The death of gravel racing
July 17, 2022 Comments Off on The death of gravel racing
No, pro gravel racing’s not dead.
But it’s dying, make no mistake about it. The biggest events on the calendar have stagnant or declining participation in their “hardperson” categories. What’s more telling, a tiny handful of the same riders from event to event are the only ones seriously in contention. That’s not a bad thing nor is it abnormal: the real contenders each year at Paris-Roubaix or the Tour tend to be few in number.
What’s bad is that after those few real contenders, in gravel racing, there’s no one. Unlike the pro peloton, or even your local racing hierarchy, once you leave those top ten or so competitors in a gravel race (fewer than that in the women’s field), the caliber of the racing falls off a cliff. So every event you’re simply watching the same handful of people slug it out, assuming you’re watching, and in reality, hardly anyone is. To say that the fields lack depth is an understatement.
By way of comparison, today the gap between 1st and 50th at the Tour is 1h 22′ 23″. For 2022 Unbound, the gap between 1st and 50th was 1h 25’35”. Sounds close until you add in this detail: Unbound’s gap between 1st and 50th was after 200 miles of racing. The 2022 Tour had a similar gap after more than 1,400 miles, or seven times the distance. The difference between professional road racing and fake professional gravel racing is more clear when you go farther down the placings: last-place Caleb Ewan, in 157th place, is 3h 46′ down on the yellow jersey. Last place at Unbound 2022? 6h 39′ down. At the 2022 BWR, the results are even more ridiculous: a 1h 25′ gap between first and 50th over a mere 137 miles, a 2h 20′ gap between 1st and 157th, and an absurd 12h 23′ gap between first and last.
Gravel promoters claim that this is no different from marathons, where hackers and elite runners start together but finish in vastly different times. This, of course, is false.
First, the apples-to-apples comparison of gravel and Pro Tour races, both of which are done on bicycles, shows conclusively that the gravel fields are pitifully thin in terms of quality. When you actually compare a European classic like the Tour of Flanders with the gravel “monument” of the BWR, the difference is embarrassing: after 163 miles of racing, the difference in Flanders between 1st and 50th is 5’13”. BWR? Over 1h 25′. At Flanders, first and last are separate by 10’16”. That, to repeat, is after 163 miles. At the BWR, first and last over about 137 miles are separated by, uh, 12 HOURS.
Second, the “mass start gravel is like mass start marathons” is false. In the sport of marathoning, there is no separate race held for elite runners. Competitive cycling, which has its own teams and events separated on the basis of rider classification, purposely separates racing between the lower and higher ranks. Marathons, on the other hand, lump everyone together in every marathon. But unlike professional gravel racing, the sharp end of the spear at a race like the Berlin Marathon has incredible depth. The first twenty finishers alone completed the 2021 course in under 2h 19′, and the top ten were all the equivalent of top riders in the Tour. The top finishers of the biggest gravel races belong to a category known as either “retired” or “never heard of ’em” or both.
Third, the winners of the major marathons go on to compete for what is truly all the marbles in marathoning, that is, the Olympics. Not a single gravel winner has ever even been in the Olympics, much less been a contender. Top gravel “professionals” like Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, and Ted King were, during their pro careers, domestiques. To suggest that a long-retired domestique is somehow the equivalent of an on-form Eliud Kipchoge, Wilson Kipsang, or Meb Keflezighi is stupid and insulting.
In short, marathons have nothing, zero, zip, nada in common with mass-start gravel racing in terms of field depth, field quality, or the elements that are key to any fair competition such as governing bodies, drug testing, professional contracts, and other indicia of professionalism.
The structural weakness of gravel fields makes ridiculous claims that any of the premier gravel events are similar to the European monuments. Of course you cannot sign up for the Tour of Flanders or any other monument unless you are a member of a selected team and possess a UCI professional license. Claiming that an event with two or three long-retired professionals, none of whom ever won a pro race, resembles a European classic is absurd. And after accounting for the ex-professionals, when the remaining five or ten contenders are nothing more than talented amateurs, and the rest of the 800-rider field is filled out with people who have never actually entered a sanctioned race of any kind, you are talking about some serious delusions with regard to the nature of gravel racing.
