The first ever USAC Gravel National Championships is done and dusted. Certainly, this was far from the result I wanted or expected, but I can get into that more in the future paragraphs of this FOREVER LIVE LONG FORM blog post. For reference, gravel is typically the wild wild west of bike racing. No rules, lax and embrace the “spirit of gravel” or else be chastised by the community - afterall we are supposed to be having fun. But as the discipline has quickly grown, it also has evolved into more “racey” vibes for some and an elite or pointy end of the scene has developed. With that, it means the expectation to stop a mile from the finish line for a light or slowing up to a stop sign 500m from the finish is far from the reality for the elite field who is racing - not to mention a lot on the line for these riders (salaries, contracts, podium payouts, opportunities, etc).
I mention all of this as background because many scoffed at USAC when they wanted to enter the gravel scene. I will admit the delivery of the nationals was poor - lack of location or date which greatly impacts the gravel calendar and planning when we have a PACKED schedule of racing. My calendar is often set by January, and heck, I’m even starting my 2024 calendar and it’s early September. The American gravel calendar is pretty much set, so I think this was a limiter for USAC but hopefully they see this and can commit to dates earlier for next year, or athletes will make choices as this event develops. On the positive, I have to say this was the safest gravel event that I think I have participated in. They had a rolling enclosure for the elite field, police and volunteers at every highway crossing, closed roads for the entire finish section as well as barriers. They even flagged the 18 cattle guard crossings, ha! They had a very dialed plan to get injured riders or help with mechanicals while out on course - including an app that riders could download so when you needed something (including a pick up) you could just open the app and they would see your location via phone and send sag. This is a large contrast from other gravel events, some of which I have been stranded at trying to get a pick up from in the past. They had vehicles with large bike racks ready to go and pick up riders in the event if needed. Safety seemed to be a large concern for the event, and that was evident from what I observed.
Secondly, this is the first gravel event that enforced a no draft rule for the women. I cannot emphasize how much this was appreciated. We had a separate start, with enough time spaced between fields, and then we had mottos on course that were monitoring this as well. I STRONGLY feel this is the future of elite women’s gravel racing and really hope other events can be inspired to try this at their events as well. Additionally, I was never once dusted by a moto out on course…they followed behind us and when passing they slowed down and seemed to be very conscious of not dusting us out on the dry course. Kudos to all the USAC official mottos - well done. I was in the second main chase group for most of the day, places 6-9+ and we still had a moto the entire day. Again, kudos to USAC for that - all I want is a fair and safe event and this seemed to check those boxes.
In regards to how the race unfolded. My plan was simple, try and make the day hard and long as that is what I excel at. When the race started, the dynamic was interesting. Some women tense, others trying to talk and make jokes. We rarely get that comradery or experience to do that, and although it felt weird at times, I oddly enjoyed it. CINCH was the only “team” there and after the neutral roll out they tried to send a few attacks. This was very interesting tactics since they seemed to do these attacks in tailwinds or headwind sections, so obviously they didn’t stick. Everyone knew the splits would happen on the sandy MMR or the long crosswind middle sections so it seemed like wasted effort, but good on them for trying. Eventually we let one of the CINCH riders go, because let’s be honest, that gap would get closed. The gap did grow to I think 3-4 minutes at one point, and the continued interesting part was LDC being on the front to drive the pace. The rider up the road was caught on the MMR sand section when the main splits started, and we carried on.
For me, when a longer crosswind section came I went near the front to drive the pace. I wouldn’t call this an attack, but rather settling into a hard all day pace and staying on the far side to gutter things and make everyone’s day hard. In my mind, this would make things difficult and eventually a smaller group would form and then that’s when you work together. Some wanted to stay on the far side to help work together early, so again, the dynamic was interesting and I would say weird at times - but special. Special because this doesn’t happen for us very often.
