There is a lot to say and talk about from this past week in Italy. I was on the fence about going on this trip, since it was a pretty late add on to an already hectic season. But all in all, I am really thankful I decided to go. The experience alone was well worth the trip. As gravel evolves, it was really special to witness the depth of talent at this event. In efforts to keep my historically long form blog condensed, I will categorize my thoughts on certain aspects of the event and trip so those with short attention spans to go to the section that most entertains or interests them.
USAC//UCI INVOLVEMENT IN GRAVEL
I participated in USAC Gravel Nationals last month and as many of you have heard me say, this was the safest gravel event that I have ever done. Granted, my racing history only spans 2 years but it’s still worth noting. With that, similar rules for road closures, standards and safety protocols were in place at UCI Gravel Worlds. The course is closed to traffic and I never once felt like I had to worry about oncoming traffic, stop signs or traffic lights interfering with my race. I really enjoyed that. As an elite, I hope to see more of this adapted back home as the fields grow and become more competitive.
I was really disappointed in the fact that the UCI did not think through or recognize that the men’s age group fields would impact the women’s race. Like USAC Gravel Nationals, I felt the UCI should have had a no draft rule in place for the women’s race. The men did not impact the podium racers, but I did hear it likely impacted 10/11th placing and positions after that (there was a bridge back from an amateur male). From my personal perspective, it did impact my race. After the first few climbs, you entered a longer 30km section of flatter terrain. At this point, I had a solid group of about 8-10 women. We had somewhat of a rotation going and I think many of us were trying to get a reprieve before the second loop carnage of hills began. About 10km into this 30km flatter stretch, a large group of age group males caught up to us hauling. A lot of the women jumped the wheels and suddenly our group became a smash fest of who could hang onto the guy’s wheels to get pulled along and it was strung out. It felt weird. I thought this was the world championship race where women had their OWN race? Bridging back via males seemed to still occur, and even though it didn’t impact the podium spots, it still impacted the majority of the field. I was really disappointed in this and I hope to see larger gaps in starts or to enforce no draft rules for the women’s field.
My experience with USAC on the ground was overall positive. I was a self funded athlete, as most of us were. We were given the choice since we paid our own way if we wanted to partake in team tactics vs race for ourselves. All of the women riders opted for the team tactics, and that spoke volume to the group of riders we had with us. Lauren really led the women’s team in both organizing a plan and facilitating executing and details during the week. All riders were active participants and it felt respectful. We had USAC support at all the feed zones and they helped with transportation to the airport as well, which was very helpful.
LACK OF WOMEN”S MEDIA COVERAGE
Rather than doing an entirely separate blog about this, I think many of you should just go listen to the Girls Gone Gravel Podcast that came out this week where we talk about this specifically. I will be honest in admitting that I never even thought it wouldn’t be broadcasted, it was more of who was going to broadcast it. So when the news came out of no coverage, it was really disappointing. I felt outraged, but quickly realized something - The US is really paving the way for equity in gravel for women. If you had a race in the US without equal pay or coverage, there would be a massive uproar. Equity is the standard (as it should be). However, Europe has a long way to go in gender equity. I was not aware of this and why would I - given I haven’t had the opportunities outside of the US. The world tour roadie ladies just didn’t seem phased by the news and it seemed more expected than anything else. I think they’ve been fighting for change against a large system and culture that does not view equity the same as back home. Progress is being made over there, but clearly they still have a long way to go. There was a moment where I thought to myself, I should be really grateful for what we have back home. And I am grateful, but I still can be upset and want more on a larger scale. What these women do over here is incredible. What we did this weekend was incredible. It is a shame they did not make us a priority. With that, I recognize this fight is complex with a lot of rules, hierarchy, politics and money involved, but at the end of the day, we need to keep advocating for change. And of course, there is a lot of finger pointing. Is the UCI to blame or the local organizers? Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. Even if the local organizers made the decision, the UCI approves those decisions. You can claim to want to elevate women in sport, but where you put your money (and the broadcasting) really shows us where the priority lies.
