I'm used to starting my season in Australia. With Nationals, Tour Down Under and the Bay Crits, every year of my pro career (minus the COVID-19 blip) was launched with a month of racing under the blazing southern sun, with my family and old friends there in person, with the food I grew up on and the accents that sound like mine surrounding me.
So when I saw that the second round of the UCI Gravel World Series was in Australia, really, why break with tradition? This seemed like the perfect excuse to start my real season just like I always had…
Well. Perth in May is no Adelaide in January, I'll tell you that. I landed for my 6 days in Australia to a wet and windy weather front more reminiscent of Belgium than anything I could remember about Australia. After a decade I guess I convinced myself it was always summer there… but hey ho, this was GRAVEL and new adventures, and a new style so I wasn't about to let a change in the skies bog me down.
I was so curious to see what the UCI's Gravel World Series would be like. Of course, the Seven Gravel Race isn't a new event, it is just a new 'category' which the race exists in, and it's already a hugely respected race on the continent. But gravel is fairly new to Australia.
Except for perhaps high socks, arm sleeves and flat whites at cafes, Australian cycling has never really been on the pulse in terms of new fashions in cycling. One finds the continent is not only far geographically from cycling's cultural hubs in Europe and North America, but also when it comes to new disciplines in the sport, Australia tends to be half a decade (at least) behind the rest of the world.
Take fixed gear and cyclo-cross for example. The skinny black jeans of NYC and London hipsters had all but moved on from Fixies and turned to whatever else became cool by the time the scene emerged in Australia. Cyclo-cross is no different. Even though the discipline is as old as Ernesto Colnago himself, Australia has only recently formed their own series in the last few years. Let's say to be kind, the Aussie uptake can be a bit slow.
So I was curious, a new UCI designation in a fairly new discipline, what would it look like? So off I was to the country town of Nannup, a few hours drive from Perth. The name Nannup in the traditional language of the area I soon learned meant place of rest, so to be fair, for name sake the town already had somewhat of the gravel vibe right? But rested I would not be with the full-on race.
I would say, for sure the UCI designation, the points on offer, and the qualification for the World Championships brought a higher level of sporting and a higher level of organisation to the race. But in no way that I saw did it affect the 'vibe' or dare I say… the 'spirit of gravel'. We laughed, we ate dinner from food trucks, we serviced out bikes ourselves, and there wasn't a soigneur in sight.
And the race – I've seen a lot of gravel races recently getting a bit low on gravel. Yeah. How is it a gravel race is half of it is on road? That's more like a road race to me with some bumpy bits. I'm a purist. Make Gravel Gravel Again! I know not everywhere can connect endless gravel, but this one ticked the boxes with over 95% of loose road surface.
'It was almost a spiritual experience'
I've been anxiously waiting for the World Cups to start this year. I've been training for months, doing smaller races to prepare, but I soon found that nothing was to prepare me for the mammoth course laid out for us. Whilst it was only 125km, there was 3200 metres of total climbing, with the final climbs having huge stretches at over 25% gradient.
The gravel was exceptional. Whilst not technical, the high speed steep downhill fire roads were enough to force gaps and send the race into warp speed.
After a very intense start, shuffling for the first corners, countless attacks, fighting for position into climbs, almost losing sight of how the race was unfolding I thought to myself, 'OK – game on!' The race found its rhythm and I found myself in the second half of the race in a battle for the win with Adam Blazevic, who won the U19 Australian Cyclo-cross Championships back in 2016.
I'd not met Adam before but you could see in his physique and his skills that he was a very, very classy bike rider. I'd bridged a two- or three-minute gap to catch him, so when I did I also knew, perhaps, that was my last solid bullet, so I just hoped we were both hurting before the last three climbs, all over 25%.
Alas, the young buck dropped me, and then it was what it was. I rode in for second to a huge buzz at the event village.
It was disappointing to not win, because I really thought I could, but it's just given me more respect for the racing discipline and in many ways helped me realise what else I need to do or change in my training to make sure I can level up for future events.
Racing gravel in Australia exceeded all expectations, and believe me, my proud Australian bias meant that my expectations were very high. Racing through the rusty red clay roads, weaving through the beautiful eucalyptus bushland, when the early morning mist rolled over the sunburned hills, whilst the golden morning light diffused throughout the clouds... It was almost a spiritual experience.
Not to mention the adrenaline of dodging mobs of kangaroos which jumped their way onto the course more than a few times. Australia has certainly understood the culture of gravel, yet in its own way created a thing of beauty unique to itself.
I think this is the beauty of the UCI Gravel World Series, as it will grow gravel in places that you'd never expect to go and race, and likely every continent will have its own unique feeling.
I can't wait to get straight into the next race, but until then, there's some work to do!
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Nathan Haas has turned his back on the WorldTour to dive into world of gravel. After a decade at the top echelon of professional road racing, the Australian is answering the off-road call in 2022, teaming up with Colnago to race and ride as a privateer on the burgeoning global gravel scene. He'll be documenting his experiences for Cyclingnews along the way, in his own inimitable style.