Comment from Colin Strickland: Gravel racers shouldn’t become pro road cyclists

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Colin Strickland is the 2019 Unbound Gravel (then called Dirty Kanza) winner, multiple-time Red Hook Crit Series winner, and an experienced elite road racer.

With Unbound Gravel just around the corner, I think it’s important to take the mic for a moment and welcome newcomers to the Gravel Show. We are thrilled that so many good people are realizing the immense physical and emotional challenge and reward that gravel events like Unbound Gravel offer us.

I would especially like to welcome riders venturing onto the gravel of the elite/pro road racing world to compete with us in these wild and wooly gravel events!

All are welcome in the gravel, and the extra power will no doubt increase the show we collectively produce. But I’d like to share some important ideas about gravel racing to help familiarize these newcomers with the way we do things and the reasons behind them. Thus, you will be better equipped to contribute and thrive in the new environment you are entering.

So what East gravel race?

Essentially, gravel racing is a shared experience. All the runners complete the same course with stubborn autonomy, from the first to the last to arrive. This equality of challenge between all runners – from winner to runner-up – is the most important quality of gravel. It makes what elite runners do RELATIVE to everyone in the race.

Strickland escapes the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200. Photo: Brad Kaminski

In the gravel there is a spirit of rugged individualism and honor that resonates with a much wider audience than the spirit of professional road racing. Everyone can relate to a brutal, long and dirty solo bike ride. Conversely, very few can relate to the fancy team cars, trainers, mechanics, and the old way of needles and nefarious behavior.

These aspects of gravel racing are essential to the discipline as they allow each finisher to explore in depth what they are made of and how far they can push their limits. For the winners of the race, it allows spectators and fans to see what the fastest runners are made of and how far they can push their limits of pain, will and stubbornness.

Let’s start by reiterating that all runners are welcome. The more, the better. The faster the better. The more firepower new riders bring to the field, the better entertainment we produce. Let us remember, after all, that professional sport is a form of show business. When we collectively and individually put together a memorable performance, competing with daring speeds and daring bets, we create entertaining narratives. These stories, my friends, are how we grow our great sport of cycling.

So here comes the other important part. Equally important to winning a great gravel race is HOW you win the race. Did you take your turns at the front to set the pace? Did you respect group consensus when stopping at neutral supply zones? Did you fight for victory and put in every ounce of effort you had to keep the hunting party in pursuit until you reached your ultimate breaking point?

Colin Strickland is a veteran of gravel, crit racing and road cycling, and thinks the self-sufficient nature of gravel should continue. Photo: Sean Berry/Red Bull Content Pool

Or are you the type of racer who is willing to sit behind other racers fighting for victory? Are you the runner who refuses to contribute to the pace because you’re desperate for a minor spot to justify your sponsors’ expenses?

Here’s what gravel racing is NOT:

Gravel racing is NOT road racing on gravel bikes. There are countless differences, but one of the biggest is that gravel races have become grassroots events that challenge a variety of riders to simply complete the long, grueling courses. Man, woman and machines, fight the terrain and the implacable elements. Yes, it quickly evolved and attracted faster runners to the races. Now even the best pros join the mission to blast us against the grueling courses and find out if we will triumph or fall to pieces.

Both results are equally respectable.

When you consider the roots of gravel racing in self-reliance, it’s clear that gravel racing is NOT a team sport. While road racing is a team sport, gravel racing is not. Teams are essentially groups of humans who band together to leverage their collective power in numbers to gain tactical advantages over other racers. If the teams don’t have an equal number of riders, then there is no justification for teams in elite gravel racing. We run as individuals.

The thing is, team tactics invariably create a less exciting race narrative in the gravel. Additionally, teams diminish an individual’s impressive result. Each runner must give EVERYTHING to get to first place. Each racer is potentially your ally, and each racer is potentially your adversary, and these relationships change and transform as the racing scenario unfolds. In the gravel, there are no bullshit or underhanded tactics. Everyone runs for victory with honor.

Road racing is a rolling game of chess, where teams of equal racers leverage strategic advantages against each other. It is similar to historical warfare, in which individuals are sacrificed for the benefit of the team’s collective victory. The only ultimate allegiance is to his team. Ruthless, underhanded, and sweeping tactics are fine, if it means your teammate will emerge victorious. Team victory is the one, only measure of success in a race. There is little camaraderie between team lines, and general mistrust and resentment are common between team lines.

And guess what? Traditional road racing is in shambles in this country. The Tour of California has been canceled. The Tour of Utah has been canceled this year. The Colorado Classic was also canceled this year. Most major UCI races have increased their participation in the United States, leaving Europe as the traditional home of professional road racing. Why? In my opinion, the road racing format is difficult to communicate to new fans in America. It’s overly complex, boring, negative, non-inclusive, and difficult to understand in general (with the exception of fast-paced crit races).

Meanwhile, gravel racing has emerged from the ashes of the road scene, and it’s leaving the BS tactics behind, keeping only the authentic and relatable aspects of the sport. We all race hard, we all try to win and we all push ourselves to the max.

Team structures are a key feature of the more than 100 year old European road racing tradition, as team sizes are always equal in number, just like in most respectable sporting activities. They are strategic chess games, where all sides start the match without self-assigned arbitrary advantage. That would sort of be the definition of “unsportsmanlike.”

And hey, we learn every day that even the most seasoned professional riders can conform to the unorthodox attitude of gravel. Take Laurens ten Dam, for example, who has proven himself a natural in both gravel racing and also adheres to the unwritten gravel rules around sportsmanship. He jumped into his first American gravel race last week at the Gravel Locos Hico 150, where he started laughing, stomping, arguing and stomping, honoring the feed zone group stop consensus, to smash and eventually to solo attack and smash some more. . Laurens ten Dam gets it.

I look forward to battling in the dust with the fastest and toughest cycling men and women in the world, and drinking beers on the finish. But I hope you understand what we’re doing here, and why we’re doing it this way.

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