Gravel racing has been growing rapidly in recent years, to the extent that its own free-wheeling roots came under threat, and the discipline appears to have reached a seminal moment with the controversy surrounding Lauren De Crescenzo's recent victories.
The US rider has won some of the biggest events on the circuit this year - including Unbound and SBT GRVL - but has faced allegations from fellow competitors that her rides were overly supported by male and female teammates on the Cinch team.
There are no specific rules to say a rider cannot be fed or paced by others but some have complained that the actions of De Crescenzo and Cinch - run by Tom Danielson, who has served anti-doping bans in the past - broke the 'spirit' of gravel racing.
Cyclingnews published an in-depth piece last week on the matter, and now we have a full-length Q&A interview with De Crescenzo herself, in which she talks about what happened in the races, how she feels about the controversy, what this means for women's cycling, working with Danielson, and more.
Cyclingnews: Why do you think there was a level of animosity towards Cinch at Unbound and SBT?
Lauren De Crescenzo: Tom Danielson. Something that happened almost 10 years and this is where the hatred comes from.
CN: So you think that if you were working with any other coach there wouldn’t be any criticism over the team tactics?
LDC: There were no team tactics and every other woman out there was drafting off men. That’s the same in every mass-start event. I didn’t have any special treatment from anyone on my team because they were worried about their own race.
CN: Just to pick up on a couple of things you’ve said, in Danielson’s Instagram message he says that someone on the team fixed your flat in Unbound.
LDC: So, I had two flats in Unbound. I fixed the first one with a tyre plug and the second one my tyre was so shredded. A teammate went by and he calmed me down and told me to put a tube in. I know how to do that. Then I was 25 minutes back and I had to close that gap. Like any good human, he asked if I was okay. It wasn’t like he gave me his wheel. That whole video was very bad but Tom was very upset with everything and you shouldn’t post anything at 3:30 in the morning.
CN: That’s often good advice. I wasn’t there, at the race, and I’m just going by what you’ve said and what others have said and posted on social media. I get that you believe that the animosity stems from the fact that you’re working with Danielson, and for sure there’s a degree of truth in that, but if I look at some of what you’re competitors are writing it doesn’t always seem to be just that. For example, Amity Rockwell posted this and I don’t wish to cause you upset...
LDC: I’ve seen it all.
CN: And I do appreciate that you reached out to me in the first place, which I didn’t think would happen, and I do appreciate it. But she says, "no one is accusing anyone of cheating at SBT. We’re just annoyed that the current lack of rules and etiquette allows for lame people to take advantage of good fun bike racing. I was tolerant of Cinch’s presence until their dishonestly about their tactics. I love this sport too dang much to be quiet when its future is at stake." I mean…
LDC: I never saw her. I finished a few hours before her. I guess it looks bad for appearances when it’s people in the same kit.
CN: Amity isn’t the only rider to be critical. It's a few others and they've all called into question the team’s tactics. Is what they're saying made up?
LDC: I don’t know what my tactic was. I was out there, and if anyone looks at my power file, I averaged 200 watts for seven hours. But I did the work and I don’t know what tactic is being called into question – the fact that I’m there with people in the same clothing as me? We share a love of the sport and are just out there to enjoy it. We stay in the same house, if that’s a tactic. I was just out there for seven hours going as hard as I could. There are videos of me taking pulls with the guys and if you ask anyone they’ll tell you how hard I train. I’ve been doing this since I’ve was 18 years old. I’ve read the articles I’ve seen that they’ve said "Lauren is an incredible athlete, she probably would have won anyway", but now with this element of Cinch it just delegitimizes everything that I’m doing on a daily basis. Then the excel sheet that I sent you shows that I wasn’t with my teammates.
CN: I did watch a Flobikes interview from Unbound in which Tom Danielson clearly talks about a tactic to have one leader and that the team is there to totally support you during Unbound with positioning. Can you shed any light on what he's talking about, if there was no tactic?
LDC: At Unbound I tried to stay near a male teammate in the really chaotic start. I'm afraid of the huge mass starts given my brain injury. His "job" was to keep me safe or at least make me feel safe. He was the only male rider I saw that day. I dropped him about 40 miles in and when I flatted later I thought my tyre was done and my race was over. He encouraged me to put a tube in. When I got the bike running again, I had to close a 25-minute gap.
CN: One final question on that, Tom Danielson wasn’t riding on the course at Unbound?
LDC: No, no. He was just in the feed zones.
CN: You did say after Gravel Worlds that ‘you’d heard the critics’ and you won by a considerable margin. It seems like there was a change in mindset or approach to racing just based on the language that you used in that message posted on Instagram. What was that about?
