Gravel’s Upset Belly

On what (I pray) is the coldest day of the year, it feels good to look ahead to spring and the gravel racing to come. It may be frigid, but races are around the corner.

Now’s the time for health checks. How are our legs weathering the off-season? And what’s the broader state of health of our (ever-hungry, ever-growing) Gravel Beast?

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The Pirate Cycling League gave Gravel Worlds a championship sword in 2018. And the beast said, “Yaaawp!” (Illustration by Ralph Steadman in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson, 1971)

Already, there are things to measure. Judging by last week’s Texas Chainring Massacre, the general acceleration I talked about in October is barreling forward into 2019. Mercy, that race was fast. Folks waddled into Valley View with their winter tummies and their sleepy legs and promptly began chucking firebombs.

The 100-k Massacre is interestingly structured with racers mostly self-selecting into four heats: Aces (> 19 mph), Bad-asses (16-19 mph), Competitors (14-16 mph), and Developers (< 14 mph). And while the winning times for each successive heat did increase, the winners’ average speeds far outstripped their category’s measure. So the winner of the 16-19 mph B division came in at a scorching 21 mph. The winning C racer (14-16 mph) clocked in at 19.4 mph.

Our sport’s fastening continues, which is in turn awesome (Way to go, racers!) and a little discomfiting (Put yourself in the right division, you killers!). Granted, a brand-new season, a flat course and good conditions can make it tough to guess the speed you can hold.

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“Fastening?” (The Princess Bride, 1987)

You can take another measure of the sport by putting down the stopwatch and picking up the internet. (If you thought the Chainring Massacre sounds bloody, wait until you read gravel’s online debates…)

The chatter gets hot over such earth-shaking matters as whether or not aerobars should be legal or whether teamwork deserves a smiley face or a frowny one. Gravel cycling’s pseudo-controversies claim to be about broad concerns for the sport’s spirit, aesthetics and safety. But they draw most their heat from the narrow concerns of athletes at the pointy end of the most competitive races.

Those top racers who exploit aerobars bank energy savings over those who don’t. Likewise, elite racers who share the load with their elite teammates have some advantages over the lone wolves our sport adores.

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Don’t let the cuddly nickname fool you. Amanda “the Panda” Nauman is one of the fiercest lone wolves in gravel. (Photo, cyclingtips.com)

The perspectives of gravel’s most decorated athletes sometimes show the contradictions and compromises that high performance demands. Two-time DK champion Ted King said he’d be happy to see aerobars banned; he also won on them in 2018.

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If they’re legal, it’s game-on for Ted King. (Photo, velonews.com)

And Amanda Nauman—likewise a pro athlete with two DK belt buckles in her closet—is OK with racers working with teammates … so long as they’re not trying to win. While I can’t quite wrap my head around her logic, Nauman’s perspective isn’t all that different from mine.

If you think of the entire field at Dirty Kanza as one long and unholy snake, I ride along deep inside the belly of the beast. And Nauman, King and a select few others comprise the tip of the serpent’s tiny tongue. Call me a bellyacher, but I’ve grown tired of the notion that whatever riles people up at the head of the snake must automatically shake its way through to the tip of the tail.

My take: Go ahead and hate aerobars. Despise team racing if you like. But why should all of us have to care?

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You want to pick the menu? Better race at the mouth. (Image, “Yingarna, the Rainbow Serpent,” by Bruce Nabekeyo, 1989)

Nauman is essentially saying the same thing from the opposite end. Most folks can tackle DK any which way they please. But we should understand that as you approach the spear’s angry end, the culture and the concerns and the competition all vibrate at a different intensity.

Maybe the “rules” do change up there. That’s for them to slug out for themselves. But if the tongue of the beast does decide on its own code, that’s one thing riders in the belly should be under no obligation to swallow.


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