'It's you against the terrain' - why Oliveira embraced gravel

Flavia Oliveira at the 2022 Belgian Waffle Ride California
Flavia Oliveira at the 2022 Belgian Waffle Ride California (Image credit: Jake Orness/BelgianWaffleRide)

Flavia Oliveira (Excel Sports) rolled across the finish line at Belgian Waffle Ride California, exhausted but still smiling. Since 2007, the Brazilian climber has racked up a mountain of accomplishments, including multiple World Championship participations, a national road title, and top-10 in the 2016 Olympic road race. But after 15 years of racing internationally, Oliveira was ready for something new and found it in the emerging US gravel scene. 

The pandemic pushed Oliveira to make the switch to gravel in 2020. The domestic road race scene was suffering, and, like others forced to contemplate their next move, Oliveira reckoned she had two choices.

"When I made the decision, I had never tried anything else (except road)," she said. "After the pandemic, it seemed like the road scene kind of died down. The choice was to race criteriums or try gravel, and I prefer gravel. It's a new challenge."

Since making the transition, Oliveira, who had little to no experience with off-road racing, has shown quick progression. However, the 40-year-old says she's still learning about the nuances of gravel. There's always something new to absorb, whether it be bike choice, tyre pressure, or perfecting technical skills.

Despite Oliveira's steep learning curve, the former roadie holds her own with some of the best, finishing second to an in-form Moriah Wilson (Specialized) at BWR California on April 30. Both friends and close competitors from the Bay Area, the duo rode together until about mid-way through the 212km race, when Wilson pulled away from Oliveira on a long technical downhill section. Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM Racing), who's juggling a full season of both gravel and road, claimed third.  

"Gravel's a compromise. I never know what the right set-up is," Oliveira said. "If I had a bigger tyre, not a 38 inch [sic], if I had gone with a 35[mm]," I think that would have been enough because you can roll faster on pavement. That's where I was hurting, especially as it got windier. I chose the Specialized Crux, but I suffered a lot more on the road. Since I'm not a very good mountain biker, I figured that would be more forgiving for me on the gravel sectors. But this is all stuff I like. I really enjoy learning something new. I regret not trying gravel sooner."

The attractiveness of gravel isn't just the allure of fresh challenges. As soon as Oliveira finished her first race two years ago, she was hooked.

"I find it's the only area of cycling that gives women equal everything," she said. "We have the same course, same distance, same prize money. You don't find that in many other areas of cycling, and it's very appealing to me. I even preferred the mass start with the men. It is a lot more fun for us women. I think gravel is an inviting place, especially for women."

But, just like Oliveira, gravel events are also evolving. More and more talent and potential sponsors are drawn to the scene as races grow. Even fully supported gravel teams are forming. Travelling with a support crew is a relatively new concept, one that Oliveira has to consider now as she chooses her racing calendar.

"It's getting so big now, more and more professional. Now you see people with on the ground support on the course," said Oliveira, who rode self-supported at BWR California. "For some races like UNBOUND, I can't do that." She said. "But that race, logistically speaking, is next to impossible to complete independently. It's tough. When I started this, gravel was more of an individual thing. It's you against the terrain, figuring shit out. It wasn't like the road where you can throw your hand up and ask for a Coke."

But that's all part of the learning curve and something Oliveira embraces. With more races on offer than ever, she likes her options for 2022.

"This is a demanding discipline," she said. "BWR was a ruthless and long day. I can't do it every weekend, I'd love to, but I'd be fried. I love it, though. The vibe is so cool, and the courses are always challenging. It's way different than the road."

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A former professional and two-time cyclo-cross US national champion, Beard is also an award-winning journalist and cycling commentator. Since leaving competition, she has written for several major cycling media outlets, worked as media director for major US stage races and consulted with men's and women's professional cycling teams.