Travelin’ man trope
February 3, 2023 Comments Off on Travelin’ man trope
One time I was listening to “Heard It in a Love Song” by the Marshall Tucker Band. I told my girlfriend that it was an old-time favorite, and sent her the link.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s a terrible song. What awful lyrics.”
Shocked and dismayed, I went back over the words and concluded that she was right. The song basically says “Hey, I’m leaving you for no reason, don’t have the guts to say it to your face so I’m leaving before you wake up. Oh, and by the way, I’m the kind of guy who does whatever he wants and is never satisfied with anything. So, bye.” Not much of an anthem to anything other than being a jerk.
It was shocking because the lyrics are so singable and the tune is so good. Then for some reason I thought of the song “Brandy,” the cheesy 1970’s mega-hit about a bar waitress in a harbor town who is in love with a sailor who’s never coming back. So I listened to the lyrics; I’d always liked the tune. Like “Heard It in a Love Song,” when you actually listen to the words, they’re awful. Here’s the summary: “You are cute and good for a one-night stand but I don’t love you and don’t want to marry you but here’s a cheap souvenir to remember me by in case I don’t ever see you again and I’m telling you at the outset that all I want to do is sail around and hook up.” Brandy appreciates his “honesty” and loves him forever, keeping a silver locket with his name around her neck that she wears through the dark streets, forever faithful to this ass-hat who is never coming back and who didn’t give two shits about her anyway.
The subtext to “Brandy” is of course the refrain, “What a good wife you would be!” because every woman’s dream is be a good wife to some dude who lives on a barge. Not to be missed as well is the line “Brandy, fetch another round!” reminding us that although she’s good enough to be a wife, she’s still a dog who fetches for her man, hey waitaminnit, SAME THING!
Next I began cataloguing songs of this type, which I’ll call the “Dumping you to play, bye!” genre. Amazingly, they are everywhere, littering pop music like roadside trash. Before I get to my main point, which is a dissection of the “Travelin’ Man” trope, I thought I’d list a few of the songs that come to mind.
Ramblin’ Man, by the Allman Brothers. Perhaps no other song is needed, as this one is the apotheosis of the genre. We learn that the singer was destined to be a rambling man because a) father was a gambler, shot to death and b) he was born on a Greyhound bus. Genealogy firmly established, we are told in the refrain that when it’s time for leaving, “I hope you’ll understand, that I was born a ramblin’ man.” The only other action he engages in besides “tryin’ to make a livin'” is gallivanting off to New Orleans, where the Delta women think he is the shits (according, of course, to him). And when it’s time for leaving, which is going to be about the time he spends the last of his grifter’s paycheck, it will be time for leaving the New Orleans bordellos as well, but it won’t be because they understand his need to ramble, it’ll be because he’s broke and Suzie Q. don’t put out for free. Buried and unspoken in the song is the question, “Why does having a gambler for a father and a single mom make you a rambling man?” It seemed to make Clinton and Obama, you know, president of the fucking country. More importantly, it doesn’t take more than a second or two to reflect on exactly who was doing the birthing on that Greyhound bus. It was of course mom, who was abandoned by dad and left to care for a kid alone. Rather than a monument to her efforts, to say nothing of what must have been a dangerous, bloody, and embarrassing bus ride, the singer uses the circumstances of his birth to let all women know that he will use them and leave them. Why not? Them Delta women think the world of him.
Ramble On, by Led Zeppelin. If the Allman Brothers are down and dirty and direct about what they’re up to, like the sailor in “Brandy,” Robert Plant eulogizes the travelin’ man with a mishmash of misdirection, silly references to J.R.R. Tolkien, and by blaming the woman he’s leaving because she threatens the “freedom [he] hold[s] dear.” The message is the same, though. The singer is a travelin’ man who is going to travel the world to find his girl, which raises the question of why he’s leaving since he apparently already has one. But we learn that he’s actually looking for the “queen of all my dreams,” a mythical, non-existent woman who, upon not finding her, gives him the excuse to keep rambling, a/k/a traveling to another concert venue. The misogyny in this song is more thorough because it makes clear that any old woman won’t do, she has to be an unattainable ideal, kind of like a Cosmo model. All of this drivel, including his statement that every time he thinks about his baby he “has to part,” and his revelation that his OTHER baby, the one he really loved, got stolen by Sauron and Gollum (???), and is therefore the reason he has to keep searching, adds up to the travelin’ man’s reason for being: I travel, shorthand for hook up with other chicks, ‘cuz that’s what I like to do. If you’ve never read “The Missing Piece” by Shel Silverstein, now might be a good time.