LDC: I think that the language is being misinterpreted as in 'I saw faults in what I was doing'. I’ve just done what I’ve been doing this entire time and I went there with a teammate Holly Matthews and when I said 'critics I’ve heard you' I just wanted to show that I can do it without a man in the race. You can’t fake gravel racing. It’s hard to fake it for 12 hours. I’ve done the homework. So 'critics I heard you' was just me saying that I can do it on my own; I wasn’t saying that what I’d done was wrong.
CN: How do you feel when it’s riders you’re on the podium with and in the women’s field that are calling into question Cinch and their tactics?
LDC: I think that it’s not fair. At Gravel Worlds, second place wouldn’t shake my hand. She just put her hands in her pockets. That was the most hurtful thing of all. You’re supposed to respect your competitors. She refused to shake my hand. I’m not out there for the money, I won a pirate sword. I rolled up to someone in that race and they said ‘I’ll only pull for you if you mention me in Velonews’ and I was just thinking are you kidding me. He apologized. Someone else asked if I was good for food and water and I said I’m good and told him that it was against the spirit of gravel.
CN: So you’re categorically saying that when it comes to male riders there’s no one helping you on the Cinch side of things in the race?
LDC: The only thing that could be called into question is when my teammate Ethan flatted out of the front group at SBT and we caught him and he offered me a bottle. That’s the most help I received. His race was over, and as an act of sportsmanship, he offered me some water. In the group at SBT there was no plan among the group I was with for everyone to stop and fill up their bottles. There was no agreed plan to stop and I kept rolling because we were on a climb. That’s where I knew that I wanted to make my move. I still won the race by 10 minutes and I hope that it didn’t take anyone 10 minutes to fill their bottles.
CN: So you started with a hydration pack?
LDC: Yeah I started with a Camelback with 1.5 liters of water and had two one-liter bottles. So I started with three and a half liters, so 8 pounds of water.
CN: You took just that one other bottle?
CN: But in terms of the tactics there’s no plan for the team to say we’re going to look after Lauren until this point or feed zone? There’s no discussion or plan around that?
LDC: No. They’re not racing for me. I wasn’t with a group of six men. I was dropped, I caught my teammates and I finished the highest on the team.
CN: I know what cycling can be like and how fickle it can be but it feels from the outside, it’s not just Amity, it’s not just Whitney Allison, it’s not just Sarah Sturn, it’s a good number of athletes raising questions.
LDC: It feels like all of my competitors, in a way.
LDC: I don’t feel like I’m doing anything different to anyone else in the field. It’s a mass start race. We’re all drafting off each other, men and women. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything different to anyone else. I won the race so anything I do now is under suspicion.
CN: But at the same time, and I’m not in the group with you, and it’s not on TV, but are you saying that all your competitors are making this up?
LDC: What happened?
LDC: How my race went isn’t how my competitors said it was. That I was being shepherded around my six men? No way. Absolutely not. My competitors also said that Lauren broke no rules.
CN: That’s true. There are no rules on the aspect of pacing. It’s more about these unwritten rules or the 'spirit'.
LDC: What they’re accusing me of, has happened before. This is not the first time a woman has been accused of drafting off a man, whether it be a teammate or a husband.
CN: It’s in the piece that I wrote that this has happened before, so I think it’s about perception and scale. Being drafted by your husband, partner or one person as opposed to the perception or reality of being drafted by multiple people on a single team.
LDC: At no point did I have multiple people and would it be okay if I was with multiple people but just not in the same kit as me? I’m just out there trying to do my best, ride my heart out, and go fast.
CN: I do understand that. I did read that one of your rivals said it would be better if female riders were working for you rather than male teammates. Is that fair or something that again you’d state isn’t accurate as they’re not riding for you?
LDC: If that’s what she wants then we need to start on a different day to the men and I don’t think that’s realistic.
CN: Will you change anything about how you’re going to race in the future?
LDC: From now on it might just be best to show up by myself. What I did at Gravel Worlds worked really well. I did have a teammate and she won The Rift in Iceland. I just dug really deep and I let my legs do the talking. I’m going to continue to speak with my legs. The perception is what’s so screwed up about this. Maybe because of the matching kits but I feel like I have a proven track record. I set the Everesting record, I’ve won national titles, I’ve won Crusher in the Tusher, the hardest race of all. To call into question my ability and say it’s all because of the team, I don’t think that’s fair.
