Build it. They’re still not going to come.
December 29, 2022 Comments Off on Build it. They’re still not going to come.
After the UCI held its debut world championship gravel race, an expanded professional global series for 2023 promises even more venues for people to ride their bicycles in muddy, or dusty, or somewhat unpaved conditions.
That’s nice if you like such things and have as yet failed to find success at cyclocross, BMX, or mountain biking, endeavors that put a premium on bike handling. But it doesn’t mean that pro gravel racing is here to stay, or that it’s even a thing. To the contrary …
In order for sanctioned gravel racing to exist it will require something known as racers. And in order to develop these racers it will require something known as junior racers. And in order to develop junior racers it will need something known as “you are completely delusional.”
The current gravel demographic in the US is old people who suck at bike racing. The demographic for the 2022 gravel world championships was UCI professional road racers, some of whom happened to be the world’s best at cyclocross. This will not change because gravel racing is road racing with some dirt. You don’t need the technical skills of ‘cross or MTB, and you don’t need the wattage of a TdF contender. In essence, it’s road racing lite.
Doubt it? Look at the results. First place, Gianni Vermeersch, rides road for Alpecin-Deceuninck and has placed 7th at Flanders and 15th at Roubaix. Second place, Daniel Oss, is a 2-time world champion in the team time trial, stage winner in the Tour and the Vuelta, and a seasoned road professional with nine Tour finishes. Mathieu van der Poel, in third, needs no introduction, and Greg van Avermaet shouldn’t either, with four Tour stage wins, a Vuelta win, and a win at Paris-Roubaix in 2017.
Pro gravel racers? Maybe you weren’t looking, but the gravel worlds was made up of exceptional and experienced UCI pro road riders, and in 2023 you can be assured that the gravel worlds will be jam-packed with roadie superstars like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Remco Evenepoel, and whoever else has seen good results on the spring cobbles. What you won’t see are “pro gravel racers.” If you have the wattage to contend at the Tour of Flanders, you have the wattage to absolutely destroy anyone who’s not a UCI road peer at a gravel race. That’s because gravel racing, sorry to break the news, is road racing.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the Tour’s major passes were even paved, and riding cobbles/dirt/sand/slush was part and parcel of road racing. The roads may have gotten better, but the essential qualities that will make you a successful road racer haven’t: endurance, huge watts over long distances, and extraordinary bike handling skills.
This matters because gravel racing is nothing more than retro road racing, and I think we can all agree that road racing in the United States is dead. It’s dead on all levels but nowhere more moribund than in the junior ranks. Yes, the 60+ category holdovers from the 80’s are continuing to turn out, but all the big races are gone, almost all the medium-sized races are gone, and most of the small races are gone. Gravel began as, and continues to be, a venue for people who weren’t any good at road racing to enjoy participating in a faux race where everyone’s a “winner.”
Which is of course a beautiful thing provided you’re down with having to buy a new bike, etc. But if you’re talking about a new sport that will magically grow new riders and provide the excitement thoroughly lacking from all but a tiny number of races, you’re crazy. For one, why would sponsors who have dumped millions into road racing suddenly begin dumping money into an event that their current riders are winning anyway? For another, if road riding is declining around the globe, why would retro road racing spark a craze that is big enough to support a new professional sport, grow for the future by developing juniors, and attract new sponsor dollars?
As the pro gravel scene unfolds without any meaningful interest from or participation by juniors, one of two scenarios will happen. It will either become wildly successful at the expense of professional road racing or it will wither and die because the already impoverished landscape of pro road racing will be unable and unwilling to afford a parallel sport that cannibalizes the events already on the pro road calendar. Yes, top road pros will throw their hats in the ring at year’s end to snag a rainbow jersey, but they’ll be the same top pros you saw battle it out in the spring classics and the grand tours.
At the local level, events will still attract participants, but they will be the same paunchy older men who have made the “spirit of gravel” what it is: white, male, chubby, boring, doped, and drunk. Five years from now the big US gravel events will be a shadow of their former selves, and in ten years most will have gone the way of the gran fondo.
A casual glance at the advertising, sales, and actual ridership irrefutably proves that it’s not just lame adults kitted out in the latest costume literally “motoring” up hills, but it’s also kids who don’t ride bikes anymore. They ride e-bikes, an affectionately nostalgic name for electric motorcycles with optional-use pedals. If the future of gravel has any future at all, it’s motorized. Just don’t call it bike racing.