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Gravel gains traction with juniors at Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24

The granddaddy of gravel, Unbound Gravel, demands a thorough race plan, said Nicola Cranmer, founder and general manager for women’s programme Virginia's Blue Ridge TWENTY24 Professional Cycling. So when the team arrived in Emporia, Kansas in early June and had to adjust to an unfurnished house, secure two extra rental cars due to mechanical problems with transportation and work around delayed air travel, “you just roll with it”, and maybe lower expectations. But that is not what the team did.

Melisa Rollins, the only pro rider to make the trip, crossed the finish line in Emporia, Kansas in just over 11 hours to take fifth place at Unbound Gravel 200 for elite women. What grabbed a lot of attention were the junior riders, who hours earlier swept the junior 9th-10th grade women’s podium - winner Alexis Jaramillo, Lauren Weigel second and Ragan Weigel third. Alexis Jaramillo also won the overall women’s junior title, with sister Makala third. And 16-year-old Charlotte Lehmann finished top 30 in the 100-mile event.

“When there was no crit racing, or really no stage racing for the juniors during COVID, they all wanted to gravel bike, because our pro team was doing some gravel riding. And it was just kind of a nice break,” Cranmer told Cyclingnews about the team’s first appearance at Unbound Gravel in 2021.  

“So the couple of girls that went to Unbound, they loved it and had a blast, the local families took them in and they made a little mini vacation of it. Last year we had three pros and three juniors. The juniors got second, third and fifth. But then when we said ‘Hey, girls, you know who wants to go this year?' Originally, we actually had nine going. Wow.”

Minnesota sisters Ragan Weigel and Lauren Weigel, 14 years old last year, were second and third in the 2021 junior race, respectively, while then-15-year-old Addie Slutz of Ohio took fifth. 

A year on, even with all the pre-race logistical challenges, the training was paying dividends. A large team that focuses on development, Cranmer said gravel is not just an alternative event for fun, but one that is a key to building skills. 

“What I'm quickly realising is that junior road racing can be very negative and nobody does anything until the finish, right? So these gravel races, they're more - in my opinion - on par with a European race where they're in with the boys. Or they're in at the start with adults, if it's not a separate junior race. And it really brings out the best in these girls,” Cranmer explained to Cyclingnews.

“There's so many gravel races all over the country now, I think it's a unique and a really positive opportunity for these girls to get out there. And, you know, it's hard, hard, hard racing. These girls love it. Not that they want to become professional gravel racers, but they all do a lot of disciplines anyway.”

Gravel builds bike skills

The team conducted two spring camps in the Roanoke, Virginia area, one in March and one in April, with Kaitie Keough, the accomplished cyclo-cross rider who recently retired from competition, as junior team manager. Gravel rides were part of the programme.

“They were on road bikes, and then we would just deviate onto gravel roads. And they loved it. They were great. Around Roanoke, it's wild. It’s very, very, very hilly. There’s nothing flat. I mean, it's at least like 1000 feet every 10 miles,” added Cranmer.

“First of all, they have to develop gravel skills. If they're just roadies, and they have to develop bike skills, which they don't when they're just doing junior racing, most of the time. I mean, it's very empowering for them, because they get a flat, they're fixing that flat. If their chain breaks, you know, you fix it. So we have all these sessions on the approach to these events with these kids and making sure that they are prepared but it's just really empowering.”

A prime example of using these skills was demonstrated by Lehmann in the Unbound Gravel 100, against adult men and women. She finished 28th in the female division, but an impressive seventh in the female 29 and under category.

“I felt very strong starting out but was caught in two big crashes around mile 18 and 25. Around mile 55 though, I was separated from the group after another crash and was solo for most of the race after that. The hardest part mentally was around mile 70, right after the checkpoint, when it started pouring rain and the mud became thick, requiring lots of energy,” the junior wrote in a team race report.

“I kept reminding myself to just stay positive and focused. I got to the finish extremely exhausted and scraped up, but also proud of myself for remaining calm through all the difficulties faced.”

The team has five sets of sisters among the 27 junior riders, including one set of twins, which can bring an interesting dynamic, but Cranmer said it just adds to the cool vibe of the team.

“They laugh about it. You know, they're just super competitive. The Weigel twins, I mean, they finish each other's sentences, and they're very similar. The Jaramillo are sisters [Makala and Alexis], again, they are really friendly with each other, and they're in different age groups. And then the sisters in Southern California, the Chen sisters [Eire and Aine], yeah, they’re great.

“The Chen sisters were eligible for the Belgian Waffle Ride in California, and one of them was up there with the pro women, which actually blew my mind. And Samantha Scott raced day two at Belgian Waffle Ride and she finished on the podium!” 

The director’s reaction to a junior finishing the 100-mile ride with the adults? “So all of a sudden, you're like, ‘Wow, it's really impressive’.”

“It takes a lot of power and courage and skill to be able to do these gravel races. And I think it just will level them up much faster than riding around in a circle and just sprinting at the finish.”

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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).