CN: From the riders I’ve talked to no one has called into your question your ability or if you’d have won that race. Everyone I’ve spoken to on or off the record has said whether it was one bottle or two the race outcome wouldn’t have changed. But it’s about perception and female riders feeling that you have an unfair advantage because of potential or real male support. That is a topic. I know you’ve said it’s happened before where partners pace their other halves, or they’re offered support, but the difference or novelty here is that Cinch have brought it up another level.
LDC: Last year I had no team. I had the opportunity at this team and I worked with a coach again, Tom, and I saw the improvements – which is one of my favourite parts of the sport. I joined as a way being a full-time epidemiologist and a full-time cyclist at this level. Before that, I wasn’t being coached and I was just doing what I wanted to do every day.
CN: I get the sense that gravel is a close-knit community. Have you spoken to any of your competitors since Unbound or SBT?
LDC: Sarah Sturn texted me. I did a podcast with Amanda Nauman and we discussed the future of the sport. I think we’re all going to try to hop on Zoom on Thursday. I think the women need to sort this out and have an actual discussion. This only affects us. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of our conversation.
CN: What did Sarah say, if you don’t mind me asking?
LDC: Basically, 'Lauren I know that you’re an incredible athlete. I’m not calling that into question I just think we need to figure this out as a community for women’s cycling – and that we need to get more girls on bikes'. She also said I would have won anyway.
CN: Did that makes sense to you?
LDC: Of course. I want more women on bikes. It’s an amazing thing to have in your life; you can make friends and be fit and happy. I wish more girls were on bikes and racing bikes.
CN: But I guess her point is, and I’m not trying to put words in her mouth, but that if the racing is going to develop to where women are being helped by more men in races then that’s not good optics for women’s cycling and it doesn't provide parity.
LDC: Yep it’s all optics. What’s being portrayed isn’t what’s happening and since my competitors are saying I would have won anyway then where’s the argument? I’ve been trying to write this piece [ed. for another publication] where I put down that I was on my own for an hour and a half with my teammates up the road and I thought that I was going the wrong way. I just don’t think I’m getting credit. It's like people think that I was being pulled along and not doing any work but I was doing a ton of work just to bridge gaps.
CN: What does the spirit of gravel mean to you, because that’s the thing that some people have an issue with?
LDC: It sounds elusive. It’s hard to break something so elusive and I’m just out there racing my bike because it’s a race. I guess it means pushing myself and inspiring myself. I also just want to ride hard so that everyone is 'wow'. It’s elusive though and it’s not defined anywhere. It’s hard to put into words.
CN: Well from speaking to riders it’s about fairness and whether riders come to the start line with a - and I hate saying it - level playing field, and the same opportunities. So if Whitney, Sturn or Rockwell feel as though they’re turning up with a disadvantage because they don’t have a team with male athletes...
LDC: I just don’t like the idea that I’m being ridden around by a bunch of male sheep. I’m doing the work. This is crazy.
CN: Does it take the joy out of it? What’s happened in the last two weeks.
LDC: It only made me want to just get out there and go harder. That’s how I react to criticism. I respond well to adversity.
CN: If you win races in a more convincing fashion, that might not win people around...?
LDC: I’m not going to let what other people say ruin the sport for me but it does suck when your wins are being called into question.
CN: We’ve talked for a long time but I want to ask about Danielson and why you’ve chosen to work with him when you know that he’s got that history? And at the same time why be so praising towards him, calling him the best coach in the world, when you know that he carries that history?
LDC: Before December, I wasn’t on the team. He was starting a new program and asked if I’d like to join. I didn’t have a team. I still had cycling dreams and he said that he could help me get better and support me. I joined the team, he started coaching me and I kept on seeing myself get better. I also think that people can have second chances and everything that has done for me has been really helpful. He’s been a great coach. We can’t just ban him from society forever. I know he has a tainted past… I did all my research about it and the second one in 2015 and we talked about that. There are two sides to every story and I don’t think that we can say he can never be part of the sport again. Everyone makes mistakes and some are under more scrutiny but I got the chance to join this team and go to these cool races and have fun. I thought that we were all just meant to have fun.
CN: Are you having fun?
LDC: Not now, not today. But I do feel like I’ve become a sideshow with all of this. Like people are saying ‘Lauren had a great ride but this is why we hate Tom’. Why are we even talking about this? It’s 2021 and he’s not racing.
CN: No he’s not racing but he did put out a 15-minute long Instagram video in which he made this all about himself and not about you or women’s racing. And then he started calling out female riders in that post too, so if he wants to make them fair game, in his eyes, then he puts himself in that position too.
LDC: I don’t think he should have posted that but I’ve tried to stay positive.
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