The main split for the lead breakaway came during the sandy MMR sections. At the first corner there was a crash and a bunch of riders had to stop. Lauren Stevens was driving the pace, which was a smart move and positioning on her end. Thankfully I avoided the first crash and was probably about 5th wheel at this point. Unfortunately, another bad crash happened just up the road and given how loose things were I had been giving a lot of space between me and riders in front of me. As the rider went down, it was one of the worst crashes I have seen. I slowed up as she hit her head so hard and didn’t seem to be moving at first. This was probably seconds but felt like minutes to me and took me back to a trauma bay in the ED. Rather than driving my pace to the main breakaway, my mind went into PA mode and I just slowed down until I could see her moving and yelling if she was okay and to see if she could talk and form sentences. Thankfully, she started moving and yelled “yeah I’m okay” and I knew that was enough to assess her Glasgow Coma Scale and that she would be okay to wait for help. I lost a lot of momentum in this quick moment and it took me a moment to get back into racing mode. I then started chasing and there was a lead group of about 4-5 riders, then a second group of about 5 riders. It took us a while to get organized together but once we did, we worked well together and all seemed motivated and encouraging to one another to chase. After some time, LDC came up to our group then immediately attacked and I hesitated for a moment but opted to jump her wheel in hopes that we could work smoothly together to chase - both of us have good engines. However, the dynamic was far from ideal as she would ride in a very punchy way - flicking her elbow to get me to pull but then stand right after so a large effort was needed to get around her. It made no sense and was far from smooth (NP was 295w in that section for 10 minutes), despite this, the interaction was positive and we both were trying to be encouraging to one another. But the group we had prior was much more cohesive and knowing we had a long 80 miles of head or crosswind coming I opted to not burn matches and let the group behind me come up (my nausea also played a role in this, more on that later). I was able to ride with Rebecca Farringer for a bit which was fun, as she is always amusing and brings positive energy. Eventually, the group behind caught us and we started working well into the crosswind section - at least initially. Riders started to struggle and the pace wasn’t as smooth. It was mostly myself, Emily Newsom, Cecily Decker and Whitney Allison who seemed motivated to work. At this point, I think Emily was likely frustrated (as was I) so she attacked and went ahead to ride a faster pace solo - but she was about the same distance in front of us for a long time on her own. Eventually, a few of us tried to push a faster pace and we caught back to Emily and then a group was formed with the above riders. Eventually things dwindled to just me, Emily, Cecily and Aria. We remained together until the finish actually and even stayed neutral in the feed to regroup after knowing we wanted each others company out there in that wind. Aria is a new rider, so we tried to teach her where to ride or pulling through to try and keep momentum together. She is young, but very strong and once she races more - look out. Trying to teach her during the day was actually pretty rewarding for me, empowering her to feel the difference in her position with different wind directions. Emily also did this with our group as well. So again, it wasn’t always smooth but women were out teaching other women - and that opportunity is rare. It felt special for me, despite having a pretty awful day personally.
And on that note, I’ll explain what I think happened to my stomach although I can’t be 100% sure. I started to get very nauseated early and couldn’t stomach much of my hydration or high carb fueling strategy that I normally execute really well. I knew I was in trouble since eating is priority on these events. I started to feel weak and dizzy at some points and was dry heaving a few times later in the day. I couldn’t get into my aero position much since if I leaned forward I would burp up vomit…gross I know. My only saving grace was the 3 ladies I was riding with - all of us struggling in our own way just trying to get through to the finish. At times I thought about quitting since I knew I wasn’t getting the result I wanted or came for, but this is bike racing and some days it’s just about getting to the finish line. JUST KEEP PEDALING it what I told myself. I felt awful, which was far from ideal on this course - a course that normally would suit me really well. But hey, I consider myself lucky that I can still pedal and race my bike. Sure, this season has gone far from smooth, but I keep learning because I keep showing up and I keep pedaling.
So there you have it - a lot of mixed emotions for me this season and probably more lows than highs if I am being honest. But as the season progresses I can’t help but to think of all the things I have learned this year. So many lessons and valuable experiences that you only get through “failing.” It’s when you fall short of your goals that you re-evaluate and get reinvigorated to try again at the next one. I feel far from burned out, in fact, I have nothing but excitement for the remaining races and opportunities to try again! And if the results aren’t there, I can celebrate the learning and the process of being part of this evolving discipline that I love so much.