Freebird, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. You gotta like Ronnie Van Zant’s elevation of the travelin’ man to something akin to Jesus. In this song, the singer is “free as a bird,” and “this bird you cannot change.” Then we learn that he must be traveling on now. Why? No idea. Is he coming back? He doesn’t say, but “free as a bird” doesn’t sound promising.What we do know is that if he stayed, “things just couldn’t be the same.” Sounds like he might have to get a job, start paying rent, help around the house, pay child rearing expenses, stop boozing at Harry’s Bar, get up before noon … all things that for sure wouldn’t be the same, especially when you recall that this is the same guy who crooned about his anonymous teen groupie in “What Was Your Name?” One element that “Freebird” injects, also found in “Heard it in a Love Song,” is the fake guilt, a key part of the travelin’ man trope. This is the part where the guy says he’s sorry but justifies it because he can’t help being an irresponsible dick. In “Freebird” it’s the line “Please don’t take it so badly, ’cause Lord knows I’m to blame.” Then he adds that dumping his gal is kind of inevitable because there are “too many places I got to see.” We know, we know. They are the same whorehouses frequented by the Allmans. The woman getting abandoned can find some other sucker to be a partner, or she can just make do as best she can with three small kids and two full-time jobs. I’m sure the kids will grow up to be freebirds, too, the boys anyway. The girls will eventually find work in New Orleans and maybe meet daddy that way.
Tuesday’s Gone, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I hate to load up on Skynryd, but for a bunch of Jacksonville homebodies they really laid the travelin’ man on thick. Like 99.999% of all rock lyrics, these make little cohesive sense. He’s leavin’ his woman. He’s on a train. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He wants to be left alone.” BUT then we find out that his baby has actually left him. She’s got to be free. He has to carry on. Please come back to me baby. So which is it? And how can she come back to him when he’s on a train? And why should she, since he just wants to be left alone? The mumbo-jumbo is easily parsed, though: he has left her and now she’s “free” to carry on with rent and child support on her own. The train will roll on (trains do that) and he will ride his blues away. So dumb. Such a travelin’ man.
I’m a Ramblin’ Man, by Waylon Jennings. Leave it to the outlaw to come up with lyrics that perfectly state the case: I screw women and dump them. And I’m warning you that I’m a bad person. But I will be bad to you anyway. I travel all over the country “messing with” women’s minds in order to have sex with them. Then I leave them. Of course, I also have my bad points …
Movin’ On, by B.B. King. The plot line for this song is, guess what? He’s moving on. Why? Because it’s time. Why is it time? Because he’s lived it up and “done it in this town.” But don’t worry! You are you and he is he, so it’s all good. Gestalt therapy, anyone? Plus he’d like to thank you for the “ride” ’cause “there’s nothing we ain’t tried” except perhaps commitment and stability. Also, thanks for the memories and you can call him “Mr. Breeze.” Oh, and he’s going to Vegas or Hollywood to … fall in love again. How sweet.
Travelin’ Man, by Ricky Nelson. This 1961 classic really sums it up. He’s got a girl at every port in the world. He has girlfriends in Mexico, Alaska, Berlin, Hong Kong, Hawai’i, and they are all waiting for his return. Maybe he’s also the guy who hooked up with Brandy? Anyway, why does he have so many girls? Easy! He’s a travelin’ man. And travelin’ man means wham, bam, thank-you ma’am. Bonus trivia: who knew that there was a port in Berlin?
Travelin’ Man, by Bob Seger. Updating Ricky Nelson, Seger has a much better reason for his travelin’: he’s lazy! Finally a travelin’ man tells it like it is. Anyway, he “runs” away from friends and family when things get “too crazy,” that is, rent is due. Women, you see have come and gone, and you know what? They’re always trying to “cage” him! Like a pet. Even though he managed to escape their evil clutches, he appreciates the “traces” they’ve left on his “soul.” Even the traces of a court judgment ordering payment of child support and alimony? Whatevs. He’s a travelin’ man and sooner or later he’s goin’. So amazing and enviable and noble. And of course free!
