Why women hate gravel

January 28, 2023 Comments Off on Why women hate gravel

Judging from the sign-ups at big gravel events, women are staying away in droves, just like they’ve always done.

I remember the first BWR in 2013, when it was an invitation-only event built around marketing SPY eyewear. Invites were limited to one hundred, and they consisted exclusively of “bros” who knew the event’s creator. I recall one woman doing the event, Jessica Cerra, although there may have been one or two others.

That figure of 1-3% has anemically grown at BWR over a decade. In 2022, a piddling 82 women out of 823 starters lined up for the BWR in San Diego. If that sounds dismal consider these stats for the “wafflers” at these other venues: a mere 33 women at BWR North Carolina, 25 in Utah, 17 women at BWR Kansas, and an astoundingly paltry12 in Michigan.

At Unbound 2022’s 200-mile event, it was equally dismal: a mere 175 women competed out of a field of more than 1,200. The Rock Cobbler boasted 33 women out of 500 riders which comes out to six percent. Big Sugar did far better, with 109 women out of 660 riders, and  Rebecca’s Private Idaho was by far the best, with a third of the riders made up of women, 108 of 361.

Each event has its own story to explain low female ridership. The BWR began with scantily clad women cheering the riders, along with overt and covert misogyny that earned outraged protests from women, ultimately leading the event to have scantily clad men along with the scantily clad women, as if you can erase sexism by expanding crass objectification to other genders. And of course the founder of the BWR now promotes a private label of bicycle costumes called “Le Bon Wagon.” Sounds French, but it’s nothing but the crudest slang for “Nice ass.”

In an activity that builds muscle mass on the glutes and thighs, something that plenty of women are already self-conscious about, pimping tight pants that nudge-nudge-wink-wink focus on a woman’s appearance from the rear says everything about where the true values of the BWR lie. As the Le Bon Wagon marketing verbiage tells you, “Get on it!” Uh, okay. Is junior high over yet?

But what about the other events? It’s possible that Rebecca’s Private Idaho has high female participation, though still dwarfed by males, because it’s promoted by a woman. Mammoth Tuff, also promoted by a woman, had about 1/3 women participants. So there’s likely something about the messaging at these events that’s different from the “Nice Ass” ethos at BWR.

But what about Unbound and Big Sugar and the Rock Cobbler? What’s their excuse?

The easy answer is that women don’t like getting covered with dirt and muck. Leaving aside the gross nature of the generalization, if that’s true then why do so many more women sign up for it at Rebecca’s Private Idaho than at BWR? Clearly, the idea that gravel is too yucky for women is wrong, not to mention sexist.

Messaging matters. And though it’s hard to say exactly why women avoid gravel in particular and bike racing in general, looking at the messaging for a given event can help understand what the promoters are looking for, what they value, and what they hope to accomplish.

What are you trying to say??

But before taking that dive, let’s note something: Moriah Wilson, the top female gravel star in 2022, was murdered last year, allegedly by the girlfriend of disgraced gravel star Colin Strickland. Theories abound, but the messaging is clear: gravel, like so many other communities organized by men, serves the ancillary function of a hunting ground for sexual predators.

The fact that neither the BWR nor the Rock Cobbler, both events that Wilson won and brought great prestige to in 2022, has done anything at all to honor her in 2023, to investigate the overall image of gravel, and to reorganize their events so that increasing female ridership represents an obligation instead of an afterthought, says everything. Likewise Unbound, which had the typical sadface memorial ride so often held for dead athletes, offered up the same miserable numbers of women riders in 2022 and has approached 2023 with the same business as usual messaging. Moriah? Moriah who?

Sweeping this terrible murder under the carpet and pretending that a few teary memorial rides have addressed the problem is horrible. But don’t look for any of the big events to permanently memorialize Wilson because her death reflects back on them and they know it.

Does the murder of Wilson and the gravel “community’s” refusal to examine itself, combined with years of bros-only messaging, affect women’s interest in gravel? It’s my opinion that it does.

So let’s start with what is perhaps the biggest face of gravel, which is the puff-and-poof spewed out by VeloNews, recently purchased by Outside, and now fully focused on the gravel craze and the ad revenue it generates.  On January 27, 2023, Betsy Welch, the fangirl supreme for all things gravel, wrote a story called “Didn’t Make the Cut for Unbound Gravel? Here are five other June 3 gravel races to fill the void.”

The photo? An Unbound starting line filled with grimacing, hairy, aggro-looking men putting on the fakest race face they own.