A major race with several hundred participants where less than ten riders are contending for the win, and those contenders are the same ones in every race, is boring from the standpoint of the spectator and, crucial to the promoter, boring to the participant. That’s key because the big events depend on repeat business to grow. When you’ve done Gravel Unbound once and finished in the middle of the group, you might be tempted to do it twice, or even thrice. But slogging your way along the same old course for the same old participation t-shirt is a hard sell for most people once they’ve got their trinket and their hangover. “Been there, done that,” is real.
How noncompetitive are these fields? The women’s winner of last year’s “Tripel Crown of Gravel” won by virtue of being the only woman who registered for and finished all three rides. The men’s winner came out of the tiny handful of riders who finished all three. When simply finishing a race series puts you into contention for the overall, it’s a safe bet that the event is not competitive. Hard? Yep; long bicycle rides are like that. Competitive? Nope.
How desperate are promoters to attract riders at the marquee events? For 2022, they’re giving away a fourth entry to the BWR “Quadrupel Crown of Gravel” if you purchase entries to the other three. What’s next, a Quintuple Crown? Sextuple? The idea that anything more than a tiny number of people have the time, interest, money, or fitness to travel around the country riding gravel races is a poor one upon which to found a business, and no amount of hoopla can change it. Nor does it help that the “prize list” for this amazing series, or the rules, or the current standings, are unpublished on the promoter’s web site.
Not to be outdone in silliness, the Lifetime Gravel and MTB Series offers racers a total purse of $250,000, which sounds hefty but is a farce. Why? The overall winner gets $25,000 for doing the best in five out of six races that go from CA to UT to ARK to KS to CO to WI. Still sound like a lot of money? Uh, okay. I guess your time is worth virtually nothing. And if you’re not the overall winner? Prize money only goes ten deep for each gender and is probably going to be in the range of $6,000 if you’re not an overall winner. Wow, a real fortune: $6,000 or less to travel to five or six races across the entire U.S. over the course of an entire year. I never thought that any cycling discipline would make professional women’s road racing look lucrative, but gravel actually does.
Nor is the Lifetime competition open to just anyone: to even have a shot at one of the 40 “racing” slots (20 for men, 20 for women), you have to apply. See? It’s just like being in the Pro Tour minus the prize list, the team support, the subsidized equipment, the subsidized travel, the salary, the health insurance, and the contract.
The reality is that no professional sport worthy of the name pays its competitors in prize money. Nor does it pay them through one-off sponsorships from Red Bull, Floyd’s of Leadville, or Tubby’s Lawnmower and Plumbing Supplies. True professionals are paid with something called a salary via a document known as a contract. Good race results provide what are known as contract bonuses, as well as that amazing thing in pro sports known as a contract extension.
If your business model is living off prize money you are not a professional. You are a gambler. And you’re clearly not the kind who knows how to walk away or to run.
Show me the money
Gravel racing has none of these minimal professional standards, and with good reason. There’s no money in it for anyone except the bike manufacturers, the equipment manufacturers, and those oddball hangers-on known as participants in the “bike industry.” The entire bike industry, including sales, equipment, and e-bikes, is less than $7 billion, and it’s split between a plethora of tiny players who already have way too many advertising venues to fund. By way of contrast, legal and professional services are a $1.2 trillion industry.
The same way that gravel races lack structure, depth, quality, or true professionalism, the financial structure for the handful of people who “make a living” at it is likewise smoke and mirrors. Remember that the bike industry is tiny and that marketing budgets are tinier. Also remember that if you want exposure in bike racing and you have any budget at all, you invest in the Pro Tour and specifically in the Tour de France. Everything else will receive crumbs.
This means that gravel will never have professional teams. Not only do the bigger players already have them in various capacities on the Pro Tour, but there is zero interest from the general public in gravel racing. If you think amateur road racing is a niche, wait til you start asking people what they think about “gravel.” They’ll tell you that it looks good in rock gardens and certain kinds of driveways, or that they hate the way it chips their windshields on the highway.
