The Spirit of Gravel
We all hear the term “spirit of gravel” tossed around a lot lately. There was drama at Unbound earlier this month and there will likely be continued strong opinions about aerobars and anything else that people can debate. Since I am still pretty new to all of this, I set out to get more thoughts from people that follow me and to hear from my community on what their thoughts on the “Spirit of Gravel” was. So in this blog post, I will share some of my own thoughts, but also some thoughts of others who took the survey.
Okay, let’s dive into the aerobars. Some people claim that aerobars are making gravel more “performance” based. Pro level riders are even going into expensive wind tunnel testing and there is fear that this is threatening the gravel discipline to make it more performance based. While I understand that claim, my personal opinion is we don’t need a wind tunnel test to understand the concept of aerobars making you faster on a flat, fast course. It’s not rocket science and you do not have to be a sponsored athlete to see this. Additionally, aerobars are accessible and easy to install for the general public. One survey respondent also pointed out that a race’s elevation profile plays a large role in the relevance of aerobars. In races like Unbound or Gravel Worlds (flat, exposed to wind, very long) it is really nice to have the option to ride with aerobars. However, if you are doing a gravel race with more single track or mountainous terrain (constantly climbing or descending) then you likely do not need aerobars. In thinking this through, I also wonder if a rider’s training terrain and their geographical location plays a role in their opinions of aerobars. If someone lives or trains in California, Colorado, etc they may not see the relevance of aerobars since they have the natural change in position with climbs and don’t have those extended periods of flats where they can be helpful. So it may be possible that someone’s opinion of aerobars is influenced by where they live and train as well. Just a thought.
To summarize, most people view aerobars as having a change in position across a long day or an ultra-endurance cycling event. It’s often NOT viewed as a performance gain from the responses I received and I would generally agree with this. I think race organizers should make individual decisions based on the course elevation, the nature of the races, and the length of the race. Let each person make their own decision and let each race organizer determine if they are allowed.
Now I did get a variety of responses about what the “spirit of gravel” means to each individual and I feel this truly varies for each individual. At the end of the day, most of us want to have fun and from what I have observed, fun is relative to each individual person. For example, someone at the elite or pro level may be viewed as intense or too serious - but that’s an impression (or even a judgment) based on probably seconds or minutes of an interaction you had with them. I just had a conversation with a close friend the other day and I told him I just wanted to have fun at an upcoming race. He smiled and said “yeah, but winning is fun.” I had a huge grin because we both knew that he was right. But for others, that “win” might be competing against their training buddies. Their “win” for the day might be bragging rights or someone buying them a beer for making it through. It might be simply getting to the finish line knowing what they had to sacrifice to get there or seeing family at the finish line.
So what are the threats to gravel? One person said “the death of road racing is the biggest threat to the spirit of gravel.” I did chuckle when I read this comment and I think this is multifaceted. I have observed that gravel cyclists are often independent. In longer races you have to be self supported, which means you have to know how to manage your own mechanicals and it means you have to carry most of your nutrition/fuel. For road races, most elite riders would never have to change their tires or manage their own mechanicals at that level. I also feel that road races are very different, meaning you can protect a sprinter or have others do work for a particular rider. With gravel, it’s a totally different beast. More of - every man (or woman) for themselves. You have to do your pulls and your share of the work to be at the front, and often you gain respect with your competitors if you are working together to stay in the lead vs skipping pulls or making moves at inappropriate or unsafe times. There’s a certain class to how the race is won that I hear people talk about and I observe as well. I think many people have concerns about road team tactics coming into gravel, and I would generally share that concern. Now, one person did mention that if you put a segment like Sager road into more gravel races this would throw those tactics off as you can’t exactly hold a paceline through a sketchy 2 track section. I laughed when I read this, because I know this is always where the first selection in that race is made and I think this is true of other gravel races as well. So with that, I think it is up to the race organizers to design the course in a way that has those “adventure” sections when they are able. If the course is flat and there aren’t any major terrain “selection” spots, then it’s more likely to play out like a road race.
Now I do want to point out something about the community around gravel races. This is something I first experienced at Gravel Worlds, and this is actually where I first started to fall in love with the gravel scene and feel a sense of belonging. There is something special about all riders lining up at the same time and racing the same course - whether you are a professional, middle of the pack rider, masters rider, just doing this for fun rider, etc. Whoever you are, we all show up at the same time and have that shared experience - “we are in this together” mentality. I personally think this is what really makes gravel special.