IN RACE DETAILS//RECAP
The course was really a highlight of the weekend. This race perfectly paired so many disciplines into one. It was like a road race paired with a mountain bike race as well as some tight loose gravel sectors. And let’s not forget the plethora of corners and turns and narrow Italian alleys…err I mean roads…. I wish I would have had more time to recon the race course, but my schedule did not allow this. I raced The Rad the week prior, drove 10 hours solo to Bentonville that Sunday, then flew out to Italy on Tuesday and arrived Wednesday mid-day totally jet lagged. I also did not have on ground transportation so getting to different sections was more difficult since I mostly had to bike commute to get there. Additionally, this was the type of course that you couldn’t really pre-ride at an easy pace with the steep climbs. If you look at the course profile, you can envision a lollipop type course with 2 loops at the top. I was not able to recon the first loop, which had several technical sectors that really would have been advantageous to see first hand. For me (and really anyone), my descending or technical riding improves the more I see a sector.
The start was really chaotic as it was a cyclocross type start with some grass sectors and a small loop around a lake with a narrow gravel path. There was not much moving up in this sector as most things were strung out. I was start position 97 out of about 115, so back row. For me, I knew I had to get to the front early to get in a better position. My assignment (in a perfect world) would be to help Lauren in the flatter sections during the middle part of the course but early on I could see we needed to get her to the front. I started to be aggressive to move up and Emily was right behind me, thankfully with much more road experience than myself so she was yelling to get all the way on the front. I listened and went to the very front of the peloton and then she came around me to help save my legs and her and I were on the front right before the gravel sector leading into a few turns before the wider road section. Around 12-13K, there was an important pinch point where this wider road narrowed into a single lane road and shortly after was gravel 2-track that led into a very rocky dried out creek bed. Going from the very back of the start to first and second wheel in the peloton took a pretty large effort. But positioning Lauren, as well as Heidi and Sarah into that first was my job and I think we executed that well - particularly Emily who led that positioning.
After this, things started to get really strung out and I was caught behind multiple crashes, and Crystal was as well. We had a large second chase group, but I knew I needed to get Crystal back to that front group. The effort required to do that would be massive so in my mind I figured I would do a hero pull to get her back and then party pace or even drop out at that point since I would be totally cooked. I told Crystal, let's get you back to the front group to help Lauren. So I went to the front, went around the line of riders that made up the second chase group and I hauled ass through that gravel creek section. I looked back a few times and she was tucked in safely in my draft, my breathing labored and my legs hurting but mentally happy to shell myself for the team effort. I knew my work was almost done and I just had to push a little longer to get her back. And there it was just ahead…the lead group. I looked back and Crystal and any other wheel behind me was gone. My heart sank. Did she flat? Did I not pace the pull well? I didn’t have much time to think in that moment, but I saw Lauren, Heidi and Sarah and I tried to sit on to attempt to recover and possibly help again. I didn’t want that bridge effort to be for nothing. Shortly after regrouping with them, Sarah crashed in a corner and a gap opened up. Lauren went to close the gap and I had about 6 wheels to close to get up and help her. I stood up to get up there and help bridge, but my legs had nothing. Sarah was doing the same. Her and I tried to pull back but once that rubber band is broke, it’s gone.
