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