Bringing US-style gravel to Europe: Tiffany Cromwell on launching FNLD GRVL
Cromwell and her partner, F1 racer Valtteri Bottas, aim to make FNLD GRVL a unique event that highlights Lahti, a ‘hidden gem’ for cycling
The varied, stunning landscapes of the world’s happiest country, Finland; the chance to socialise with gravel riders professional and amateur; bonfires and post-race parties; scavenger hunts laid on by some of the leading cycling brands; a VIP package that gives participants the chance to travel to the karting track where Valtteri Bottas started his career as a racing driver. There’s no doubt that Tiffany Cromwell and Valtteri Bottas’ FNLD GRVL is a unique and attractive proposition for gravel adventurers out there.
For Cromwell, who has been an integral part of Women’s WorldTour squad Canyon//SRAM for almost a decade, this is her first foray into the world of event organisation. She’s still planning on taking part in the race itself when the time comes in June this year – and confirms it is a key target in her season – but planning the routes and helping with logistics and promotion has been a new challenge for the Australian.
“I’ve raced many events in my life and this opportunity came up where SBT, who are helping us organise FNLD GRVL, had seen an interview where Valtteri had said he was interested in maybe doing his own gravel race in Finland. That's how the conversation started between them and, naturally, I came into the team as well as one of the part-owners and on the organising committee,” Cromwell explains. “There’s been a lot to learn, but we're lucky we have a great team who are experienced helping us.”
SBT are the organisers of the world-class American gravel event, SBT GRVL (Steamboat Gravel), in Colorado. Having the expertise of a company that has catapulted itself to the forefront of US gravel is something that Cromwell expects to be imperative in helping FNLD GRVL be a successful event. She and Bottas are hoping to bring the fun and friendly atmosphere which is captured in events like SBT GRVL to Europe.
“I feel like in Europe, the whole gravel scene is a bit different to what you get in the US. Since UCI has come in, there's been more races turning up on European soil, but it's just different. I feel like those races are more about just the race and not the overall experience,” Cromwell says. “We love the US side, it's not just about the race, but it's about the whole week. It’s about meeting the other riders and the community. People can enjoy the destination, and also race their bikes at a cool event.”
A big part of FNLD GRVL is encouraging riders to travel to Lathi days before the race itself, soaking up and experiencing the Finnish culture. “It's a beautiful destination. It's a small town, but there's amazing riding. Finland also just got voted sixth happiest country in the world and there's a reason for that. It is because of the lifestyle. Although it's quiet, it’s a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.”
Cromwell also lauds the varied terrain that the routes of FNLD GRVL will cover. From starting on cross-country ski tracks which have narrow, grey gravel, to the big, expansive roads that mirror the type of terrain found in US gravel, to single-trail through grassy farm tracks and steep gravel inclines towards the end of the route, the Canyon//SRAM rider argues there is something for everyone.
“The longest route that most of the pros will do is the 177km route, then we have the 77km and the 47km options too. They all take in the same start and finish and then the routes extend. It's pretty fast gravel, we're fortunate in the Nordics, particularly Finland, that we’ve got so many gravel roads,”
With well established gravel professionals already signed up to race, including the likes of Belgian Waffle Ride winner Peter Stetina, FNLD GRVL is hoping to become one of the premier races on the global gravel calendar. For female riders especially, Cromwell sees a clear draw to gravel races when compared to the road racing scene, largely because of the parity it offers in terms of race distance and prize money.
“Gravel is still a new sport, while road has years and years of history. That's why I think it's taking a long time to get closer to parity there, whereas gravel, from the start, has said we're going to do things equally and be inclusive,” Cromwell says. “Everybody's welcome and everybody has a category, but you race together. Prize money is always equal. The coverage is always equal. The distances are equal. Why should there be a difference?”
The Australian rider notes that at UCI-registered gravel events, such as the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships last year, there has been separate races for male and female riders and shorter distances for the female athletes, something that strays from the original blueprint of gravel. “But in general, I feel like there is a lot of support and a lot of equality, which is great. It shows that the women are just as strong as the men,” Cromwell adds.
At FNLD GRVL, there will be a mass start for all categories, and riders are free to race or ride the route as intensely as they wish. Some might be going for victory, while some will just enjoy the views, and this is what makes gravel racing so different from road. Cromwell expects the locals of Lathi to embrace the event too, adding that FNLD GRVL has had great support from the town of Lathi who want to help facilitate special events which highlight the town's features.
“In Finland at an amateur level, a lot of people use bikes in the summertime and the Fins are very, very active. Even in the winter. I remember I was running and I saw some kids riding home from school in a full snow blizzard on their bikes. That's what they do. There's bike paths everywhere, it's a very safe place to ride your bike as well,” Cromwell says.
FNLD GRVL could well be the event that puts what Cromwell describes as a “hidden gem” location for gravel riding on the map. With a community culture, route options for all and the chance to fully embrace a new area, the Australian is in no doubt that the event will be a success.
“We rode here with a group in September and they were already amazed by the gravel paths here and we had some amazing feedback,” she says. “I think when people come here, they're going to be really excited by what they find.”
Find out more and sign up for FNLD GRVL here