Now with that, this same idea of everyone lining up at the same time can pose risks to the mass start races. This is more of an issue at larger scale races with huge mass starts. The larger gravel races are starting to have very chaotic starts which are dangerous and riddled with crashes. This is a threat to this discipline. A few of the survey respondents mentioned having separate pro wave starts that allowed them to start several minutes ahead of the rest of the field. This allows a smaller field and in theory most of those riders should have pack experience and make the start safer. I’m not sure how this would impact female pro riders, and this is really a topic for a separate blog post if I am being honest. I don’t have a solution for this, but I do recognize the problems the current system poses and have experienced this first hand. Another concern or threat that I see is that most gravel races are open courses. Riders are supposed to stop at intersections, etc. Even at MidSouth this past spring, I was stopped at a stoplight in the last mile of the race. When there is a lot on the line for the elite level riders (contracts, financial support, mechanical support, etc) then I think organizers should reconsider critical sections of the course to either close them or protect them. This is for the safety of the riders and the community they are racing in. I would love to say that riders are going to respect staying within the lane or stopping at all lights, but countless times this doesn’t happen due to the high stakes at these events. Maybe that’s killing the spirit of the gravel scene with risk taking, etc. I have no clue. I just know it’s a problem. Riders either need to be smart and prioritize safety but then we observe time and time again certain riders throw that out the window to take the risk. Is it really worth it? No matter what is on the line, safety should always be the top priority.
So what am I doing about all this? Honestly, I think staying curious is probably the most important thing for me. I am still very new to this sport and have a lot to learn - some of that learning is understanding the community that I am interacting with. Let’s face it, I’m not an influencer or high profile athlete but I can make an impact in my community that I interact with. Thankfully my gravel cycling community here in West Michigan is overall incredible. I thank legends like Matt Acker (and many others) who have spent years harboring and nurturing this community. For me, my goals are to make this sport less intimidating for new riders, particularly females. I want people to have a safe place to ask question and not feel dumb when they are overwhelmed by the technical side of things. I led bike maintenance clinics through Freewheeler this past spring, with priority to have a female mechanic co-leading with me. I also am going to start doing a monthly female only gravel rides, which will be a no-drop party pace ride that any rider can join in on. These will be co-led with Julie, another local pro female rider. Our hope is that this monthly ride is a space where females can come learn more about gravel, socialize and get to know each other. I will be honest that I have not always prioritized socializing on my rides and most of the time this is because I am working 2 jobs and trying to get in my own training. When I am on my bike I am usually needing to train, which I recognize does not always lead me to be the most approachable when I am hammering or on a mission to get a workout in. I recognized this after some self reflection when someone pointed out that I mostly only ride with men or “strong” females. For me, this is who I train with but I can see how that is perceived as not harboring relationships with other female cyclists. Sometimes you need to hear comments and be willing to self reflect to move the needle in the direction you want.
So what can you do? I think the most important thing we all can do to protect the “spirit of gravel” is to stop focusing on that and instead shift focus to just having fun on the bike. One response said “the biggest threat to the spirit of gravel is people worrying about protecting the spirit of gravel. Encourage people to have fun riding their bike instead!” I honestly could not have said this better myself. I also want to point out that part of this is knowing and accepting that everyone has “fun” in different ways. Let me share an example of this. My friend Julie and I ride together often. She is an incredibly skilled MTB’er and by far is WAYYYYY better than me on anything technical. She’s powerful. We had a ride where I had hard intervals and she was sitting on my wheel rolling 30mph on the flats. I was focused, determined and doing a structured workout. But since I had a friend with me, even though fitness and performance was the goal of my ride, this was a lot of fun - 2 chicks rippin’ through the gravel roads. A week later, we did a cafe stop and then slow rolled through a park with pigtails and fanny packs. Fitness was not the priority and performance was irrelevant on this ride, but we still had a lot of fun. Sometimes I am more serious than other times, but I can only define fun for myself. So let’s all remember that - and be okay with accepting the different forms that “fun” comes in as this is relative to each individual person and that may even change on certain days.