Travelin’ Man, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. This song is full of surprises! He’s a travelin’ man! No woman puts her hold on him! You’ll see him once or maybe twice! But at least he’s … (drumroll!!)…free! Wow! Didn’t see that coming! Oh, fyi, he’s had so many women but shockingly none of them have lasted. Wonder why? Oh, I know! It’s because he left! Good ol’ travelin’ man! At least he’s predictable!
Key to the Highway, by Eric Clapton. So, he’s leaving to go down south where he is “better known.” Why? Because his girl drove him from his home. And when the moon comes up, little girl he’ll be on his way. Is she eighteen? Doubtful. Oh, and give him one more kiss because he won’t be back no mo’. Doesn’t it make you feel good to kiss the ass-hat who’s ditching you for some other women down south? ‘Course it does!
Leaving on a Jet Plane, by John Denver. Johnny Boy gets it all in this one. He’s leaving on a jet plane. You know, with wings. He’s already terribly sad and lonesome, but please wait for him because of course he doesn’t know when he’s coming back. Is that important? Just wait. It will be worth it, sort of, because he also admits to so many times of letting you down and playing around but you know what? “They don’t mean a thing.” No. Of course they don’t! That’s why he’s leaving. You mean so much he has to leave you. Get it? No? Oh, well, he’s sad anyway. By the way, when he comes back, whenever that is, he’ll be bringing a wedding ring! Wow! What a good wife you would be (like Brandy)! Hey, close your eyes and dream of me and those future undetermined days when I won’t have to leave you. It will be so awesome! Hugs and tears and ciao!
So where are all the travelin’ women?
I suppose there is “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, but, um, she’s actually not leaving her boyfriend, she’s traveling with him. Why is that? Could it be because single women traveling alone are inordinately at risk for violence? Or is it simply that mass culture reflects what the singers actually say: men are free to fuck and move on, women are not. And as soon as things get “too crazy” as Bob Seger puts it, they bail.
The only travelin’ gal song by a woman I’m aware of, though there are doubtless more, is “Little Red Wagon” by Miranda Lambert. The message is for the boy to fuck off and quit trying to tie her down. She’s out sowing seeds and chasing men and that’s just the way it is. Why does any of this matter? And what does it have to do with cycling?
Well, funny you should ask. One aspect of bicycling is freedom to travel, and from the very beginning women were told that bicycles were off limits. Early women cyclists were pioneers on multiple fronts, none moreso than Susan B. Anthony:
Bicycles came to symbolize independence amongst women representing the quintessential ‘new woman’ of the late 19th century. In 1895, suffragette leader Elizabeth Candy Stanton said “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self respect, self reliance” predicting the power of the bicycle. Echoing Stanton’s claim was Susan B Anthony who played a key role in the suffragette movement. She said ‘’Let me tell you what I think about cycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’https://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2022/2/17/an-introductory-history-of-women-in-cycling
Nonetheless, misogyny kept women bike racers out of the Olympics for almost one hundred years; the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in cycling was Connie Carpenter, in 1984. That misogyny continues full force today, with leaders in the professional male community continuing to denigrate women in cycling. As recently as 2021, Patrick Lefevere was still spewing invective against professional women cyclists, comparing pro women teams to welfare offices, and comparing Sam Bennett’s return to Bora-Hansgrohe with “Women who return to men who abuse them.” Needless to say, these offensive comments provoked outrage everywhere except inside cycling.
The message that women have always received regarding independent mobility, which is the essence of bicycling, is “Do it at your own risk.” The threats of violence inherent in being a single woman traveling alone, to say nothing of a ramblin’ woman in the vein of a Zeppelin or Allman Bros. song, are more than threats. Birthing a child on the bus is the least of your problems as a solo woman traveler. Of the most dangerous places on earth for a woman to travel solo, the good ‘ol USA ranks 19th, right above Ukraine and below Tunisia. A similar ranking by Thomson Reuters in 2018 ranked the USA as No. 10.
