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Plenty of road pros tackled Serenissima Gravel in Italy

Fewer rules, more fun: How the pro peloton is embracing gravel racing

GCN quizzed some road pros on why they're drawn to gravel and whether it could one day usurp cyclo-cross as the go-to off-season training activity

Clock10:29, Sunday 19th November 2023

While first being dubbed as a trend and something that only ex-pros do once they’ve hung up their road bikes, gravel racing now looks like it's here to stay.

The gravel racing scene has been steadily simmering away in the background over recent years, largely in the US Midwest. However, when the UCI brought gravel under its umbrella in 2022, with the launch of the Trek UCI Gravel World Series, it was a major step forward for the discipline.

Inaugural editions of the World and European Championships have followed since, helping gravel racing to force its way into the mainstream cycling discourse. Even the Tour de France has included some gravel sections in its 2024 route, while current UCI Gravel World Champion Matej Mohorič has expressed his desire to focus on gravel racing next season.

Road cycling has rightfully made a name for itself as a sport that is constantly chasing improvements, whether that be in equipment, nutrition or tactics. Yet gravel racing, for the most part, is openly seeking to distance itself from this mantra. Of course, technology and aerodynamic gains seep in here and there (we’re cyclists after all) but stakeholders are keen to protect the ‘spirit of gravel’, an ethos that encourages riders of any age or level to get involved.

The World Series, which offers riders a chance to qualify for the Worlds, is open to professionals and amateurs alike, with rounds held across four continents in each of the two years it has run so far - a much broader spread than the UCI’s Cyclo-cross World Cup, which currently only ventures out of Europe when it heads to the US.

Despite several differences between the road and gravel racing worlds, plenty of pros have headed off the beaten track and dabbled in gravel racing. GCN visited the Veneto region of Italy last month – which has played host to the first two editions of the UCI Gravel World Championships – to understand why and discover how much more gravel racing has to offer.

'It’s something different'

The start line of the Gravel Serenissima, a race not yet sanctioned by the UCI, portrayed a rather laidback scene despite several WorldTour and ProTeam squads in attendance. Perhaps benefitting from its timing during the last week of the road season, riders were mingling, pointing and prodding at one another’s bike set-ups, which varied drastically, as techno music boomed from nearby speakers.

“It's something different but quite similar to road racing. It mixes things up and makes it fun for everyone at the end of the season, that's why it's so popular even now,” admitted the eventual winner on the day, Florian Vermeersch.

Vermeersch had just finished runner-up in the second edition of the World Championships but, despite the high-profile event, the Lotto Dstny rider found his preparation to be in stark contrast to how he gears up for road races.

“I think road riders like the relaxed side of gravel, especially at the end of the season. It's still a high-level race but it makes it more relaxing.

“The week leading into the Gravel World Championships was super relaxing for me and I never had the feeling that I was going into the Worlds. I was just relaxing and enjoying everything in the moment. That’s what makes it nice for me.”

Yet for all of the 2021 Paris-Roubaix runner-up’s light-touch preparation for gravel racing, other road pros view the discipline from another completely different angle.

“We were talking in the bus beforehand and are more nervous now than normally at a [road] race because we don’t know what we’ll meet out there. It's also exciting, the main thing we said on the bus was ‘don’t crash today’,” revealed Uno-X’s Torstein Træen.

The uncertain and ‘expect the unexpected’ style of racing that gravel provides could be down to its relative novelty within pro cycling but also because very few road races, bar some cobbled Classics like Paris-Roubaix, offer such unpredictability.

Træen’s teammate Fredrik Dversnes, who came third on the day at Serenissima Gravel, doubled down on the idea that one of gravel racing’s biggest selling points to both fans and riders is its chaotic nature, with very few road events able to offer the same type of plot.

“I think for sure there are road races like this but you don’t see them that often. [In] a race like today, it's fucking cool, when guy after guy gets exhausted and falls off [the back of the bunch], especially if you are one of the strongest.”

The Norwegian continued: “Anything can happen in these races. They’re not predictable at all. No one controls the race, there are constant attacks and no one really knows. They are the strongest guys there at the end.”

Fewer rules, more fun

But why are so many road pros, including Wout van Aert – who won on his gravel debut back in August – seeking this change of scenery?

The answer perhaps lies with gravel’s laissez-faire stance on rules and technology. For the World Championships, any dropped-bar bike is allowed, so long as it weighs at least 6.8kg. There are no rules around tyre width or bar width, nor for that matter any regulation on sock height.

Gianni Vermeersch, the inaugural Gravel World Champion from 2022, believes riders are attracted to the freedom they’re granted at gravel races.

“That’s actually the nice thing about gravel, you saw it at the Worlds. Some riders are going with a road bike with quite wide tyres which is possible.

