Gravel racing in the United States is still in its infancy and, like all sports finding their way, is prone to bumps and hurdles. Two years ago, the ruckus in gravel focused on aero bars and their place within the new frontier of off-road racing but the latest controversy to hit this growing discipline is of far greater importance and substance. It matters, and it cuts to the core of fairness as well as the fragile and extremely important growth of women’s cycling.
Victories in the female category at both of those prestigious events went to Lauren De Crescenzo, who was widely applauded by spectators in Emporia and Colorado. However, her victories came with a bitter aftertaste when several female competitors complained about her team and questioned whether the spirit of the rules within gravel racing had been broken.
The Cinch strategy can be summed as such: stack a handful of elite male riders around your best female athlete, feed her, water her, let her draft, offer mechanical assistance, and help her close gaps to her female competitors should they emerge.
It’s not the same as carrying a rider to the finish - and De Crescenzo still has to have the legs to climb thousands of vertical feet - but the tactics that were alleged and backed up by competitors at the race certainly put her out of reach when it came to the notion of fair play.
For those who aren't aware, most gravel races are mass-start events, meaning anyone can line up. While riders are allowed to support each other, there’s rarely any controversy that comes with it.
Often the support involves wives riding with their husbands and vice versa or riders surfing groups that contain male and female competitors to chaingang away from their rivals. That’s all legal and commonplace but the idea of having several male riders support a female rider at the expense of female competitors, and on a grand scale, is certainly new and disturbing.
Over the last weekend, just after SBT, and when the flames of criticism were at their highest, Danielson took to social media to post a near 15-minute video. It was painful viewing. Not because of the incoherent nature of the former rider’s rant but because, rather than simply focus on De Crescenzo’s achievements and how he would like to encourage growth in women’s cycling, he instead made the issue about him.
"I just want everyone to know that this has been traumatic for me. This has hit trauma," he opened with, seemingly with no degree of awareness for the real trauma he caused the sport by doping during his own career, or for the clean riders he caused genuine heartache for.
"The reason it’s so traumatic for me is that the reason that I lost my career was for something that I did not do. I did not do that. I don’t know if anyone understands what it’s like to lose it all for something that they did not do," he added, seemingly forgetting that despite 'losing it all' he runs a coaching business, a bike shop in Boulder that sells premium Colnagos, and co-manages a cycling team.
The reason Danielson lost his position as a pro athlete was because not only was he given a lightweight sanction of a six-month ban for his part in the US Postal doping programme in 2012 but he also tested positive for synthetic testosterone in 2015. He would go on to claim that the positive test was ‘unintentional’ but a four-year ban from USADA followed. He has effectively had two strikes – one as part of the biggest cycling doping story of the last 15 years and the second due to a banned substance showing up in his body.
And it’s partly the palpable animosity towards Danielson that explains why Cinch’s tactics in gravel racing have become such a hot topic. Ordinarily, the team’s tactics would be a sub-plot story but because of Danielson’s past, they take on greater significance and attract fiercer criticism from within the sport.
Pacing and in-race support is nothing new in gravel racing; speak to any of the top-level women and they’ll confirm its previous existence. it’s just that Cinch, according to several rivals, have taken it from the minors to the majors and their project is spearheaded by a former rider who only came clean about his doping past when forced to by federal agents.
Tactics in question
At SBT, for example, Velonews reported that De Crescenzo and her teammates chased back to Lauren Stephens after the QOM, up to which point Stephens had been the only female rider in the first group. Then at the fourth feed, one of De Crescenzo’s male teammates grabbed a bottle for her and paced it back to her. Meanwhile, the rest of the female riders all stopped at the feedzone to fill up their bottles. They never made it back to the group containing De Crescenzo again.
To some, Cinch’s tactics were simply smart, and Danielson simply took his know-how from the men’s WorldTour scene and brought it to gravel racing. If he hadn’t done it, someone else probably would have, but it does go against the spirit of what gravel racing is supposedly about.
Elite athlete Whitney Allison was brave enough to use her social media profile to call out Danielson's team.
"There is a huge issue for the growth of women’s cycling if to be competitive you have to have a half dozen MEN there to assist you. Although not against the 2021 rules of @unboundgravel or @sbtgrvl where this happened, it is against the spirit of sport and is not something male competitors have to face," she wrote on Instagram.
"It severely hurts women’s cycling which already faces less press, less sponsorship and more. It also directly contradicts @cinchelite’s objective of equity of opportunity… if that were the case then they would be hiring 6 women to support Lauren, not men. This is in addition to a program that is run by a well-known doper…how can we be surprised the team thrives in the grey area?! People, stop paying and subscribing to dopers. There are much better/more educated/worthier coaches and organizations to spend your money on and I’m happy to help you find them.
"I do think it is essential to address this now before women’s cycling is just left [to. sic] the few who can afford the slew of male domestiques and internet influencers. Women’s racing is badass and we need the chance to compete against each other in an equitable way. Although many people shifted to gravel partially for fewer rules, I believe some rules need to be in place to preserve women’s cycling at a competitive level otherwise it will shrink."