Yet gravel is a vector for bike brands to sell more bikes, so they sponsor it in a manner commensurate with its significance. Like Red Bull and Yeti, they add individual racers, or “privateers” to their roster of “brand ambassadors.” Or, like Wahoo, they hire an individual racer to do real work and let him race on the side, and race well, like Ian Boswell. As Boswell himself admits, though, there’s zero pressure to perform in gravel races. Why? Because he’s not a paid racer.
What other sport that claims to be a sport has its top competitors admit that they aren’t really racers?
The real marketing benefit for all these companies is in the social media networks of the gravel “stars.” People like Colin Strickland have in excess of 40k Instagram followers. Once he hits the witness stand in the murder of Mo Wilson, he’ll probably have lots more.
Although gravel is a lousy investment for Specialized from the standpoint of funding a team and team infrastructure, they get quite a bang for their buck by having the top gravel racers as brand ambassadors. This nickel-and-dime sponsorship that keeps riders on tenterhooks from race to race and season to season, with no guaranteed income, no stability, no insurance, and no promise of anything around which to build a life or career, is proof positive that pro gravel racing is a no-dollar, no-interest, seat-of-the-pants craze that has nothing built into it to guarantee longevity.
Staying false to your roots
Another huge problem with competitive gravel has little to do with gravel races or their promoters and everything to do with the false premise of commercialized cycling, which is that in order to cycle properly you need proper equipment. This mindset, developed in road racing, tells people that in order to race properly you need thousands of dollars of equipment and clothing, no matter that hardly anyone who ever races a bike will ever win a race or even get on a podium.
In conjunction with this financial barrier to entry and barrier to continued entry, bike racing is physically and mentally hard beyond belief. The greatest racer of all time barely won 30% of the races he entered. A modern pro can expect to never win a single race on the Pro Tour, and the typical amateur, provided he’s racing against his peers and not sandbagging like so many masters “champions,” can expect victories to be incredibly rare. Because bike racing is so hard and because you are guaranteed defeat virtually every time you race, cyclists have always cast about for an easy way to feel like a winner without actually winning a bike race.
The first misbegotten child of this “participation” mentality was the century ride. These were explicitly non-sanctioned non-races that people who can’t win in a real race often signed up for and tried to “win.” Everyone else was simply doing it “for fun,” a complete lie when you saw people’s reactions to mistakes in the “results.” The difference between 876 and 877 was everything, really.
The second child of the participation mentality was the gran fondo, an actual race that wasn’t a race. The gran fondo, like the century, was a place where unsuccessful bike racers could find success in a non-race that was actually a race. In essence the fondo was a century, often literally, on steroids. But the fondo boom busted, too. Where there were once fondos tucked into every nook and cranny weekend from January to December, only a handful remain. Levi’s Gran Fondo, which rumor has it once attracted 7,000+ riders, now caps entry at 2,500, allegedly to maintain safety and ride quality, but more likely due to the fondo craze having dried up and gone away, because craze.
Bleeding over between fondos and centuries, sometime around 2010 there was a cyclocross craze. This lasted an exceedingly short while. Although racing ‘cross allowed consumers to buy a whole new rig and clown costume, the unforgiving reality of cyclocross is forty-five minutes of absolutely unrelenting pain. Whereas the century and fondo had lots of room for the feeble and faint of heart, cyclocross tosses you into the wood chipper every single time. There is no “party grupetto” in cyclocross.
So that fad waned because it turned out to be the one thing that people don’t want, which is a real bike race. Sure, there were people in the early days who could show up to a Brad House event in PV, score a win, and “upgrade” to Cat 1, but even that level of sandbagging hurt, it took place in shitty weather, and it was often accompanied by that most-unwished-for thing, the bicycle-falling-off-incident and ensuing ouchies. The ultimate dagger in the heart of cyclocross, on top of its unimaginable pain, was that it required real skills. People who saw ‘cross as a way to race without racing were soon educated, and after a few seasons the fad faded.
