Gritty Take: The Riders Hold The Power

Gritty Take: The Riders Hold The Power – by Guitar Ted

Recently there has been an uptick in the “Us vs Them” discussions as seen on social media and in the comments sections of various forums and media websites. The old saw, “Don’t let “them” ruin gravel!” has been raised to fever pitch. This due to the rumors and news reports that the current purveyors of so-called “real professional cycling”, the Union Cycliste Internationale, are interested in putting their stamp on the off-pavement competitions known world-wide as “gravel racing”.

Allison Tetrick with pirate sword after winning the Gravel Worlds event
Allison Tetrick, past winner of Gravel Worlds. What would a UCI run Gravel Worlds look like?

First of all, as the Editor and part owner of Riding Gravel, I have been very aware that we don’t do opinion pieces on the site very often. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been putting my thoughts out there. You can see my past thoughts on the gravel scene on my personal blog since 2005. (Click here for the page on my opinions and views on gravel. The latest opinion piece is here. ) So, if you’ve followed me there on “Guitar Ted Productions” then you already know a lot of what I’m going to say here. Now with that out of the way…….

I find much of what people hold to be true and “real” about the UCI, or U.S.A. Cycling (USAC), for that matter, to be missing the mark. These organizations have been held responsible for professional level cycling, and to some degree, amateur competitive cycling, for decades in one form or another. However; the thought that these organizations are infallible, and are the default for having any “legitimacy” in terms of professional cycling because of their own existence is not real. The fact is that we give them that position. They do not represent anything without the allegiance of cyclists and those that support sport. This includes cycling brands, marketers, and media.

USAC, in particular, suffers this in reality. Their “legitimacy” and power comes from our conscious or unconscious support, or lack thereof, of that organization. To wit: The licenses which bring in the money which USAC needs to continue are not being sold at the level that they once were. This has caused consternation and concern within the organization. Concern to the point that USAC recently held a summit to “open up a dialogue” with gravel event promoters, (Note: only select event promoters were there), and USAC. Why? Because the “gravel scene” does not pay USAC money, or any mind, when it comes to the style of events and the kind of cycling gravel riders enjoy.

This neglect of USAC by the various gravel events has resulted in wording and dialogue over the past, and up till this day, which reflect that power struggle. I’ve seen wording that says “the gravel events scene is like the Wild, Wild West”, or that gravel event promoters are ‘hobbyists‘. This seemingly being the cause for suggestions by the UCI and USAC that the gravel segment is in need of ‘control’ and organization. And in fact, it is the promise of having ‘controls’ and rules governing sport that the UCI offers as benefits to this varied palette of events across North America.

The UCI posits that with the rise of professional level involvement, and the prestige that some of the events have now, that this begs for a unified front which fits in with every other facet of cycling which the UCI governs to this day. They would say that the UCI has the organization and format down, so why would gravel cycling go anywhere else? There is no other way. Right?

Rider and sunrise scene
Is it a Sun rise or a Sun set for gravel events if the UCI gets involved?

Well, this plays well to the “default mode” that many cyclists believe in, but it isn’t the way it has to go, and obviously, it is not the way it is with gravel racing. The painful truth for the UCI is that gravel racing thrives because of its variety. The various rules, formats, prizing, and most importantly, the various experiences this brings to the table, are exactly the reasons why the gravel segment of cycling is growing and what the UCI oversees is not. The UCI would snuff out this variety and make gravel cycling look like it does under their rule now. And just how does that look?

Well, despite the flowery words and platitudes seen on the UCI’s “Mission, Vison, Values” page, the perception of cyclists in the gravel scene is that the UCI has failed at doing a number of things which gravel cycling has done on its own. Take equity for female and male racers in terms of courses and pay-outs, for example. At any gravel event, males and females race the same courses, get paid the same, and race together. This is not at all the case with the UCI. Gravel races do not have arcane rules about socks, tire widths, or bicycles, which we all know that the UCI does have and enforces. We all know that USAC enforces the requirements that races have officials, certain styles and ways to use number plates, and that they require a certain fee from every racer attending to be paid by the event promoters. And let’s not forget licenses. And what about doping controls? Gravel races don’t have that.

Well, the UCI and USAC do have this, yet we see every year more stories about cheating. So, the way they do things is no guarantee you won’t have cheating in gravel events either. The efforts that the UCI and USAC try to make in terms of doping controls are admirable, but that isn’t a reason to bring the UCI or USAC into gravel events. Not until they prove they have been preventing drug cheaters from winning. Then what they do could be termed as a “benefit” to gravel events.