The article, to its credit, begins with an intro to the all-women’s gravel race “Dusty Bandita,” a 200-slot event that exists to give women a chance to ride bikes away from the macho, Le Bon Wagon-ing ethos that typifies gravel. The remaining events make clear though that for the most part they’re not even races, much less events that have the kind of competitive opportunity and prestige of Unbound. The message here is that if you’re not good enough to get an Unbound invitation, you can settle for a nice bicycle ride somewhere. At best it’s confusing. At worst, it’s demeaning.

For the most part, Welch’s articles focus on the badassery of gravel, and though she’s sympathetic and goes out of her way to mention the non-macho aspects, like most every other hack at VeloNews, for Welch what’s significant is who goes fastest, especially the men. That’s okay perhaps if you’re a magazine devoted to men racing bikes, which Velonews always has been, but for gravel event promoters, all of whom exist thanks to the no-hoper hackers who sign up for a good time, there’s no excuse.

So what’s their messaging?

First and foremost, gravel pimps the message of badassery and toughness. The top message has always been difficulty, risk, and adversity. Of course whenever you want to understand what a brand really means, look at the diametrical opposite of the messaging.

Gravel riding isn’t badass. It isn’t tough. It isn’t amazing. And it sure isn’t conquering the unconquerable. Gravel riding is chubby older men on wildly expensive bikes riding various lengths at various intensities and concluding with too much beer, weed, and unhealthy food. To put in perspective how mundane and passe gravel riding actually is, think about this: when bikes were invented, all riding was “gravel riding” because roads weren’t paved. People rode penny farthings hundreds of miles on uninflated hard rubber tires with no gears or brakes, through shin-deep mud, and called it what it was: “bicycling.”

Whatever gravel thing you’re doing today is not new, radical, amazing, pioneering, or even remotely badass. You are riding a bicycle. Sorry.

If you want to win one of the big gravel races, well, it’s a different story at least to the extent that you’ll need to replace beer with plenty of performance enhancing substances, but equating the antics of a Peter Stetina with the antics of 99% of the other riders in the field is silly beyond belief. People don’t sign up for gravel to be put through the wringer. They sign up to have a good time. “Race in the front, party in the back” is a saying at gravel because it’s the fucking truth, and virtually everyone is, guess where? In the back.

Gravel is powder-puff bicycle riding in the extreme for most people who do it. The courses are stocked with refreshments, offer every variation of difficulty and length, typically allow you to do the fucking thing on an e-motorcycle, have sag if you get too tired, often have neutral mechanical services roaming the course, and when it’s raining mud and ice … oh wait, it never is because that only happens in the actual category of bike racing called “cyclocross.”

But despite its weed + beer + goodtimez reality, the messaging for many events tells a far different, and generally false story as applied to the average rider. Check out the following descriptions, all gussied up with cherry-picked photos to show how anyone who even dares to sign up for a big gravel event is like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

In their own words

BWR 2023: Replete with its silly delusions that a bunch of fat old men have everything in common with the pros who race Paris-Roubaix, we’re told the event was “Created as an extremely challenging race in the spirit of the great European one-day Spring Classics, BWR is an unusually difficult race. This is the original. It’s diabolical; the Hell of the West (Coast).” For anyone who did the original BWR, you know this is simply untrue. It was created in the spirit of ripping off Dave Jaeger’s French Toast Ride, a California invitation-only event for older, not very good, mostly non-racing friends of Dave. How do I know this? Because that’s what founder Michael Marcxk said at the first award ceremony, when he crowned the winner as none other than … Dave Jaeger. If the BWR was inspired by anything, it was a nasty meanness towards “Purple Freddies,” Marckx’s name for riders who “sat in” and didn’t follow some imaginary code of ride-at-the-front honor. To especially demean those who were not worthy, “purple cards” were handed out for egregious wheelsucks, custom-made cards with a picture of Eddy Merckx saying “Eddy don’t want no Freddies.” Contrast that with today’s noble language comparing the BWR to a true cycling monument. Nor is the BWR unusually difficult. If you want to win, it’s fucking hard, just like every road race, but it’s a pancake ride compared to the European classics it fantasizes it’s on a par with if for no other reason than the fact that the true monuments are raced by people called “professionals.”

Unbound 2023: Less delusional about its difficulty than BWR, Unbound’s messaging is one of incredible uniqueness, amazingness, astonishing badassery, and seeing if you have the right stuff. “From the moment you feel the crunch of the Flint Hills gravel under your tires, you’ll know you’re in a special place. The Garmin UNBOUND Gravel 200 is the marquee event that has earned Emporia, Kansas the name Gravel City, USA. This event will bring to life that indomitable spirit that lives within each and every one of you. Along your 200 mile journey, you’ll travel to the furthest depths of your psyche and unravel the reasons behind why it is you’re here in the first place. So many challenges will be thrown at you during your day in the saddle, and the UNBOUND Gravel 200 gives you all the opportunities to find just what you are made of. As you work through the beautiful journey through the Kansas Prairie, we know for certain that you’ll be a different person when you cross that finish line. And we will be there to welcome you home. Join us. Become, UNBOUND.” Wow. Who knew that 200 miles riding a bicycle made you a different person? I guess for those of us who’ve ridden, you know, hundreds of thousands, we’ve become hundreds of different people. Or maybe you have to do it in Kansas?

