In the past couple of years it has been a precipitous journey for gravel rides and races, as off-road events scattered across the US have now blossomed into a world-wide calendar and smothered weekend dates. Lots of opportunities for riders and racers alike is not a bad thing, but how are the best of these bumpy, gritty adventures determined and crowned champions?
When the UCI launched its World Series calendar this year in the shape of 12 events across 10 countries, it also decided that a Gravel World Championship would take place in October.
However, you can’t call that event 'Gravel Worlds.'
Now in its 13th edition in Lincoln, Nebraska, Gravel Worlds takes place 120 miles (194 kilometres or 105 nautical miles) from the geographic centre of the United States. Lincoln is home to lots of cornfields, lots of college football fans (thanks to the University of Nebraska) and lots of unpaved roads. And like the Wizard of Oz, it has one thing the UCI doesn’t have, a trademark.
“Yeah, we are a registered trademark, Gravel Worlds. We’ve always said we’re the ‘unofficial, official’ Gravel Worlds,” Jason Strohbehn, director of operations and marketing for Garmin Gravel Worlds, told Cyclingnews.
“We have a registered trademark with the US, so we are ‘Gravel Worlds’. That was a big get for us. It happened right before the UCI stuff leaked out. It was kind of ironic timing, people thought we did that because of that. [In fact] we are just trying to protect our brand, which any company does.
“We haven't been contacted by the UCI. We wish the UCI the best of luck in their Gravel Series and hope more people across the planet can experience and fall in love with gravel. A rising tide raises all boats.”
Given the swell of popularity for gravel, Strohbehn said their event would continue to thrive, despite some confusion about the name. The first ‘unofficial, official’ Gravel Worlds was held in 2010, after two years as The Good Life Gravel Adventure. Considered uniquely American as the sport grows, the Nebraska event opted for gravel riding because that was the most common road surface, “that’s just what we have, gravel roads”.
The event is organised by the Pirate Cycling League, founded by Craig Schmidt and Troy Krause. Thus the land-locked terrain used for one of the biggest gravel rides in the country relates to swashbuckler similes, such as “sailing the gravel seas” and handing out swords for winner trophies.
“We see ourselves as the Gravel Worlds for the people really. We love having pro athletes there, we love celebrating the peak of human performance. We have always been pirate themed, so they get a real sword, and the DFLs, dead freakin’ last, get a letter opener, a tiny sword,” Strohbehn explained. “We celebrate everyone, from first to last. That’s what gravel was at the beginning. We try to keep that spirit as much as we can.
“When we started Gravel Worlds and gravel was a ‘thing’, it was just a bunch of friends that put a hard course together, started off at the same time and you'd meet up at the end for beers and tell the story of your day. We want that spirit alive above everything else.
“That’s what we stand for and what we want to do. I don’t think that is quite what the UCI is doing, but we wish them the best. I’m excited to see what they do.”
Gravel Worlds will go head-to-head on August 20 with Gravel Grit n Grind in Halmstad, Sweden, the seventh round of the Trek UCI Gravel World series. To date, some of the big names in gravel are confirmed to appear in Nebraska, including both Gravel Worlds reigning champions: Lauren De Crescenzo for the women and John Borstelmann, who has taken the last two editions for men.
Challengers in the women’s category include 2021 Rift winner Holly Mathews, 2021 Long Voyage (303 miles) winner Paige Redman and Life Time Grand Prix competitor Hannah Shell. In the men’s category, Belgian Waffle Ride North Carolina winner Peter Stetina will line up against Unbound Gravel 200 third-place finisher Ian Boswell and men’s Individual Pursuit World Champion and World Record holder Ashton Lambie.
Four cycling events are scheduled in 2022, with the anchor 150-mile race providing 10,000 feet of climbing across rural farm country in south-eastern Nebraska. The event is fully self-supported with 21 divisions, ranging from age groups for men and women to Vintage Bicycle, Single Speed, Fatbike/Cargo/Recumbent and Para categories for men and women.
“Most people would definitely say that gravel has been uniquely American. It started as a uniquely American sport. I don’t think it is as big in Europe yet as it is here. But gravel as we know it, or gravel racing, started in the Midwest. We are fortunate to be part of it,” said Strohbehn.
1,000 women of Gravel Worlds
New for 2022 is the 1,000 Women of Gravel Worlds initiative. Last year less than 440 women comprised the registered participants in all categories. Organisers wanted to blow that number out of the water. As of June 15, 903 women had accepted the challenge and registered.
In addition, Gravel Worlds and sponsor HMH Logistics will jointly donate $15 per rider, up to $15,000, to the Nebraska Interscholastic Cycling League, the Nebraska Chapter, support the GRiT (Girls Riding Together) campaign.
“We're already 2.5 times the number of women we've ever had attend Gravel Worlds. Ultimately, all of this will be accomplished because of women inspiring and encouraging other women to join the Gravel Family,” Strohbehn said.
“Sometimes big goals need to scare you. The biggest reason we wanted to do this was that we wanted to keep gravel inclusive. With cycling in general, we have a long way to go. If we do this, we know the job is not done. We have a lot of ways for inclusion and we need to keep pushing forward. This was just our goal for 2022.”
On the event’s Instagram account this week, 20 women's scholarships were made available for the 50km run/75km bike combo event and the 50km bike event. The event website has more information in the store section.
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