Enter the gravel
And so it made perfect sense that some clever person would look at the key qualities of ‘cross and fondo/centuries most appealing to the average cyclist and identify those qualities as 1) new bike and 2) participation t-shirt. Gravel was thus born. It required a whole new rig, a whole new vocabulary, and it offered up the flabby ethos of “everyone’s a winner” in spades and a custom kit. This ethos is euphemistically called the amazing gravel community, but make no mistake about it, the allure of gravel racing is that it’s not a race for any but a tiny few. For everyone else it’s about the PR, the gnar, the sufferfest, trading turns at the front, the cray-cray mechanicals, the gumbo mud, and the camaraderie of the big drunkfest at the end of the ride-I-mean-race.
Gravel racing also thrived because of its refusal to drug test. There can be no doubt that many gravel racers dope, but as a form of racing that covers up its drug use by claiming to be “grass roots” and independent from organizing bodies, everyone can pretend that the winners are racing clean. I remember asking one promoter when he was going to start drug testing. “Next year,” he said … in 2017. His events, in 2022, are still pee-free.
Gravel racing is driven by the absence of drug testing. Even the Lifetime Series with its $250,000 prize list can’t manage a drug testing regimen in their series that is anything but absurd. Only three men and three women were tested at Unbound 2022, with no mandatory testing of the winners. This, despite research that shows doping increases as money increases.
Facts aside, gravel racing thrives precisely because it’s a doping free-for-all. Riders like Colin Strickland, a guy who ostensibly has nothing to do but race bikes, turned down a pro offer after winning Unbound in 2019 because he didn’t like the rigid format of pro road racing. That sounds like code for drug testing. It beggars belief that at least some of the top gravel racers aren’t using PEDs. They do in every other sport, but in gravel it’s cool because there’s no testing.
Instead, promoters who don’t want to pay for testing and racers who want to dope all come together under the rubric of “grass roots” and “camaraderie” and “sharing a beer after the race” to hide the fact that the sport is almost certainly rife with doping. This utter absence of meaningful drug testing guarantees that no sponsor will ever get too deep in the sport. Everyone knows that no drug testing means rampant doping, and privateers/brand ambassadors who do get caught, or who, like Colin Strickland, get embroiled in public affair disasters like the murder of a fellow athlete, can be immediately shitcanned with no significant financial or media fallout. Having to cancel your Pro Tour team is a multi-million dollar debacle. Cutting ties with a scuzzbag? It’s quick, easy, painless, and cheap.
Beware of good vibrations
Gravel racing always sounded too good to be true because it was. Camaraderie, grass roots, safe, people engaging in healthy competition … what’s not to like?
There is indeed camaraderie in gravel racing, a kind of friendliness that you certainly don’t find in ‘cross or sanctioned road racing. Know why? Because nothing is at stake. Gravel racing is an empty bag for the top finishers, with tiny or non-existent prize money, and even when there is, it is never 20-deep, as you’ll find in any major stage race. Gravel racing is very much winner-take-almost-all, and it’s not very much. Purses in gravel are so insubstantial that the half-dozen or so “pros” who “make a living” as “gravel racers” do it through individual sponsorships–there is less team organization and finance at Rebecca’s Private Idaho than there is at a master’s crit in Dominguez Hills. When BWR bragged in 2022 that it was offering up a $45,000 purse to the top five men and top five women finishers, and $5,000 to the top three junior riders, it got a lot of press. But we never got the privilege of seeing a) whether that money was actually paid, and b) the breakdown of who got how much.
In any event, first place likely snagged no more than $5,000; a nice payday for six hours of bike racing, to be sure, but, as I mentioned before, not when you have to spend the year crisscrossing the country, and not when you don’t win EVERY SINGLE TIME. Sixth place spent just as much time and money as first, and his/her payout was zero. Not a problem for promoters; someone will always toe the line in the hopes of picking up a check. But it’s a huge problem if you want fields that have professional depth or quality, because athletes at the top of their sport won’t work for free.
And before you start thinking that $5,000 for the winner is a game-changer, remember that in 2021 it was already $2,500 … and enrollment in the Waffle appears to be waffling. Clearly, most people know that the five riders eligible for a payday will not be them.