Rock Cobbler 2023: This event is the least pretentious of the top events. It emphasizes that it’s not a race because, like the other events, at its core it isn’t. They are bicycle rides. And unlike the other events, the promoter did make a last-minute effort to recruit women. But this is still a guy event made by guys for guys to be eulogized and emulated by guys. The marketing hype comes from none other than Peter Stetina and graces the home page in ragingly huge caps: “The Rock Cobbler is the kookiest bike race I’ve ever done. It’s unclassifiable. One minute you’re on nice surface and the next you’re slip sliding down a scree field, or just plain old riding through a field dodging cattle. There are 30 per cent run ups, WhiteClaw hand ups, ball pits, and it’s brutally difficult.”

Big Sugar 2023: Run by the same folks who run Unbound, Big Sugar is much lighter on the badassery but still lets you “Expect this to be one of the most challenging gravel courses featuring picturesque, rarely maintained, canopy-covered gravel roads with loose, rocky gravel, a few pavement sections and a few water crossings and bridges. If you like to ride in the dirt, venture off into stunning landscapes and share an experience with fellow cyclists, Big Sugar Gravel is a race reserved for you.” Of the big events, it’s lightest on the melodrama and maybe that’s why it has such significantly higher female participation.

What’s a girl to do?

What do these descriptions have to do with the dearth of women riders? Well, when you combine them with the photos of super fit-looking ex-pros like Stetina hammering through the gnar and bespattered with gumbo mud, it’s likely to be a huge turnoff to a lot of women, especially ones who are curious but not sold on the idea of mud soup as a fashion accessory. If they knew that it’s mostly a bunch of marketing drivel, that anyone reasonably fit with a functioning bike can do it, that you don’t have to fall off your bike, ride through a raging river, or dunk your face in muck, and that there are course events so short you can walk them, maybe the picture would look different.

This is to say nothing of having events dispense with the macho, tiny-penis insecurity messaging and talk instead about inclusiveness, preparation, and welcoming new women—by other women, not the players like Colin Strickland. It might also help if misogynistic in-jokes like “Le Bon Wagon” weren’t letting women know that in secret all that’s really going on is ass-watching.

Look no further for such a prototype than the mission that Bri Lui gives for her women-only event, the Dusty Bandita: “The Dusty Bandita is an event dedicated to increasing the presence of all identifying women at cycling events by providing a safe and encouraging environment where one can build confidence, push limits, explore beautiful places, and experience an invigorating camaraderie on and off the bike.”

Also note that Lui came up with the idea after attending a number of rides comprised mostly of men, and recognizing that women need a safe and encouraging environment. Reverse-engineer that sentiment and you’ll easily conclude, especially after having some sag-bellied dude in his late 50’s ogle your Le Bon Wagon, that most gravel events leave women feeling neither safe nor encouraged, cf. Moriah Wilson.

As you cruise the proliferation of gravel events, ask yourself how many of them communicate that their event is a safe and encouraging one for women? Certainly not the BWR, Unbound, Rock Cobbler, or Big Sugar. The only ones that do are, of course, run by women, Mammoth Tuff,  Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Dusty Bandita. Maybe there are more.

Here’s what Rebecca’s Private Idaho has on offer for 2023. With much less badassery on display, the event is up front about the fact that this is supposed to be fun. “We hope you’ll join us on the wild and gritty adventure that is RPI. Remember, it’s not just about world-class terrain and the most fun you can have while challenging yourself on two wheels; it’s also about a big, communal party and raising funds to support bike-related causes from Idaho to Africa and beyond.”

Women can be encouraged to ride their bikes off-road, but you have to want them there as more than an afterthought, or as the objectified fantasy of your puerile clothing line. They have plenty of other things to do and places to be where they’re not forced to endure more mansplaining, more sexist messaging, and more life as second-class citizens.

In any event, gravel riding will continue for a while, even as the faux professional gravel racing scene evaporates due to lack of money, lack of interest, extraordinary dullness, and a complete absence of junior racer development. Indeed, as the big-time events gradually deflate to the local events they once were, gravel will come to be promoted for what it actually is: riding a bicycle for fun and health with your friends in pretty places, concluded with dinner.

And no one will care about your gender or what you wear.


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