And where do American women cyclists have to travel solo when they are in the US? Surprise–in the US! And what is the definition of solo travel? It means going somewhere by yourself.
Fast-forward, or rather fast-backward, to gravel racing, or as I prefer to call it, “bicycling.” Suddenly the murder of Mo Wilson starts to make more sense. Rather than being an incredible anomaly among a peaceful, loving community, gravel events can be seen through the lens of society and the solo woman traveler as a whole. Mo Wilson was allegedly killed by another woman, but it happened in an extremely misogynistic culture that features sexism and sexual objectivization as its most obvious characteristic. Doubt it? Look at Michael Marckx’s key cycling couture product, “Le Bon Wagon” which is slang for “Nice Ass.” Marckx, by the way, runs the Belgian Waffle Ride and has done so since 2013. Female participation in his events, judging from the numbers, is an utter afterthought, and he’s not alone.
The fact that Mo Wilson’s murder resulted in no introspection, no review by anyone regarding the general atmosphere of these events, and no examination of what role the gravel “mystique” played in Colin Strickland’s alleged behavior that in my opinion was the linchpin in Wilson’s murder, shows how resistant gravel is to change, and confirms that its guys-only mentality isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the silence of the lambs was deafening. None of the women gravel stars publicly pointed the finger at the gravel environment, just as professional women cyclists were generally muted in their response to Lefevere’s outspoken misogyny. Yes, there were a few sad-faced memorials, but none of the women tried to hold Unbound et al. accountable for the unmistakable fraternity-boy aspect of gravel events. This is in direct contrast to what some women were saying in private: that Strickland was a player, a douchebag, and that many people were aware of the terrible emotional triangle he was playing with Wilson and Armstrong.
Women can’t speak up as professionals because they are bit players getting scraps from an already marginalized, niche “sport.” It says everything about the structural misogyny of gravel that an alleged player like Strickland conveniently played the role of mentor to up-and-coming women, helping them get sponsorships, showing them the ropes, and at least with Wilson, showing her some night moves as well. So however obvious it is to the women involved, the rules are the same as they have long been in corporate America: once you hit the glass ceiling, be thankful you got that high and STFU.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and history matters. A cultural license for men to take to the open road by car, train, or bicycle while women have to keep the home fires burning or be on highest alert for rape and murder, plays itself out throughout society, and gravel is nothing more than a microscopic slice of the songs, stories, events, legends, myths, and people that make up that society. Never forget that the song is Ramblin’ Man.
But you can’t change things until you can imagine a different outcome. Try rewording all these travelin’ man songs as if they’re sung by a woman. Doesn’t quite sound the same, does it? Especially John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”: I’ve cheated on you tons of times with other guys and am leaving, don’t know when I’ll return but when I do I’ll have a wedding ring for you, future hubby! You can count on me!
I can even help you out with my new version of “Brandy,” rebranded as “Randy.” Hope you like it.
There’s a port on a western bay
And it serves a hundred ships a day
Women sailors pass the time away
And talk about their homes
And there’s a boy in this harbor town
And he works layin’ whiskey down
They say “Randy, fetch another round”
He serves them whiskey and wine
The women say, “Randy, you’re a fine boy
(You’re a fine boy)
What a good husband you would be
(Such a fine boy)
Yeah, your eyes could steal a lady from the sea”
Randy wears a braided chain
Made of finest silver from the north of Spain
A locket that bears the name
Of a girl that Randy loved
She came on a summer’s day
Bringing gifts from far away
But she made it clear she couldn’t stay
No harbor was her home
The woman said, “Randy, you’re a fine boy
(You’re a fine boy)
What a good husband you would be
(Such a fine boy)
But my life, my love and my baby is the sea”
Yeah, Randy used to watch her eyes
When she told her sailor’s story
He could feel the ocean fall and rise
He saw its raging glory
But she had always told the truth
She was a truthful sailing hand,
And Randy does his best to understand
At night when the bars close down
Randy walks through a silent town
And loves a gal who’s not around
He still can hear her say
He hears her say, “Randy, you’re a fine boyWanky Songbot, 2023.
(You’re a fine boy)
What a good husband you would be
(Such a fine boy)
But my life, my love and my baby is the sea
It is, yes, it is.
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.