This same press release tooting the big prize money also promised a “series payout to be published in February” but as of July and two BWR events already in the bag, there’s still nowhere on the Internet where I could find the specifics of this chimerical series prize list. Likewise, the promise that each event will have its separate prize list can’t be confirmed, at least by me, no matter how hard I Google. There’s nothing wrong with puffery; that’s what gravel is built on. But when you’re trying to establish something as an actual competitive event that has meaningful prizes, it’s worse than dishonest to hint at big prize lists that somehow never get publicized.
Where there’s nothing to fight over, i.e. compete over, camaraderie does ensue. But that camaraderie of having someone help you plug a tire isn’t enough to make you sign up for the Grinduro for a fifth time. So what about grass roots?
Well, I’d ask what that even means? Smoking a joint after the race? Not having to buy a license? Not having to pee in a cup? The idea that your event is simply made up by a couple of nice folks and their friends may take away some of the hostility and formality of referees and governing bodies, but it also takes away those things called rules, because in the main there are none, and in the main, there is no way to enforce them. Why would that be? As mentioned earlier, rules mean doping controls, and no one in gravel wants that. But doping aside, it’s because nothing is at stake. When you line up with 800 people, you’re going to be pack fodder and you know it.
Safety, though, that is a big deal. Real bike racing is real fucking dangerous. And compared to spinning your bike along a fire road in between doobies, the hazards of racing on the road are significant indeed. Gravel racing fields like the BWR may have several hundred entrants in a mass start, but they generally spread out very quickly. Slower speeds mean less serious injuries, and softer surfaces mean softer landings. Problem is, and I’ll get back to this, is that you don’t have to pay a $250 entry fee to enjoy the security of riding on dirt roads. People may enjoy the safety of doing gravel races-I-mean-rides, but they quickly learn that they can get all the benefits and none of the cost without signing up for these wildly expensive events and simply riding at home with a friend or two.
Of course the thing that people love to point out most of all is “healthy people engaged in healthy competition.” Okay, fine. I actually agree with that. But you’re not really bike racing when you’re finishing two, three, four, or twelve hours down on the winner. The remaining 775 riders are simply paying to fund a bike race between a handful of unexceptional ex-professional riders and amateurs who don’t want to drug test. The pack fill is competing for a PR or trying to improve on last year’s time or simply trying to finish. And guess what? You don’t need to spend $250 and fly to North Carolina to get that kind of competition on a bike. In fact, you can get it for free on something called “Strava” or for a modest fee on something called “Zwift.” Google it …
Go big or go home
Unfortunately for many of the marquee event promoters, gravel racers by the thousands are going home. Why? Because “home” offers a whole host of gravel races that are dirt cheap (heh, heh), nearby, and that offer all the supposed camaraderie and grass roots and blah blah blah of the big events. Also, you have a much better chance of placing in a small, local gravel race than you do against ex-Pro Tour riders, however long in the tooth they may be. I once met a trio of guys who had come down to San Diego to do the BWR from Anchorage. “How was it?” I asked.
“It was fun,” one guy said.
“It was really hard,” the other guy said.
“Coming back next year?” I asked.
They all laughed in unison. “No way,” said the third.
This doesn’t mean that the marquee events are going to dry up and blow away. It’s worse than that. They’re going to decline to about half their current registrations over the next few years, and become the niche events that fondos, centuries, and ‘cross all became. It’s hard to imagine that a promoter in a major urban area, after paying for permits, space, staff, advertising, marketing, and services like toilets and timing would net more than $30,000 or $40,000 in the most miraculous of times. That’s a terrible return for what is a year-round job, and a business where the income arrives in one big wham, after which you have to eke out an existence the rest of the year on whatever you earned from the prior one. Hope the wife has a good job with health insurance and a 401k. An inheritance wouldn’t be bad, either.
With prospects like these, it’s no wonder that gravel race promoters look so sad and haggard, and you can read it in their advertising hype. Where these events were once mythical and you were “lucky” to get a spot before registration filled up the day after opening, where racers once had their USAC licenses vetted carefully to make sure they were racing in the right “wave,” where the mantra was “you aren’t worthy,” well, the tune has changed considerably.
