Race Preview: UCI Gravel World Championship

Inside the second edition of the championships that will bring the pros of the road and gravel together for one big showdown

Clock18:10, Monday 2nd October 2023
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© Sprint Cycling Agency

The UCI Gravel World Championships return on the weekend to a revamped course around Veneto. New management, new parcours and new riders are all in order to make the second UCI Gravel World Championships more exciting and unique to the new discipline of cycling.

One of the most anticipated clashes should be the battle brewing between the mostly American contingent of pure gravel specialists and the European group of road pros who are ending their road seasons.

Last year, some WorldTour pros showed up, but the vast majority of American gravel racers decided against the race. Conversely, this year sees the United States taking big squads in both the men's and women's teams to try and secure an international result against the likes of Lorena Wiebes and Wout van Aert.

Course breakdown

The course in Italy is drastically different from last year, with both the men’s and women’s races having more kilometres and more climbing than last year. Rumour has it, the gravel is tougher as well.

For the men, the parcours run from Le Bandie to Pieve di Soligo in a serpentine route of 169km and 1890 metres of climbing. Most of the climbing comes in two doses of short climbs from kilometres 30 to 100 and 140 to 160. In total, there are nine categorised climbs for the men and eight for the women.

For the women, the route starts and finishes in the same place, with only a couple fewer kilometres and climbs left off the route, with 140km and 1660 metres of climbing. Both races are likely to be decided on the final climb of the race, called the Collagú (1.4km at 11.8%).

For both races, however, the parcours is closer in line with the European style of gravel racing than the American Life Time Grand Prix style courses. The most recent Life Time Grand Prix race, for instance, was 180km with 2,813 metres of climbing. Yet, without the same team tactics as road racing and punchy climbs on the course, the racing should be selective, nonetheless.

Riders to Watch

While the races conflict with the final big test on the road in Il Lombardia for the men, many of the big names on the road have decided to hop on their gravel bikes and take a stab at chance to win a rainbow jersey. While an official start list has yet to be released, here is who we expect to see at the races this weekend.

Women’s contenders

Lining up on Saturday for the women’s test is a who’s who of the road, including the recently retired Annemiek van Vlueten, Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift champion Demi Vollering, and European gravel champion and the top sprinter in the women’s peloton, Lorena Wiebes. Other powerful riders from the Women’s WorldTour that could get in the mix are Riejanne Markus, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, and Emma Norsgaard.

Read More: USA Cycling announce teams for UCI Gravel Worlds

For the off-road specialists, the three top names to know are Sofia Gómez-Villafañe, Caroline Schiff and Lauren Stephens, who also races road for EF-Education-TIBCO-SVB. Caroline Schiff came into gravel and immediately excelled, winning Unbound Gravel. Gomez-Villafañe is set to win the LifeTime Grand Prix and has shown her class in the faster gravel races with a commanding win at SBT GRVL ahead of another woman who has shown her abilities in gravel, Tiffany Cromwell.

Cromwell is the rider who might be best suited for this hybrid event, with a great deal of experience in both gravel races and the road peloton. This showed last weekend when she stole the march on the Europeans and beat them all at their own championship.

Beyond Villafañe, Stephens and Cromwell, there are a couple of interesting gravel racers who will be in the mix on the weekend, including Emily Newsom, Paige Onweller and Sarah Sturm. Alexis Skarda has confirmed to GCN that despite her standout season and selection to the team she will pass on the trip to Italy.

Men’s contenders

With the men’s race, there are generally three different types of racers with three different skill sets: current European WorldTour pros, former European pros turned gravel racers, and the all-American selection of off-road specialists.

While the race brings in all of these different riders, there is one obvious favourite: Wout van Aert. It is impossible to look past the Belgian for a race like this, with his only gravel race resulting in a commanding nine-minute solo victory. He will be joined in a Belgian line-up with last year’s world champ Vermeersch, Florian Vermeersch, Quinten Hermans and maybe Jasper Stuyven.

Van Aert is not the only proven road rider lined up, with Matej Mohorič, Ivan Cortina and Connor Swift on the start list. With the WorldTour riders, there is no question they have the power to forge clear of the other riders on the start line. However, that is only part of the gravel picture, as many former road pros have learned.

Speaking of former pros, there is a healthy number of ex-road talents who now race fairly full gravel programs in Europe and the United States. The first to do it was Laurens ten Dam, who has become a fully-fledged gravel pro, and he will be joined on the Dutch team with Niki Terpstra in Italy. Jan Bakelants is also making a run at gravel, while Nicolas Roche will be in Italy after a packed race schedule this season.

Read More: Inside the race at SBT GRVL

One of the most enigmatic of the post-prime gravel racers is Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard, who was rumoured to be a bit listless in retirement, was slated to race SBT before family logistics got in the way, so it will be interesting to see where Valverde’s fitness sits at the moment.

The two European riders who are the most successful in the American scene are Petr Vakoc and Paul Voss. Voss was on the podium behind Van Aert at his lone gravel race and played a role in Unbound in June, while Vakoc has pushed Keegan Swenson, the dominant rider in the US, the closest in both Unbound Gravel and SBT GRVL.

One rider who has bounced to gravel races on both sides of the Atlantic is the Australian Freddy Ovett, who has made the UCI Gravel World Championships as the centre of his season.

Speaking of Swenson, the American might just be the rider who can challenge Wout van Aert the most. He has been absolutely unstoppable in the biggest gravel races in the United States and his margin of victory in some of the more challenging races stack up to Van Aert. His engine is elite, but the world championship will be a new and stouter challenge and how he fairs against the WorldTour pros will be the big indicator of the general level at the LifeTime Grand Prix level.

Swenson will have a huge contingent of strong Americans at his side, with 13 riders selected for the race. Alexey Vermeulen is another rider who is very much trending up, with a win just this weekend at the most recent LifeTime Grand Prix race.

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