From there, Sarah and I settled into a group of maybe 10 riders. Sarah was often driving the pace and I was honestly still trying to recover from the earlier effort. I wanted to help her more, but my legs were struggling and I figured the best help I would give is trying to convince her to work less in the group for some rest. The group we were with were all road racers from what I could gather, which meant they weren’t going to pull unless they had to. We also both missed a feed (those feeds were CHAOS) and were sharing a bottle that I had left between the two of us. Sarah asked me to give a longer pull to get her to a descent and from there, I could see she was going to have a good day. As we approached one of the more technical descents, I saw her go to the front and I yelled SEND IT. I’m pretty sure she did not hear me, but I knew gaps would form with her MTB background and skill on that sector. And they most certainly did. This is when our group split up and from there, I navigated some of the course that I had not been able to recon. I certainly lost some places on these sectors that were more technical and that I was seeing for the first time. I still felt strong on the climbs, but I also could feel the work in the legs and knew my pacing for the rest of the day was going to have to dial back. In that moment, I tried to stay positive as I usually pride myself in pacing myself during gravel events. I like to finish a race in the second half strong, but today that wasn’t the goal. My work was done and I just had to survive. I told myself that I am good at suffering and I could still get a somewhat respectable finish. I tried to celebrate the small wins during the course, like cornering smoothly or descending a sector well. Sports performance is very mental, so I tried to remove excuses for dead legs and focus on executing the rest of the race as well as I could. I finished in 39th and Lauren finished 6th and Sarah was 16th.
Overall, the experience to race collectively as a group was a lot of fun. I haven’t had many opportunities to do that as a gravel privateer. I think a lot of the reason I didn’t mind working was because of the level of respect I had for the other ladies. We all knew Lauren would have a great day, and she’s a class act women which makes it easier to work for someone you both respect and want to succeed.
I raced my Trek Domane for this course as it’s a bit more responsive than the Checkpoint. It clears 40’s for tires as well, as long as the course is dry. I ran WTB Vulpine 40’s, which worked well. I was on the HED Emporia GC3 Pro gravel wheels. I did have 1 minor mechanicals during the race, which I had to get off the bike to resolve but was quick and I knew how to fix it. For drivetrain, I ran a 2x with a 48/35 and a 10-36. While studying this course, the GPX files we had access to did not accurately display the gradients of some of those climbs. We had numerous sections well above 15-20% and a 1x with a 44-46t and 10-52 would have been a more ideal set up. The amount of low cadence mashing I did during the race was less than ideal. I even had to walk 2 of the top sections of the climbs that were loose - which was a bit demoralizing.
This race wasn’t even on my calendar until more recently - it was hard to even try and plan for this event especially if you didn’t know you’d qualify until literally 2-3 weeks prior. I also had a very poor day at nationals, so after that, I wasn’t sure how the selection process would go. The thought of helping or working as a collective team effort really was special as we do not get the opportunity to do that very often in this discipline. I wanted to be a part of that experience.
I took a lot of time on this trip to celebrate my progress. I think as professional athletes we really demand a lot of ourselves. Coming into this, I have spent a bulk of my season frustrated. 2 of my top priority events I had major mechanicals and just a lot of learning or bad luck through many other events. I would say I have had a consistent season, but I haven’t had any big wins and that has been frustrating to me. I think part of that frustration comes from not feeling validated in the choices I made this year to execute the season I had (giving up a homebase, pausing a rewarding career as a PA, etc). After Iceman, I will have raced 34 times this year across all 4 disciplines. I did my first crit and first road races this year. I dabbled in the TT again. I did my first stage race. I loaded the legs many weeks and through copious racing I learned so much. The experience I gained this year has been incredible. That learning takes effort and intentionality, but I know it will pay off. Rather than focusing on what I feel I need to do, which is win, I found myself focusing on my progression as a professional cyclist. I saw a post about Katarzyna who won the women’s race and that this was her first win in over 4 years. I read that about 10 times. It really put things into perspective for me. No wins for literally YEARS, but yet she is still one of the best female cyclists in the World Tour. Persistence, consistency and enjoying the process is right where I need to be. My time will come for results and I’m confident in that. But to survive a long and fruitful career in this sport, much grace is needed and winning shouldn’t be the only goal. This trip reminded me of that, and gave me a fresh set of eyes on this perspective.
At the end of the day, I just enjoy riding and racing my bike. Pedaling hard brings me joy. Thinking about all the people I have met through bikes and all the incredible places my 2 wheels have taken me has been one of my greatest joys. I never would have thought at 34 years old I would have a drastic career change. But the bike has given me so much opportunity. I need to remember that. Will I always remain competitive? Yes. But, having a larger view of my role in this sport is much more satisfying.