Now the events never fill up. Now there is a desperate begging tone, “Sign up for three, get the fourth free!” wheedles the Quadrupel-Doopel of Grovel. Now the emphasis is on personal fulfillment, on the life-changing nature of the event, a kinder and gentler hardest-thing-you-have-ever-done-or-will-do, unless of course you opt for the 25-mile cupcake version or, my favorite, the e-bike category.
When I did the first BWR in 2013 there was one category and it was called “Long, difficult, invitation-only, free.” Now you can choose from a Waffle, a Wafer, a Wanna, and previous editions even had e-bikes. If you think this hasn’t dumbed down gravel, you’re wrong, because now more people do the shorter, easier versions than the original beatdowns that gave the events such cachet.
The trend isn’t good if you’re pushing the idea of a hard day in the saddle. In 2019 there were about 959 wafflers and 661 everything-elsers. In 2021, 701 Wafflers and 774 no-thanks-ers, and in 2022, 905 wafflers and 863 uh-uh-ers. Same goes for Unbound, a far bigger and more prestigious event; in 2022 1,136 riders did the full 200-mile route, whereas 1,837 decided they’d have the baby enchilada. The message is clear: people want easier. Can you say “e-bike”?
At best, the watered-down version and the full version are nearing parity in terms of number of entrants in many of these events. But with each year, the easier version gets fuller and the harder version gets emptier. That’s a double smackdown because it shows that people really don’t want all that hardman-hardwoman-gumbo-mud-hardness, and it hurts the promoter because it’s the longer event that brings in the most revenue. As is always the case, being all things to all people leads to loss of identity and cannibalizes profits. Not that there were ever many to begin with.
I think you have an eating disorder called “bingeing”
Along with the begging and the attempt to be all things to all people, the marquee events have always made a big deal out of the special relationship between gravel racing and beer. They have beer tents, beer sponsors, even custom-labeled beer to commemorate your amazing participation in something that anyone can participate in. What American gathering has there ever been that doesn’t go well with beer? And in addition to the party atmosphere and explicit incitement to over-imbibe, there is the pre-ride breakfast and the post-ride lunch, both of which are rather amazing examples of terrible nutrition, unhealthy eating, and outright bingeing.
This, then, is the wink-wink that organizers send to participants. Real bike racers, particularly those who race long distances, succeed by essentially starving themselves. Big watts and big kilograms, unlike beef and red wine, do not pair well together. The participants, with no hope or talent or training regimen that will ever get them anywhere near the podium, understand that their real reward isn’t the t-shirt, it’s the alcohol and food binge. You might be thinking that with a formula of pig-out, get drunk, post on the Gram, there’s no way the promoters could lose.
You’d be wrong, because after the hangover wears off the participant sits down and totes up the incredible cost of this weekend of “racing.” Travel to the “race.” Hotel. Registration. New gear. Up-sells at the event, including an event clown suit, special event tires, and if you went with the S/O, the afternoon before the “race” shopping at the outlet mall. And after adding all those numbers up, the participant realizes that he can ride on dirt roads near home, hang out with his friends, and still get shitfaced at the bar for less than $50.
It’s this that is the worst sales proposition of all for the big events. What they offer works once, maybe twice, maybe-maybe-three times, and that’s it. The events that have more than a solid toehold and that will continue to do well are the smaller, highly localized events like the Rock Cobbler. Significantly, it explicitly tells you that it’s not a race. Hard, yes. Race, no. With participation capped at 500 and no pretensions to anything other than riding off-road, it’s a model that many have emulated. All the same, it’s not bike racing, the people who win it are not professionals, and the only rules it abides by are the ones that it makes up, such as, “give angry cattle the right of way.” Which is a really good rule, by the way.
Worst of all for those who’ve staked their claim on big, overblown drunkathons with too much food, too much hype, too much #socmed, and too little racing, there’s a new girl in town. She’s a cheap date, she’s hot af, and she will sleep with anyone and do it outdoors, to boot.
Her name? Miss Bikepacking.