Insurance for events is another reason folks bring up USAC as a benefit. Well, they aren’t the only game in town for insurance. While it is true that USAC has softened its stance in terms of requirements to offer insurance to gravel events, it is obvious that USAC and the UCI are not in the game to be insurance providers, or to be altruistic benefactors to cycling. No, let’s be clear- The UCI and USAC want in because they stand to have a lot of prestige and to make a lot of money from bringing gravel events under their auspices. Gravel cycling has become a big growth segment in cycling, and money is being spent in bucket loads by people going to the events on gravel. Every news article about this subject brings up the number of gravel events and how many “sell out in minutes“. This being a reference to the money making opportunities and popularity which gravel events have. Things that the UCI and USAC are keenly aware of and strongly desire to benefit from.

Start line at Gravel Worlds
Who gets to decide whether or not the UCI and USAC belong in gravel events? People like the riders above do.

So, is having the UCI run a “Gravel Worlds” a benefit to gravel cycling? Would this make gravel cycling “legitimate” in terms of professional cycling? Or would this be, once again, the same old dog and pony show we’ve seen play out for decades. You know the one. Where females and males are separated and treated unequally, where cheating is still a big problem, and where traditions and structures are in place which are inherently exclusionary. Does that sound like a way to change cycling, not just gravel cycling, for the better, or for the worse?

Guess what? You get to decide. Not USAC. Not the UCI. You do. The power is in the hands of the people. You’ll either support the UCI and USAC, or you won’t, but ultimately, those organizations are just there because someone else gave them the power to be what we think they are. So far, I’d say that over the past 15 or so years the gravel community has spoken pretty clearly on this point.


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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5 thoughts on “Gritty Take: The Riders Hold The Power

  1. Reaction to Gritty Take:

    Interesting piece. I raced USCF back in the day, then moved to MTB, then gravel, ever in search of stoke, accessibility, and community. I applaud local events like the Heck of the North that emphasize these fine qualities, where everyone is equally welcome. I am amused as I watch corporations, USA cycling, and elites try to monetize gravel, in the process turning it into the very thing it evolved as a reaction against. Also, where there is money, there is cheating and corruption. No one is going to pay the high cost of doping when there is no prize money. Nice to know that there will always be the “gravel underground” to provide a ball for this old dog! Cheers.‬

  2. GT – Well said! I have zero interest in participating in any gravel event if it’s a USAC sanctioned race. I haven’t had a license in many a year and don’t plan on purchasing another. You said it best, gravel is about variety. Most of us line up at the start with no worries about being on a podium. We do our best and if somehow, we manage to stand on a podium then great. My priority is to have a great time and do the best I can. It’s all about the experience for me and I’m guessing so many others. IMHO, USAC offers nothing positive for the gravel scene. They’re dying on the vine and are simply looking for a new revenue stream.

  3. I am still surprised to see how utterly brainwashed many cyclists are by the notion that the UCI and its world of events and teams and all that goes with it, including the ‘cycling industry’ are the heart and soul of cycling and that we’re all off to one side hoping to be accepted by buying some nice gear, the proper length socks, and maybe a team jersey so we can look more like the pros. To heck with all that. I’ve always found that culture utterly alienating and bizarre. A recent comments section on a major ‘tips’ cycling website delved into the issue of wearing team jerseys and many commenters thought that it was good because it ‘supported our sport’. I was shocked because I never thought of cycling as a sport, but rather an outdoor activity to which I’ve been devoted for most of my life. But my approach has always been that of the bike as a means to tool around in the woods, to get out of the house, to challenge my body, to get to work and back, and not a ‘sport’ any more than hiking is a sport. That’s why I’ve found more commonality here and in the pages of publications like the Bicycle Quarterly than most cycling resources printed and online. So refreshing. So in conclusion, hell no, keep the UCI’s toxic, cash hungry fingers out of the most healthy and vibrant part of communal cycling going today.

  4. Yeah, what they said!! The UCI/USAC would provide absolutely no value to the gravel universe. We do not need to regulate everything. Many of us prefer the “wild wild west” aspect of the events. I will NEVER buy a license to race. I was at the finish line at the Kanza last year when Colin Strickland broke 10 hours, what an incredible achievement!!! Not once did it cross my mind to worry about how tall his socks were, did his brake levers meet some archaic formula, how many bananas did he carry in jersey, etc etc.

  5. It seems to me the draw of gravel events/races has been that it unsanctioned and the rider is unsupported. A endurance event that is an epic adventure that challenges the rider at what ever level. It seems that the grass root gravel culture has done more for cycling and the cycling industrial in the last 10 years than the UCI/USAC has done. It looks like they are late in the game and money is the driving force.

    I would rather pay $10 to a promoter for insurance and what ever other fees because the money is going to stay local and they are going to give back to the local cycling seen.

    Keep it unsanctioned, keep it unsupported, keep it local and ride what you bring

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