Gosh dang it, people. The week after Gravel Worlds, all I want to do is ice my knees, take a nap and gain like a dozen pounds in Heath Blizzards. But instead of sauntering into happy hibernation, here we are, tumbling headlong together into gravel racing’s next existential crisis.
And unlike the great aerobar dust-up of 2018, I actually care about this one.
Here’s the crux of the conflict known as #gravelbeef 2021. A longstanding issue in women’s gravel racing reemerged in exaggerated form at Steamboat Springs, Colo. That’s when Cinch (a gravel team coached by the infamous Tom Danielson) brought a stacked roster to SBT GRVL and allegedly assigned elite men to help their top female, Lauren De Crescenzo, pull away from her rivals. The race-winning move came when De Crescenzo skipped a water stop, relying instead on at least one bottle fed to her from a male teammate. Her rivals had run dry, were forced to stop, and never regained the De Crescenzo group.
While Cinch’s tactics didn’t directly violate any SBT GRVL rule, it cheesed off all sorts of folks for putting unaccompanied elite women at a competitive disadvantage. Does contending for a major win now require women to come armed with vanloads of professional henchmen?
Canadian Olympic MTB racer Geoff Kabush tweeted this analogy. “Imagine a men’s mass start pro event racing for big money that started together with hundreds of ebikes mixed in disrupting, shaping the race, even working for specific racers,” he said. “Pretty much women’s pro gravel racing at the moment.”
We can’t act surprised when racers tell us this sucks. Nor can we pretend these critics are all just sore losers who can’t handle De Crescenzo’s ability. That ain’t it. In fact, De Crescenzo’s results aren’t really the issue.
It’s meaningful that, while I’ve read gobs of criticism of Danielson’s integrity stretching from his PED-tainted World Tour days, I’ve heard exactly no one with credibility calling De Crescenzo anything other than a champion. She won Unbound with team support. She won Gravel Worlds without it. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to picture her winning SBT GRVL unassisted. De Crescenzo is a Johnny Cash level badass standing at the very top of elite women’s gravel racing. That’s clear.
What’s less clear (and more interesting) is what race directors should do now that Cinch’s tactics have brought an equity issue more clearly into the light. Cinch upped the ante on using elite men as super-domestiques for elite women. If that’s deemed acceptable, we’re going to see more of it. Because it works.
Race directors absolutely want to protect the integrity of elite women’s racing. They also want to maintain gravel cycling’s nature of massive inclusivity and miniscule regulation.
And the problem is this: The easiest ways to accomplish A tend to run roughshod over B.
Directors could do separate starts and let exclusively female groups establish themselves unadulterated by the motley men. But I’ll just tell you: A segregated playground would leave me crying by the swings. I’d miss the togetherness of the coed mass start.
And we can’t be certain what impact such a segregation might have on the public’s interest in our weird little sport. Right now, athletes like Rebecca Rusch and Alison Tetrick are at least as big in gravel circles as athletes like Colin Strickland and John Borstelmann. Would that parity of attention continue if we drew a line in the gravel akin to the divide between the NBA and WNBA? We can hope for the best, but we don’t know.
Directors could choose to keep the coed start, but add rules to more clearly define what is and is not tactically acceptable. But rule enforcement is already hard when the playing field is a ribbon of dirt stretching over counties. And if the likelihood of getting caught in an enforceable violation is low, how confident can we be that extra rules would divert the Tom Danielsons of this world? We should also remember that gravel’s popularity has been fed in part by folks who left road racing over its persnicketiness.
As a guy with a ludicrous sweat rate and a history of heat exhaustion, I’ll often mow through my bottles, then wind up relying on my teammates’ water simply to finish hot races. Outlawing that kind of support might help protect the integrity of the elite racing at the front; but it also has the potential to harm our less-than-elite experiences further back.
Nobody I ride with bats an eye at this kind of sharing meant only to see a friend through. But I don’t want to feel like a cheater when a teammate pours a little extra water down my back. Nor do I want a dangerously hot rider to ever reject someone’s help in an effort to abide by the letter of a rule not written for their situation.
I don’t know what the right balance here is. And different events will choose to move in different directions. But I believe the races in best position to find a good outcome are the ones that eschew big payouts. They’re the events that match lean, straightforward rules with clear communication about their interpretation. It’s “Don’t be lame,” matched with straight talk about what constitutes lameness.
I trust our grassroots race directors, the Kristi Mohns and Corey Godfreys of our sport, to have those frank conversations and to walk a thoughtful line here. They want what we want: to protect fairness up at the pointy end without hurting the hearty party going on farther back.