Does gravel have a place in stage races? The pros have their say

It’s a great spectacle, but can mean the race is decided by luck rather than on merit

Mavi García of Team UAE ADQ went into the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift as one of the favourites to take the yellow jersey. She proved at the Giro d’Italia Donne a few weeks ago that she can climb with the best and was peaking just at the right time to perform at the Tour. In stage five, however, she lost three and a half minutes to her GC rivals.

It wasn’t because García had a bad day. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the legs. It was, simply, rubbish luck. She punctured and crashed on multiple occasions, the final time being in a collision with her own team car. After a series of bike changes and countless chases back to the lead group, there was simply nothing García could do to limit her losses. Fortune hadn’t been on her side on the white roads, and there was nothing she could do about it.

It’s now very unlikely that the Spanish rider will win the yellow jersey in the Tour de France Femmes, even if she is the strongest in the mountains. Gaining three minutes back on her competitors is probably going to be too much of a tall order.

Mavi Garcia after her crashes

Mavi García after her crashes (Image: ASO/Thomas Maheux)

So, is it fair that gravel stages can ruin rider’s races due to factors completely out of their control like mechanicals or punctures? Should stages of such high risk be included in an event which is, fundamentally, supposed to prove who is the strongest bike rider? It’s a tricky debate, and even riders themselves can’t agree about going off-road in road races.

“Some gravel is nice. It's spectacular for the fans to watch,” yellow jersey wearer Marianne Vos told Rouleur after the finish of stage four. “Today some sections were pretty loose. It was really difficult. We made it through safely so we’ll say yes, it was all fine. But there's probably some girls that are going to say otherwise. I can say for a general classification, it can be pretty awful. But for cycling there's different specialties and I think some gravel is okay but always look at what is safe or not.”

Many of her experienced colleagues agree with the Dutch rider that the winner of the Tour de France Femmes should be an all-rounder and someone who can perform on whatever terrain is thrown at them. Audrey Cordon-Ragot of Trek Segafredo made the comparison to Tadej Pogačar in the men’s Tour de France. “You look at the winner of the men, he knows how to do everything, he knows how to time trial, he knows how to go on the cobbles, he knows how to climb, he does everything. I think the winner of this first Tour is going to be someone who can do everything,” she explained.

There’s also an understanding among the peloton, though, that these stages are stressful for those targeting the overall. While they’re exciting for those who are targeting individual stage wins, the chance of losing time on the GC is high with the number of mechanicals and crashes that occur when the peloton suddenly switches from tarmac to an entirely new surface.

“For me, personally, it's nice. But also, I'm not a GC rider, like, if I have bad luck, who cares? You know, that's a bummer but if you're going for GC then of course, it's way more stressful, but still, you have to go with whatever is coming,” explained Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo.”I think it's good to have all kinds of different stages in a stage race, just missing a time trial!”

One rider who we saw furiously gunning for a stage win when the gravel sectors approached was Canyon//SRAM’s Elise Chabbey. The Swiss rider made multiple attacks throughout the stage and, although none were fruitful, she explained she had a great time doing it. “It's really cool, it would actually be cool to even have more than one stage like this.”

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

Another risk of taking the peloton on to the stony white roads is that it actually can end up neutralising the fight for GC. Marianne Vos explained after stage four that she and her competitors had been so relieved to make it over the gravel, and so tired after the fight to get there, they were unable to attack afterwards.

“Everybody was happy that they made it there safe. There was a lot going on, positioning before descents and before the gravel was very important.It went full gas so everybody is also a little bit tired after the section. So everybody looks around a little bit to see if there's teammates around and then you need to rethink and make a plan to go into the next section,” she explained.

There is one key GC contender who didn’t mince her words when questioned by journalists on if the gravel belongs in a multi-day race. "I am very happy and relieved that I made it, but actually this does not belong in a stage race,” said Movistar’s Annemiek van Vleuten after she crossed the line in Bar-Sur-Aube on stage four. Her answer was short, but her views were clear.

For fans, the gravel stage was undoubtedly a spectacle and provided some nerve-wracking, engrossing entertainment that we’re unlikely to get on a straight road stage. For riders, it seems the jury is still out.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix

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