The inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships: were they a success and do we really need them?

The UCI taking on a new discipline comes with some controversy

There was a time when gravel racing and professional road racing could not have sat further apart. A time when there was even a blurred boundary in the gravel sphere about if events could be classified as a race at all. Some people raced them, some people just rode them. It wasn’t really about the podium or the fastest finisher, it was about experience, traversing amazing – sometimes challenging – terrain to the best of your ability and the finishing position was secondary. The atmosphere before and after events was festival-like, it was fun first, racing after.

It’s not surprising, then, that what the UCI (cycling’s world governing body) represents, doesn’t quite align with gravel racing’s original ethos. Really, the UCI is the very opposite, it circulates rules, regulations and restrictions on racing, issuing fines and bans for those who break the rules, arguably creating barriers to entry for those who don’t have the financial means or connections to break into the professional racing ranks. This couldn’t be further from the inclusive, friendly nature that gravel racing originated from.

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When the UCI began to get involved in gravel racing, after seeing it was a growing market and discipline, inevitable friction arose. It started with the UCI Gravel World Series: 11 races which served as qualifying events for the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships that took place last weekend. The top 25% in each category in each of these events qualified for the World Championships, then each nation was also given a quota of 20 spots to allocate to ‘wildcard’ riders from their respective countries.

Some long term gravel racers opted to boycott these UCI sponsored events, wary of the reputation that governing bodies have of taking away the essence of what makes a discipline unique. Highlands Gravel Classic was the first of two US-based gravel world championships qualifiers and it had a shockingly low turnout. When the UCI Gravel World Championships was announced, people argued that there was already a Gravel Worlds race in Lincoln, Nebraska – one which attracts over 500 participants and is in its 11th year. There was a distinct lack of US gravel talent on the start line at the UCI World Championships in Italy last weekend, despite this being the country where the discipline has flourished the most.

So, do these riders have a point? Was the UCI Gravel World Championships good or bad for the discipline? And what does it mean for the future of gravel?

Gridding, rules and regulations

Things didn’t get off to a great start at the Gravel World Championships when it was revealed in the team managers meeting a few days before the event that riders in the elite men’s and women’s races would be given pre-determined start positions. These were based on each rider's UCI ranking on the road, MTB and CX as well as results in Gravel World Series events. Immediately, this gave an advantage to the riders who have raced in UCI registered events all year (the majority of the biggest gravel races such as Unbound Gravel or Belgian Waffle Ride aren’t UCI events), rather than those who have been prominent on the gravel scene for multiple seasons.

Since the course began with a steep short climb on a narrow road, there was little opportunity for any of those who started further down the grid to move up. A rider on the back row would have lost at least 20 seconds to those at the front by the top of the climb, through no reason other than where they started on the grid. 

This wasn’t the only rule that gave an inherent advantage to already-established professional riders. The UCI stated that all riders from each nation in the elite category had to wear the most recent version of their national kit or they would be subject to a fine or disqualification. With many nations, including Great Britain, opting not to support a team going to race the Gravel World Championships, some riders were forced to purchase their own national kit. One rider in the British men’s elite team was racing in a national jersey he’d bought on Facebook Marketplace a few weeks before the event. This additional rule and the cost implications that come with it aren’t in keeping with the original aim of gravel racing which is to remain inclusive.

Reaching a wider audience

It’s fair to say that the majority of people who tuned in to watch the UCI Gravel World Championships on GCN+ on the weekend were watching gravel racing live for the very first time. With names such as Mathieu van der Poel and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot on the start line, the race attracted a big audience, bringing in those who may previously just have been fans of road racing. If this can inspire more people to take up gravel riding – which is fundamentally a safer method of cycling as it is away from open roads – then this can only be seen as a good thing. Without the aforementioned rules and regulations which make the event official, perhaps riders of this calibre wouldn’t have opted to compete in the event.