“I think they don’t have to make too many laws or rules, let the riders choose the best option that they want to race, if they want to race with road tyres, just let them do it. It's a nice part of the gravel scene, the tactics and technology,” the Belgian added.

The Serenissima Gravel race, perhaps given its lack of UCI status, saw some riders tackle the event on set-ups that wouldn’t look out of place on the road, while others used gravel bikes, cyclo-cross frames, and just about anything in between.

Dversnes found this aspect of the race fascinating, adding: “I was wondering about the choice of some teams to go with the road bike, that was cool from them.”

His Uno-X team all used bikes that have spent more time on the gravel tracks of Scandinavia during the winter than they have been pedalled in anger, but does it matter? The 26-year-old thinks not.

“If you looked at my bike, compared to the other two guys in front of me you’d see some significant differences. That says a lot about how much effort we put into this though, this was more just fun for us, we don’t top-spec our bikes for this race but it definitely proves that it works good enough. That [bike] will go back home with me after this race and do the winter training with me in Norway.”

Could gravel replace cyclo-cross?

Gravel racing offers road pros a laidback and free-spirited alternative to the often formulaic and data-driven WorldTour environment. So could it soon overtake cyclo-cross as the go-to choice for those European pros seeking something competitive during the off-season? Or could it be that the two work together in perfect harmony?

The jury seems to still be out on this topic.

As has been the theme, gravel’s accessibility stands up well when compared to ‘cross, something Træen was quick to point out.

“Cyclo-cross is more technical. Gravel you can do more easily than cyclo-cross but cross’ requires a lot of equipment, you need to have the right tyres for the right courses,” explained the Norwegian.

This ease and gravel’s aforementioned laidback approach to rules and the technology used make it an attractive proposition - especially against cyclo-cross where CX-specific bikes are the norm. However, Træen does underline cyclo-cross’s uniqueness in that it’s technical and separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to bike handling.

Florian Vermeersch doubled down on this point, adding: “Cyclo-cross is more specific, it's much more about technique and intervals whereas gravel racing is longer endurance, it's also a bit about technique but less than in cyclo-cross.”

However, there’s no denying that gravel racing has something that cyclo-cross could only dream of: a global appeal.

Yes, the US CX scene has a strong number of hardcore supporters, with a steady stream of races, whether that be in the shape of amateur events or World Cup rounds, the occasional World Championships or the US CX series. Despite this, cyclo-cross was made and has predominantly remained in northern Europe where the weather is conducive for spills and thrills. Meanwhile, gravel already has lofty global ambitions.

After two Worlds hosted in Veneto, the 2024 edition will, ironically, be hosted in the cyclo-cross heartland of Flanders before heading to France (twice), Australia and Saudi Arabia in the following four years. That’s in stark contrast to the ‘cross Worlds which only venture out of their native territories to the Czech Republic throughout the next four editions.

Cyclo-cross’ struggle to infiltrate further than northern Europe and the US is something that Gianni Vermeersch doesn’t see as such an issue for gravel racing when he admits: “In Belgium, we’ve tried already for cyclo-cross to become more popular but it's really difficult and I think now with gravel they’ve found the perfect combination between cyclo-cross and road cycling.”

Having spent most winters during his career riding ‘cross, the Alpecin-Deceuninck man believes the diversity of start lists at gravel races is something that will help its worldwide appeal that CX can sometimes lack.

“Gravel speaks to a lot of nationalities. We’ve been trying for a long time in cyclo-cross but it always stays within Belgium and the Netherlands. With my roommate Quinten [Hermans] we were looking through the top 50 of the Gravel World Championships and every country is there which is the good thing about it."

The Belgian even went to the extent of suggesting that gravel racing has the potential to earn a spot on the most global stage of them all, the Olympic Games.

“Maybe in the future to get an Olympic sport [there is a] much better [chance] for gravel cycling. I think gravel cycling has the possibility to get something Olympic which was not possible with cyclo-cross because it's in the winter.”

Yet for all the demand to see gravel racing grow, some, including Florian Vermeersch, believe gravel racing’s charm lies in its untouched nature. It’s rough and ready, not bogged down by rules or requirements. The bigger the platform that it gets, the more at risk it could be of sterilisation.

“It certainly has the potential I think but I don’t know if it would be very good for gravel if it became an Olympic sport. I’m a believer in the spirit of gravel where everyone from 19 to 75 can participate in gravel events or even the World Gravel Series, and I think it should stay that way. That’s what makes it so nice,” he affirmed.

The Belgian's caution is understandable. To take a leaf from the 'spirit of gravel', it could be argued that a global reach isn't the only parameter that determines whether gravel racing and cyclo-cross are classed as successful. The fact that road riders have more opportunities to explore other disciplines and test themselves in different ways should, in itself, be considered a positive.

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