According to Unbound Gravel 200 men’s defending champion Ian Boswell, and several of his top competitors in Emporia, Kansas this week, gravel racing is in a battle, and its opponent is road racing. Boswell has a straightforward perspective when it comes to gravel racing, that respect is “more important than the result.”
He referred to negative racing and sly tactics where strong riders sit back ‘hiding in the wheels’ to let others do the work while they rest for later in the race.
“I’d rather ride hard and get dropped than hold back to win,” Boswell told Cyclingnews about old-school racing, aiming for the process over the outcome. “At least then I’d have respect for myself and from my fellow riders. To me that’s more important than the result.”
Gravel events are not just blossoming, but they are exploding across the globe. In the US, Unbound Gravel is part of the six-race Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda series and the Belgian Waffle Ride series has expanded to five events this year, while the new Trek UCI Gravel World Series launched this year with 10 events. There’s plenty of prize money on the line at more races, and the environment seems to be in flux.
Last year Lauren De Crescenzo, the women’s Unbound 200 champion, faced allegations from fellow competitors that her rides were overly supported by male and female teammates on her Cinch team, making it more like a road race than a gravel event which threatened the ‘spirit’ of gravel competitions.
De Crescenzo defended her riding, saying she “didn’t have any special treatment from anyone on my team”.
Peter Stetina, who also transitioned from WorldTour to gravel like Boswell and finished third in Emporia last year, said he was concerned that a road racing mentality was creeping into gravel.
“It feels like the balance is being lost a little bit. A win-at-all-cost mentality is entering gravel now,” he said. “Everyone has a different view of what is right and wrong and what the spirit of gravel is. I got into gravel because I loved the feeling and the welcoming attitude of it all. And it’s definitely feeling more like road racing lately. If I wanted to road race, I’d still be in Europe doing that.”
Boswell, who is moving into a de facto leadership role of the genre, is new to winning. In fact, his victory at Unbound Gravel 200 last year was his first individual win in over a decade, after racing 11 years in the pro road peloton.
During his career as a professional WorldTour rider, Boswell became one of the best domestiques in the business, capable of shepherding the sport’s top riders on their way to glory. So even though he’s been successful on gravel, it makes sense that Boswell just wants to ride.
“I think it’s fine to hold back in the beginning when the pack is huge. But once the main selection is made, the last person standing wins. You pull through until you get dropped, if you don’t get dropped, you win,” Boswell said.
Last year at Unbound, around the midway point, the front group had whittled down to five riders including Boswell, Laurens ten Dam, Peter Stetina, Ted King, and Colin Strickland. Boswell made separation from the pack with 10 miles to go with Ten Dam, another pro roadie turned off-road rider, and he outsprinted the Dutchman at the finish for the victory. Trailing 1:11 back, Stetina claimed the final spot on the podium in another sprint, this one against King.
“The five of us, all riding with integrity and honor, no one missed a pull, that was more rewarding than winning,'' said Boswell.
Another former WorldTour rider turned gravel privateer, Kiel Reijnen was hesitant to declare what’s right and wrong when it comes to gravel racing. Along with Stetina, he is among the 60 riders to receive invitations to race the Life Time Grand Prix.
After the first event at Sea Otter Classic, the Fuego XC 80k, Reijnen is 20th in the standings, five positions behind Stetina. Keegan Swenson is the men’s current leader heading into Unbound.
“I don’t want to have a say in what gravel should or shouldn’t be. Gravel isn’t about telling people what they can and can’t do,” said Reijnen, who echoes the concerns of Boswell and Stetina. “There’s a collective cry for not letting gravel change too quickly.
“We’re in a fragile movement. With a little massaging, we may be able to help keep gravel a unique, inclusive, approachable environment that stands alone. For a lot of people, the road race scene can be really intimidating. I don’t want that. I want more people excited about participating in events, races, rides, whatever.”
Reijnen has an alternative name for the mass participant mixed surface rides he’s now focused on. “I call these gravel ‘events’ instead of ‘races’. It’s a way of using language to draw a line somewhere without actually changing anything.”
For Reijnen, competitive pressure is something he’s trying to get away from. He raced 14 years as a pro on the road, the last six with Trek-Segafredo, and was a teammate alongside Stetina for four seasons.
“I left road racing for a reason, I want gravel to be different from road. Whether it's through efforts that diminish the importance of getting a result, or riders coming together with agreed unwritten codes of conduct. If there’s interest in the [front] group to make that effort, I'm all for that,” Reijnen said.
“But my opinion is no more valid than the next person. We can all work together to create something that’s special and different.”
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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).