Allison went further. In several other posts she eloquently laid out other concerns and ideas for how women’s racing could prosper. She also importantly asked her Instagram followers to kindly not troll De Crescenzo.
"When women who want to compete also need to have extra infrastructure in the form of male domestiques to specifically pace them, pull other women back, mechanically take care of them or feed them, it makes it harder for women to get into the competition side because the sport is already pretty cost prohibitive and challenging to get into," she wrote.
"Women needing a team of men around them isn’t gravel. Gravel is meant to be out the back door FUN and accessible. No bullshit. Which also means we should be competing against each other."
Danielsons hit back
Danielson’s response to open criticism was at odds with the ‘I’ll own it’ stance he took when discussing his past, and he used his video to lambast the female riders his team had beaten at SBT, notably Allison and several others.
"The girl at Unbound who got second saying 'fuck you Tom Danielson, get the fuck out of the sport', that shit hurts," he said. "Sarah Sturm saying Cinch is win at all costs, three weeks after one of our riders pulled her the entire race, come on. You guys are just trying to pull some bullshit on me. I’m not a dirtbag cutting corners, I’m a fan. Sarah, Amity [Rockwell] and Whitney, I was fan of you guys. Lauren Stephens I was a fan. You were badass, but this? No. You guys are leaders and better than this."
Sturm summed up something that Danielson appeared incapable of understanding – that while De Crescenzo was talented and competitive, the team’s tactics pulled the rug out from under the women’s field and gave his rider an inescapable advantage.
"I had no idea any of this had happened since I’d flatted out of the mix, but when I’d learned about what the @cinchelite team had brought to @sbtgrvl I was 'upset' to say the least," Sturm wrote on Instagram. "It’s not that they broke any rules, they broke the spirit of this sport we are all learning about. Some may say they’re pushing the boundaries and I disagree, they’d be pushing boundaries if they’d had WOMEN working for Lauren. And the worst part is, I believe she was probably strong enough on her own to come away with a win!"
At the same time, Kourtney Danielson, the co-founder of the Cinch team and Tom Danielson’s wife, put out a statement on August 20 to dismiss the claims that several of the male riders on the team had worked for De Crescenzo.
"Let me be 100 per cent clear that Lauren did not have any dedicated domestiques at SBT. Unfortunately, people are trying to discredit her win despite her riding the majority of the course by herself."
Kourtney Danielson also disputed how De Crescenzo created her winning gap, claiming it was made up on the climbs rather than what riders and Velonews had reported soon after the race but she did acknowledge that part of the problem was down to the perception of the Cinch team.
"I get it. We have a target on our team’s back. People want to have preconceived opinions while not taking the time to ask questions."
There are still questions surrounding what happened at SBT, however. For example, if there was no support for De Crescenzo, as Kourtney Danielson claims, then why did a number of high-profile riders, both on and off-record, raise such concerns? What was to gain if the allegations were all untrue?
For her part in all of this, De Crescenzo appears to have taken on board the feedback from her rivals and the fans who called into question her team’s tactics. There is no doubting that she is incredibly strong, and it's fair to also argue that no amount of bottle support for her competitors would have changed the outcome of those races given the time gaps.
This weekend she rode Gravel Worlds on her own and won. She is clearly mindful of the issues that have arisen in the last few weeks.
"Critics, I heard you. That's why on Saturday I raced @gravel_worlds with no male teammates. I rode my pirate heart out for 7 hours 35 min and set a new course record, averaging 210 and normalizing 240 watts."
What happens next depends on a number of factors and, while the organisers cannot be blamed for any of the race antics, they do perhaps have a responsibility to revise their rules and provide clarity.
Stories over glories
In terms of Tom Danielson, though, the jury came back a long time ago. Twice in fact.
As one advocate of clean cycling said this weekend when contacted by Cyclingnews: "Sport is a privilege and just because you admit to doping it doesn’t mean you are automatically accepted back into the community. In my opinion people who have multiple serious infractions in the sport shouldn’t be in a role advising, coaching, or in a position of power or influence. The chain of acceptance and whitewashing of doping is perpetuated.
"Some people get upset when myself and others still remember the history, the lack of truth and reconciliation, and are vocal in advocating for clean sport. I don’t wish anybody harm in their private life but when dopers keep trying to insert themselves into the spotlight, make themselves the victim, I am going to speak out and be unapologetic about it."
Pete Stetina, who won the Leadboat challenge told us: "Gravel is beautiful, in part because of its lack of rules. It has drawn support and high-caliber athletes because of its spirit of community, fairness and the experiences it creates. It’s about stories over glories but there are growing pain in both the men's and women's fields right now."
However, once gravel becomes road racing off-road, and is directed by characters with doping pasts, some of that beauty is lost.
The victim in what happened at SBT isn’t Danielson, no matter what he says. It was, sadly, women’s racing.
For the sake of gravel racing, and women’s gravel racing in particular, its community needs to come up with a fairer framework before the next grey area is exploited.
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