Gravel Worlds Wrap-up as Experienced by a Team USA Chemistry Professor
2022 UCI GRAVEL WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
A CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR'S / TEAM USA RIDER'S RACE EXPERIENCE
My UCI Gravel Worlds report is delayed a few weeks as I caught Covid (again) on the return trip after two buses, a train, and two airplanes: lots of exposure. But, this has given me time to digest everything and read other riders’ opinions on the first ever UCI-sanctioned gravel world championship. In the lead up and post race analyses, the questions seemed to focus on three things: 1. the distance, 2. was it “gravely” enough, and 3. the format, with separate men’s and women’s races. These could all be wrapped up into one big question: What is gravel racing? I don’t think there is a single answer and it’s worth remembering that we’ve literally reinvented the wheel here. The first “road” races were over long stretches of gravel…on single speeds…with tubulars (probably 32 slicks!).
But first, something less controversial—just Italy—it was like living in a postcard for a week.
I arrived 5 days early to get over jet lag and it was absolutely worth it. The course was well-marked for pre-riding and over 3 days I saw pretty much all of it. Vicenza butts up against the foothills of northern Italy, but most of the course was a flat run southeast to Padua, then a turn to the north towards Cittadella. Rivers, canals and levees made this a lot like South Florida, but with much more accommodating drivers. I’m excited that next year will also be in Italy and I’ll be a little bit more prepared for their style of course, which brings me to a good jumping off point to discuss the race.
The best assessment I read was from Australian Nathan Haas, a former roadie, now professional gravel rider: “If the European flavour of gravel is a little different, that’s cool. I like hamburgers in the States, and I also like Italian pasta. It’s good to have different flavours.” Even with the food analogy, there is so much variation in American gravel racing, I don’t think you can even truly define an “American” style of gravel race. Distances vary from 100 km to 300 miles, they’re hilly, or flat, no sag/domestiques or anything goes. The much debated “spirit of gravel” seems to be that there’s no definition of what exactly a gravel race is. And that’s a good thing, because anyone can get a group of people together, go ride whatever loop they want and call it a race or an anti-race.
Despite some teething issues with running this event for the first time, I thought the race was successfully executed with worthy winners. On the men’s side, the winner was Gianni Vermeersch, a roadie with a cyclocross background. The women’s race was won by Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, MTB world-champion several times over. The course was good and the split-day format gave each group their own event. That said, there’s always room for improvement with the distance and route of the women’s race points that could be addressed.
1. DISTANCE REVEIW
Pro/Elite men raced 194 km, ‘young’ Masters raced 166 km, while older Masters and women raced 140 km. The top spots in the women’s race were decided well before the end of the 140 km, but that doesn’t mean that the distance was ideal. They missed out on the shorter Cittadella loop, which in addition to some picturesque gravel and singletrack, had more spectators than the point-to-point portion of the course. They and the fans deserved to have that experience. In the men’s race, the distances were fine, with 120 and 103 miles being more than enough to sort out elite and amateur riders, respectively. Grade: B- (do better for the women next year)
2. GRAVEL CONTENT REVIEW ( was the race "Gravely" enough )
I don’t think there is a definition of what constitutes a “gravel” race. 30% feels like a minimum, but others might argue 50% or more. This race had at least 70% unpaved, which included everything from dirt to loose gravel to cobbles to hard-packed/groomed gravel. It was “gravely” enough. A lot of the course felt like South Florida gravel, as we rode on levees, through farmlands, fields and even some grassy sections. I felt totally at home on these sections and was able to make up time after getting dropped into the second group after the initial two short, but very steep, climbs.
3. SPLIT FORMAT REVIEW
The spectator in me loved this and it felt like an advancement for women’s racing as they got a completely separate race, at least for the pro/elite women. The older Masters men should be moved to the second day giving the women a stand-alone event. This probably changes the strategy for some women racers, but for the better I would argue.
This coming year I’ll be focusing more on gravel, taking in some of the bigger US events, and hopefully a couple of overseas races. I hope to take a crack at THE Gravel Worlds® in Lincoln Nebraska. With Rule #9 stating, “NO OUTSIDE SUPPORT,” this is a different take altogether (UCI Gravel Worlds had 9 feed zones, with support crews bringing extra wheels in addition to hydration and calories). Quite a different take on two events with “gravel + worlds” in their name.