Gritty Take: Opinions On The UCI Sanctioned Gravel Series/World Championships

Gritty Take: Opinions On The UCI Sanctioned Gravel Series/World Championships – by Guitar Ted

Cyclists on a rural road
Gravel cycling and events have been exclusive of the UCI sanctioning for years. That all is about to change for some events. (Image by Wally Kilburg)

You just knew this was going to happen one day, didn’t you? The UCI- that big, evil, fun-ruining organization was going to come in and destroy everything you loved about the gravel event scene. The UCI, with their silly sanctions and rules….. Bah! It’s over folks. Pack up the tents and retreat back to your holes. It was fun while it lasted……right?

Wrong- That is all completely wrong thinking, but I’ve heard it for over a decade. I’ve been around this modern day gravel event scene for what? Now sixteen years since my old event kicked this can down a dusty road? Something like that. And ever since this took root here in the Mid-West, the fears of ‘the UCI coming in‘ have been heard. Well, of course, the UCI was one of the big reasons why gravel events took off the way that they did, so it stands to reason that people would start thinking this way. Everyone in gravel in the early days wanted to avoid UCI-like sanctioning at all costs.

Gravel Worlds promoter, Craig Schmidt with the first Gravel Worlds jersey, circa 2010
Gravel Worlds jersey held by promoter Craig Schmidt in 2010.

Then when the Pirate Cycling League changed the name of their event from the “Good Life Gravel Adventure” to “Gravel Worlds” in 2010, we all got the joke. The PCL even went as far as to make a rainbow jersey and offered it to the overall and category winners in the event. No big deal. Just having a good time and poking some fun at “That Evil Sanctioning Body” with all their Rules and Red Tape.

It was all those seemingly arcane rules, loads of age group classes, regulations involving course design, bicycles, and even your clothing that got to those folks who, you know, just wanted to have a little fun. An adventure, a challenge, a shared experience. Gravel events offered simplicity, an easy to understand rule set, and no real regulations as to bicycles, clothing, or how you engaged the events. You didn’t have to buy a license. You just showed up with your bike, a helmet, and you rode. You were welcomed, not scrutinized. These are just some of the many reasons why UCI road events lost participation and why gravel events started running bigger fields and why more events started popping up.

Then the bicycle industry took note. The synergy between the gear and what people were doing with it took off, and the industry saw a decline in road racing bike sales and a big increase in so-called ‘gravel’ and adventure bikes. Meanwhile, events kept popping up and people kept joining the ranks of gravel cycling. Finally, about five years ago, USA Cycling and the UCI started to poke around to see if they could get in on the action.

Riders at the start of the first Dirty Kanza 200 in 2006.
Guitar Ted, (R) and other riders at the start of the first DK200 in 2006 (Image by Paul Jacobson)

And why wouldn’t they? USAC membership and money taken in from licensing took a precipitous dip. The UCI saw European interest in unpaved road sections in some events start going up, and ‘gravel events’ had popped up on the Continent like weeds in a garden. Talks were had with established events, but the fiercely independent gravel promoters were not receptive…..yet.

The pandemic put plans on hold, but the UCI, not to be deterred, hooked up with event organizers Golazo, a European based company known well for big cycling event productions, and other athletic productions, and now have announced that there will be a gravel series contested in 2022 under their auspices.

So, what does this potentially mean? I think it means that the gravel scene has matured, for starters. The money and prestige once exclusively held by road racing is now going to be shared with those who excel at gravel racing. This will spur on even more participation at the highest levels. The industry of event promotions and cycling both stand to gain somewhat from such endeavors. You may not like Pro-level racing and all it entails, but this is what many people want, will pay for, and will support. Many more people will pick up riding because of this. Think about that potential.

In another sense, this development has absolutely no bearing at all on what many call ‘grassroots gravel’. The UCI and USAC cannot replicate what occurred natively with gravel events and rural riding. Again- their very culture motivated rural and gravel riding for many. And besides, the UCI/USAC organizations won’t even delve into that, because, for one thing, there is not a lot of money to be made there. No, their focus will be on the highly polished, full-featured events where entry fees will easily be into the triple digits. Grassroots cycling on rural roads, both competitive and recreational, will still be a thing. Especially as long as we have distracted drivers, uncontrolled speeding motorists, and choked highways with no provisions for separated cycle ways.

And in another way of looking at this, this does mark an end. What? Did you think things would stay the same forever? Of course, that is ridiculous. Things never stay the same, and anyone who tries to hold on to the way things once were is in big trouble down the road. (No pun intended) That isn’t to say that elements of the early gravel scene won’t survive, but we don’t live in the same world we lived in 15+ years ago either. Keep what is good, roll with the changes, and take what is best of ‘The New” and use it to enhance what we have. But yeah, this UCI thing marks an ending. Is that bad? Maybe if you didn’t ‘get enough’ or missed those earlier days for whatever reasons, but otherwise, maybe this is just a nostalgic barrier that needs to be passed by. It is The End, but it isn’t over yet either.

