Coming out of last winter, I wrote about the vacuum at the top of Lincoln’s gravel racing scene. I wondered out loud who might fill that spot as Lancaster County’s fastest gravel guy.
Heading into this winter, it seems like I should be able to answer my own question by now. But so much has changed. It’s not as simple as I thought. For one thing, my scale was way off. I thought I was looking for the “class of the county”—a local athlete without equal between Davey and Firth.
But the handful of racers who pedaled their way to powerful cases all have ambitions that stretch past the county line.
- There are folks like Robb Finegan, a dominant racer in his 50s who once held Olympic marathon ambitions and is the only human with five Lincoln half-marathon titles. He torched the field early at the Solstice 100, but was misdirected by volunteers coming out of the second checkpoint. Realizing the mistake, my wife peeled out in a van to tell him to turn around. He did—then promptly torched everybody all over again.
Finegan, (Photo, velonews.com)
- There’s John Borstelmann, a UNL chemistry major who won the collegiate road cycling national championship in May, beating scads of mountain men in Grand Junction, Colo. Come August, he finished 11 seconds off the podium at Gravel Worlds. (It would be more than an hour before the next Nebraskan crossed.) Then he joined Panaracer and won the Hondo 100, too.
Borstelmann, (Photo, Hondo 100)
- There’s Ashton Lambie, a guy who didn’t enter many gravel races this season because, well, he was busy preparing to crush the world record in the individual pursuit at the Pan-American Track Cycling Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
Lambie (Photo, velonews.com)
- Turn to the metric designed to answer questions like mine—the Nebraska Gravel Points Series—and you get another racer entirely: Josh Shear of Nebraska Medicine Cycling. He took the 2018 points title with wins at the Sto-Mil and Crystal Lake TT.
Shear (On the Verge Photography)
Stir it all together and I really don’t know who to call Lincoln’s “best.” I only know the field of racers here is wildly stronger than I imagined a year ago. And the “class of Lancaster County” is probably an honest-to-goodness world-class athlete.
That’s pretty rad. And, for some guys, it can be a little disheartening, too. Like maybe you had your eyes on Milford’s golf league title this year, only to watch Rory damn McIlroy buy a house in town. Followed by Phil Mickelson.
Well, snap. There goes the neighborhood (Photo, pgatour.com)
The talent explosion in Lincoln isn’t so different from what’s happening all across gravel cycling. The whole damn sport’s accelerating. (I say this with awe and not chagrin.) The speed that won Gravel Worlds as recently as 2016 would have landed you 32nd in 2018. I placed 68th this year with a speed that would’ve earned 14th in 2015.
Gravel’s also getting bigger. Gravel’s forefathers launched this sport riding cyclocross and mountain bikes. Making do was the name of the game in the aughts.
No more. Now, thanks to the buying power of the demographic that’s embraced gravel most enthusiastically—upper-middle aged and upper-middle class white guys—the bike industry has engineered and marketed the crap out of it. Today, there’s gravel everything: frames, forks, tires, wheels, lube, handlebars.
I mean, look at this. (Photo, bikerumor.com)
I can tsk-tsk this commercialization all I want on Thursday. But come Saturday, I’ll be throwing a Spandexed leg over my Niner RLT and rolling off on a trusty pair of 38c Maxxis Ramblers. I am too far into this thing to cast stones.
Still, the sport is asking itself some important questions now. Can a gravel race be simultaneously “grassroots” and “brought to you by Garmin”? Can we as cyclists ride to “get away from it all” and still moan when our precious data fails to upload on Strava?
Gravel cycling’s changing fast. You can ask my wife how I handle change. (I’m the kind of guy who gets sad when I finish a pan of leftovers because “Me and that lasagna had a good thing going.”) But I’m convinced the majority of the changes we’re seeing now are for the good.
As for race sponsorships and corporate buyouts, I’m grateful for all of it. If Lauf True Grit can help Corey and Schmidty keep plugging with Gravel Worlds, I’ll do nothing but clap. And if Life Time Fitness’s buying Dirty Kanza means fewer ulcers for Jim and Kristi and LeLan, well, that’s good for Emporia and good for us.
And this burst of speed in seemingly every racer out there may hurt my ego, but it helps my character. Good on them. If I have breath enough, I’ll cheer as they blow by.
The faster the pointy end of this sport gets, the easier it’ll be for me to remember: I’m not in a race so much as on a journey. And I like where we’re headed.