It was clear from the huge crowds that lined the start and finishing straights in both the men’s and women’s events that cycling fans were excited to watch gravel. With a real UCI rainbow jersey being handed out, the event definitely had extra prestige and excitement, and lots more people knew about it happening as a result. For sponsors and stakeholders, this is a good sign.

Inequality from the get go

One area where it is clear that the UCI got things wrong was in the inequality of race distances between the men’s and women’s elite races. Well-known gravel racers such as Alison Tetrick spoke publicly about their disappointment to see the women’s event was 54 kilometres shorter than the men’s. For a long time, race distances in gravel have been equal – both categories race 200 miles of Unbound Gravel, for example, and there was no reason for the UCI to break this trend when it got involved in the discipline. 

Tetrick herself wrote in an article for Cyclingnews: “Make the men AND the women the champions of the day. Showcase and create fandom around our hard-working athletes that have the tenacity to risk failure to support and be present. Why wouldn’t you make the stage big enough for everyone? This is a regression in sports. This is reverse-engineering of everything we have worked for and built.”

While we’d like to think that a rider like Tetrick, with her off-road palmarès and experience, would be listened to by the UCI regarding this issue, it’s unlikely. Cycling’s world governing body has long run road races with unequal distances for men and women. It looks like they are bringing that to gravel too and we can fully understand the anger surrounding this.

The essence of gravel

Milling around the start area of the 2022 Gravel World Championships, it was nothing like the laid-back, friendly atmosphere that is so common at gravel races that have dominated the scene in the past. There were serious-looking policemen blocking crowds from entering the start area where riders were lining up, there were riders on rollers and turbo trainers plugged into headphones. There was very little on offer for fans, apart from perhaps a glimpse of Peter Sagan through the curtains that covered the windows of his personally branded trailer.

The same could be said for the finish, riders were whisked off by their soigneurs as soon as they crossed the line, the crowds left clamouring for a selfie or autograph, but mostly leaving disappointed. There was an atmosphere, but not one that equates with traditional gravel racing. It was one similar to that at the Road World Championships: excitement about the event, but with a real separation between the riders themselves and normal people who were watching.

Once the top-20 had finished the race, crowds dispersed quickly and the streets of the race's finishing town, Citadella, were quickly left quiet once more. Perhaps this is always how it has to be when you have stars of such a calibre present at an event, but more could have been done to create the friendly atmosphere that has long set gravel apart from other disciplines.

Space to evolve and coexist

There are some fundamental conclusions that can be drawn from the inaugural edition of the Gravel World Championships. One is that as riders like Van der Poel, Sagan or Ferrand-Prevot turn up to race, there needs to be a high level of professionalism and security. There’s safety concerns which need to be considered, and the event needs to be well-organised and regulated to attract more big names like this in the future.

As brands and fans become more interested in gravel racing, it will grow, and this should be seen as a good thing for the sport as a whole. While the UCI has its faults, when it puts its name to something, it inevitably raises the profile of the entire discipline, and this is positive for all parties involved.

Perhaps the UCI will take learnings from the inaugural edition to make it more attractive to those who love what gravel originally embodied. That could be in making the starts fairer, the race distances equal, or improving the general vibe around the event. There is no reason why there isn’t enough space for the UCI registered events and the core US gravel events to coexist in harmony within one discipline.

Mathieu van der Poel himself said in a press conference “I am always excited to do something new” when asked about his thoughts on racing the UCI Gravel World Championships. This sums up the conflict, while gravel racing may be new to riders like Van der Poel, it isn’t so new to a lot of people. There’s many who have invested in it, raced it and helped it grow for years, and it’s important that this is remembered as the UCI gets involved. The exposure that the governing body brings is a good thing for the sport, but improvements need to be made to ensure that they organise these events without forgetting the essence of where gravel racing comes from. It was the first edition of the UCI Gravel World Championships, though, so there is time to change and evolve.

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