard and super long.”

Across single-track and grassy fields, tarmac and gravel paths, Gianni Vermeersch and Daniel Oss combined to separate themselves from the rest of the field. They made a pact that one of them would win the rainbow jersey. Sitting beside each other in the post-race press conference, Vermeersch in the rainbow bands and Oss with a silver medal, both men also possessed something else: beaming smiles.

Of course, you get collaborative efforts like this in road races too, but to see two top-level pros so accustomed to the pressure cooker of the WorldTour as content as they were with both victory and defeat was disarming. Soon, the riders and media were laughing together as they traded questions and answers, something that rarely ever happens. Gravel had magicked a bit of humanity into the post-race press conference.

Gianni Vermeersch chases Daniel Oss.

“I think this is a new point in the history of cycling and for gravel cycling,” Oss said of the event as a whole.

Mathieu van der Poel, one of the big draws on the start line and the day’s bronze medalist, agreed.

“I think it’s especially cool to be a part of this, it’s a bit of history,” he said. “Maybe in a few years it will be a big discipline, you don’t know.”

As for his and other top-tier WorldTour pros’ presence on the start line, which is unquestionably a fuss about nothing when you consider how many other athletes in various endeavours chop and change disciplines within their sport, the Dutchman was unwavering in his belief that their participation will only help grow the sport, to waft as many people into the path of gravel’s spirit as possible.

“It’s good for the sport that a lot of other disciplines take part,” he told reporters, crowding outside his Alpecin-Deceuninck campervan. “It will help the sport grow.”

Tadej Pogačar was also present but only to meet sponsors, having travelled over from his Il Lombardia title defence the day before.

“That would be fun to see him here [on the start line],” Van der Poel said. “Tadej will also be someone who would think it would be cool to join.” Tadej would also undoubtedly be someone who would crush the living soul out of the spirit of gravel and win with countless minutes to spare.

Hours after the culmination of the men’s race on Sunday, we walked out of the temporary press office housed in the local police station to find an October darkness crowding out the final flickers of summer.

Over the road was a parked pick-up truck with a speaker perched on top blaring out music. People were clutching cans of White Claw, some of them dancing, others chatting.

Between the impromptu party and Alessandro De Marchi travelling south from Il Lombardia to line up at Gravel Worlds the very next day, it was clear there’s room for multiple types of gravel racing to co-exist. For retired carpenters, for middle-aged airline pilots, for Mathieu van der Poel to all be on the start line.

“Gravel is an adventure,” Tiffany Cromwell concluded. “And we had an adventure today.”

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