There are reasons for the huge growth of gravel riding in recent months. When breaking down the challenges that arise from training on the road – especially in urban areas – it becomes clear that taking adventures that go a little off the beaten track can solve a multitude of issues. Breathing in pollution from fumes that bellow out of vehicles, sketchy navigation through lines of traffic and the potential of slippery oil or ice are just a few hazards that come to mind. Peaceful, hushed, gravel paths, surrounded by trees and dappled in sunlight offer a safe haven from the tarmacked obstacle courses many of us face on a daily basis.
Former Olympian rower-turned-gravel racer, Lisa Wörner, is someone who uncovered the joys of gravel riding when she spent time in the States, studying to become an orthopaedic surgeon. After a lifetime of holding the oars, Wörner fell in love with spending time on two wheels instead, enjoying the flexibility it offered her. “Cycling is so free, you can go everywhere. You can see so many things. It's so different from rowing where you're confined by the boat,” she explains.
“That's what I really liked in the US. On the roads, it's so busy with cars. But when we take the back roads, we go through a beautiful landscape, and there are no cars around. It's just amazing.” Now back home in Amsterdam two years later, Wörner admits that the flat roads of the Netherlands don’t quite offer the same panoramic views as the rolling San Francisco scenery she was so enamoured with across the pond.
“An hour from Amsterdam by bike or half an hour by car there are beautiful gravel roads, but it's a little bit flat, it's mostly through the woods. But it can be very pretty,” she says. “It’s quite sandy, so when it rains, it gets very muddy, almost like cyclo-cross.”
Lisa Wörner of the No Borders team
It was during her stay in the States that Wörner discovered Velocio, a New-England based clothing brand that has long had a connection with the cycling community in California and beyond.
It was Velocio’s appreciation of nature and gravel, and its understanding of the joys that riding with friends can bring, that attracted Wörner to the apparel. “I noticed that there was this new brand Velocio and everyone was riding in it. I met Olivia Dillon [Velocio CRO] and ended up racing for the Velocio Exploro team at the time, doing races like Unbound Gravel,” says the Dutch rider.
Currently continuing her work in medicine in Rotterdam, Wörner is keen to bring the fun care-free gravel scene that is so prevalent in the US back home with her – it’s why she jumped at the opportunity when she heard of Velocio, SRAM and BMC’s plans to create the No Borders gravel squad for 2022.
“We would like to add the gravel vibe that is more common in the US and have that in Europe as well,” she says. “I think a lot of people that I know are enjoying that vibe already, they like that they can do the gravel ride, or they can race it if they want to. It’s about enjoying what you’re doing and having a good time together, even listening to music afterwards,” she says.Lisa Wörner of the No Borders team
The 32-year-old appreciates that gravel gives riders the option of racing competitively or completing events as personal challenges for enjoyment and as a test of endurance.
The ethos of the team's key sponsors also align with Wörner's. For the 2022 season, the team will ride on BMC’s URS 01 (UnReStricted) range, made for riders who wish to push the boundaries of gravel riding further. While the bikes help gravel racers go off-road fast, their comfortable geometry also accommodates all-day adventures. For a bike manufacturer well-known for its sponsorship of professional teams, Wörner admits she was surprised that BMC was investing in the more alternative No Borders squad.
“I wasn't expecting it,” she says. “I'm super happy, of course, because they make great bikes. We want to be a race team, and that's also what their vision is. They have great racing bikes. That's the thing with gravel, you can race without making compromises. You can have fun while racing.”Henning Bommel of the No Borders team
With SRAM’s involvement with the team, we can likely expect to see the bikes decked out in the componentry brand’s XPLR groupset – one that is optimised for performing off-road.
Wörner also notes that Velocio’s understanding of the requirements of women’s kit specifically makes the American company the perfect fit to sponsor the team. The ‘FlyFree’ feature on Velocio’s bib shorts and tights make nature breaks on rides much easier than with traditional bib shorts, something that is invaluable in gravel endurance events.
“Gravel races are so long, at some point, you have to pee and peeing with the FlyFree feature, it's so quick. It's so annoying to have to take off your jersey and the straps, but it’s easy with Velocio,” she explains.
But, although she’s excited and grateful for the support of the team’s sponsors, Wörner is most looking forward to meeting her teammates and having a group of friends to take on races and challenges with this year – something that has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “It's nice to have teammates and do an event together. Not all events are races, we’d also like to do a team event together or a bike packing trip, just have fun.”
The team will be made up of five riders, each from a different country in Europe, so Wörner also expects to learn from her teammates, experience different cultures and meet people coming from a range of sporting backgrounds. As well as Wörner, the team consists of Henning Bommel from Germany, Sally McHugh of Ireland, Daniel Rytz of Sweden and Mayalen Noregia of Spain.Sally McHugh of the No Borders team
Spanish rider Noregia is a tandem pilot who won silver in the 2012 Paralympics. Noregia now competes in mountain bike and gravel events with BMC. Sweden's Rytz has a background in road cycling, while Bommel comes from track sprinting, further widening the squad’s overall skillset.
“It's interesting to have such a mix of people, different ages, men and women together,” says Wörner.
The focus on unity and breaking down barriers is where the team’s name ‘No Borders’ stems from. “We are going to be a European team, and we’ll all join together because we love doing the same thing,” explains the Dutch rider. Wörner also believes that gravel riding can help riders find their physical and mental borders when it comes to challenges on two wheels. Maya Noriega of the No Borders team
“We like that gravel is not contained to the road. Up to a certain amount of steepness or rockiness, you can actually do everything.”
David Heine, Head of Marketing at BMC, shares this sentiment: “The team aims to connect, inspire and welcome all riders to join the next gravel ride – to show that there is a way with no borders if you just dare to start your journey,” he says.
Wörner plans to start her season at the Traka in Girona, a tough 360km one-day event in the heart of Catalonia. Following a knee injury at the end of last season, Wörner's first race comes earlier than she could have hoped for. “I had surgery on my knee, but the recovery is going very well, better than expected. I actually thought I was coming back in May or June, but now I can race at the end of April,” she says.
The former-rower also has her sights set on gravel racing in her home country. Part of a quickly growing scene, last year the Dutch Federation held its first gravel national championships, which was won by Demi Vollering. Wörner explains that she’s drawn to the unique nature of gravel events whereby riders like herself can test themselves against WorldTour professionals on the off-road terrain.
“Cyclo-cross was always our thing in the Netherlands, but gravel is growing now,” she says. “We have some UCI gravel events this year in Holland, and I’m excited to see who is on the start line.”
But above all, while Wörner and her teammates hope to gain results along the way, the aims of the No Borders team extend further than numbers or rankings. Line Gulliksen, Head of Scandinavia for Velocio, sums it up: “Together with the team, we will build a legacy that is at the inception of a racing community inclusive of everyone.”
Cover image: Sally McHugh of the No Borders Team
You can keep up with the team via the No Borders Instagram page.
Rouleur's content is supported by Velocio, find out more about Velocio here.