The bottom line here is that whatever the UCI, USAC, or the “Big Gravel Event Machine” does won’t have any power unless you give it to them. Ultimately, whatever your vision of ‘gravel cycling’ is will be shaped by what you pay attention to, by what you spend your money on, and by what you think about it all. That power is in your hands. Don’t give it away without thinking really hard about that.


Author: Guitar Ted

Guitar Ted hails from Iowa. Home of over 70,000 miles of gravel and back roads. An inaugural member of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame and Co-creator of Trans Iowa in late 2004- Guitar Ted has been at the forefront of the growth of gravel events and riding since then. Creator of Gravel Grinder News in 2008, he produced the premier calendar of gravel and back road events. GT joined forces with Riding Gravel in late 2014.

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8 thoughts on “Gritty Take: Opinions On The UCI Sanctioned Gravel Series/World Championships

  1. The world of cycling is big enough to accommodate both the UCI and everything it does, and an organizer sending around a Ride With GPS link and collecting $10 from a couple dozen folks to put together a little prize purse. Some folks prefer the former and some folks prefer the latter, and that’s all okay. I never planned to do a big gravel race like Unbound or SBT before this and I don’t plan to after this either. I think you are right on – this won’t change anything for me and I think folks howling on twitter about “ruining gravel” are losing perspective.

  2. GTed I feel like one of those big voices bemoaning the good old days and telling us how the UCI, USAC, Lifetime and all the rest were going to ruin gravel and that gravel as we know it has died, that big voice, was you GTed. As recently as August and July your blog stated how if UCI/USAC got into gravel series “the sport would die a death”. and “I’ll not be very supportive, nor hopeful that this will be an improvement for cyclists such as myself. History says it will be just like it always has been when entrenched leaders who have no new vision come in to take over. ” Maybe i missed some context but they way I have read your previous writings sure sounds a lot like the first paragraph of this editorial.

    Not sure where the change of heart came from but glad to see that you have discovered that gravel is big enough for both the big money events and the local volunteer rescue squad fundraiser. I ride and attend both types of events I enjoy them both for what they are. GTed, welcome to big tent gravel. Glad you are here.

    At the end of that July 6 blog you asked readers to change your mind about UCI/USAC. Apparently your mind was changed. I’m curious what changed it?

    1. @DTrav – Are you referring to the post where I also said:

      “And I say, “So what!” Let USAC and the UCI come into the gravel scene and see what they can do. I don’t have to support it, and neither do you. As I have said all along, the gravel scene is a grassroots scene which started- in large part- due to a feeling that USAC/UCI regulations and total focus on elite level athletes was sucking the fun-factor out of competitive events.”

      And…”So what?”

      I don’t see any inconsistencies there. I’ve always said that it all depends upon where you, as an individual, give your allegiance. You don’t have to do anything, or you could choose something, but ultimately you are one and it matters what you choose.

      On the other hand, it doesn’t matter at all what you do because the ball is rolling and there isn’t anything we can do to stop it. It is paradoxical. I’ve always understood things in that manner concerning gravel events, and more.

      My statement on things “dying a death” was based upon events as if everyone just assumed that UCI sanctioning for all gravel events was a fait accompli. I don’t subscribe to that theory myself, but it seemed the prevailing thoughts of many for years was that this was inevitable. Thus my opening paragraph.

      I hope that makes sense.

      1. They’ll still suck the fun out of events though. More grassroots rides will become shake down rides for the pros. I think that is what everyone is worried about. Pros coming and it being all about them and not the community. Like all the stuff popping up when Sagan decided to ride Unbound. I get both sides of the argument. Some people also want to race against pros, like Andrew Onermaa pushing Ted King several years ago.

        1. @Korey – Interesting that you noted Sagan’s ride at Unbound. Reports I have heard stated that he was swarmed at checkpoints for selfies and autographs. I cannot imagine that having top-tier Pro racers mixed in with the fans of these riders working out very well. So, I would submit that maybe your unknown Pro rider might poach a grassroots gravel event, but if we were to see the stars of the Pro Peloton come and do a grassroots event, would we not witness the same issues that faced Sagan at Unbound?

          I think the separation of grassroots gravel and what I hold will be “Pro road racing on Gravel” is inevitable.

  3. The UCI and USAC can’t hurt the big events, but the big events have turned a grassroots scene into a circus. $100 entry fees, lotteries and sold out races in the first hour, do not sound very grassroots.

  4. Well, sometime this year in the podcast, you said that Paris to Ancaster was one of the premiere gravel events in North America. It has always been under the Ontario Cycling Association (UCI for Ontario Canada), and it has been a great event and has gotten huge! I stopped riding it several years ago, not because of the OCA, but doing the same course over 15+ years I got board, if I can get in and work allows I might do the 2022 event to enjoy a great ride that I’ve done since the ’90’s.

    UCI does not have to ruin an event, and most of us are not going to win we are there to ride and enjoy.

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