Invitation to a Beheading: What does the UCI’s arrival mean for gravel?

It ain’t all rainbows. (Photo, uci.com)

Like any good American, I’m a warrior-level worrier. Nothing stirs me up for a fight quite like my own misplaced anxieties. And I’ve been worrying for a couple years now—losing my head with a toddler’s precision and vigor—over the UCI and the future of American gravel racing.

Mess with my fun and I swear to the Lord. I will pull hair. (Photo, under5s.co.nz)

It got so bad back in January 2020 that I fired off Dirt Tan Bike Club’s most-read and most-anxious essay: Will 2020 Be the Year Gravel Begins to Suck? (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)

What had us so worked up that winter (I mean, besides the dawn of a global pandemic)? Well, that was when Velo News reported the UCI’s interest in launching a first-ever gravel world championship!

And oh, did our panties twist.

Because: We already have a Gravel Worlds.

Because also: We just don’t trust the UCI to advance American gravel cycling. Under the UCI’s leadership, pro road racing is on a critical decline in the U.S. (RIP Amgen Tour of California. Get well soon, Tour of Utah. Come back, Colorado Classic.)

While road racing stumbled, gravel kept growing–without the UCI’s help. If the organization can take any credit for the popular surge of American gravel racing, it’s in the number or roadie refugees it has accidentally inspired to swerve off pavement.

Fast-forward to September 22, 2021, when our fears became official. A UCI Gravel World Series and a UCI Gravel World Championship are coming in 2022.

The future of American gravel racing now runs through the UCI’s Swiss headquarters: an office building that wants to be a highway on-ramp when it grows up.

Now, this news would’ve sent the early-2020 me into a fire-spitting fit of worry. I’d have lost my head. I’d be burning piles of 23mm tires on the street and stuffing tube socks full of C batteries. It’d be go time.

UCI headquarters cloaked by the smoking rage of American gravel cyclists, probably. (Photo, Eduardo Mendez)

But here in late-2021, my attitude is changed. After 680,000 American pandemic deaths, a dozen record-setting wildfires and a stormed Capitol, maybe the UCI no longer ranks so high on my list of worries. Maybe I’m going soft. Or maybe gravel cycling’s current state makes me see the UCI’s arrival in a different light.

A few recent “spirit of gravel” debates have created some pressure in the family.

  • We’ve argued over aerobars. (I really don’t care what your handlebars look like.)
  • We’ve gotten nasty with each other about outside support. (Somebody’s spouse blowing roadside kisses just doesn’t strike me as an unfair competitive advantage.)
  • We’ve fumed about team tactics. (This one actually is a big deal, and it’s complicated.)
It’s the holy spirit of gravel versus the devil horns of aerobars…

In each case, the unique complaints of a few elite racers riding at nose of our sport have shaken through the whole beast.

This dynamic wouldn’t surprise most folks from cattle country. On any animal, the mouth end holds the teeth. It’s what barks and bites. It’s the end that demands and complains and eats and decides.

And the belly? We take punches. We stew and churn and follow along. We’re also the meat of our sport. The part you feed and grow and sell to the hungry public. The part that sustains this whole messy endeavor.

(Reader, do we have the guts to stretch this animal metaphor to its far end? I think we do…)

The sustaining length of our sport runs clear to the animal’s backside: the surly end of the gravel race that shakes and dances, screws around and parties. The end that kicks for the kick of kicking and enjoys a good fart joke. Oddly, riding at the hind end of the beast is where you’re least likely to find an asshole. This is the end that pulls over to help you fix your chain and sticks around after the race to help clean up.

Tails wag both ways, and some of us riding back here are eager to hear the stories from the front. Who won and how? And others of us couldn’t care less. It’s: Where’s the beer and how cold?

Wherever you land on this gravel beast, it’s a choice cut. (Image, American Angus Association)

If you can’t tell, I love this gravel animal–its dusty belly, its unruly ass.

The UCI is coming for this animal’s head. It’s going to take the pros for itself. That used to scare me. It doesn’t anymore. In fact, with the UCI involved, I can see a brighter future where grassroots race directors can listen to the quibbles of elite athletes with a healthier, more liberated remove.

  • Our checkpoints’ narrow spigots aren’t #pro, you say? Slow refills hamper competitiveness, you say? That’s fascinating. Tell it to the UCI.
  • You don’t like how so-and-so rests her forearms on her bars? I think the UCI already made a rule about that one. Talk to them. We’ll keep doing our thing.

With the unique concerns of professionals relegated to pro races, grassroots gravel might just find the freedom it needs to make a clearer name for itself. And that’s the opposite of a crisis.

I’m proud of the steps our leading events have taken to protect their (and our) good names. We’ve seen the Mid South do what’s right by making a graceful name change. With some effort, Unbound Gravel also wound up in the right place.

And thanks to a trademark victory just this month, even Gravel Worlds adjusted its good name, adding a tiny R inside a protective circle down there in the bottom right corner.

Circle-arrrr!

These moves matter because they better reflect who we are, and how much we care about independence and inclusivity inside grassroots gravel.

As the Pirate Cycling League’s reputation grows nationally and even globally through Gravel Worlds, it’s been amusing to hear the broader community reinterpret (and poke fun at) PCL’s pirate vibe. Pirates? Really? Do these Nebraska dudes realize how far they are from the ocean?

Nebraska: As landlubber as it gets. (Image, u/comathematician)

To its credit, PCL has embraced the eye-patches and parrots with good humor. They celebrate our hills that roll like waves. Seas of gravel and grain. Swords for trophies and all the rest.

Go ahead and sail with the pirate kitsch in any direction you like. It’s fun. But at its original root, that pirate identity was about the circumstances we find ourselves in again now. It was a pirate-like refusal to fly the flag of any outside authority. Any governing body. It was about staying free. Unaffiliated. Creating a home for the roadie exile. A team for the teamless.

To me, that beheaded skull of a logo will always mean: Screw the UCI. Screw licensing fees. Screw being a member in good standing of anything at all. Screw snobbery. Throw the bloated rulebooks overboard. And the gatekeepers, too.

Simplify it all, the PCL folks said. Down to the bone. Race day’s Saturday. Bring your bike. That’s it.

It’s irrelevant whether elite amateurs or top pros hoist the swords in 2022. Either way, their faces will look like this. (Photo, Zach Schuster)

Grassroots gravel isn’t going back to the way it was in 2010. That pirate ship has sailed. But if new UCI events do carve off the pros at the front of our field, trust me, the bleeding won’t be fatal. This isn’t a beheading. And our reshaped beast might just find itself with new room, and new liberty, to party.


One thought on “Invitation to a Beheading: What does the UCI’s arrival mean for gravel?

  1. They are NOT aero bars- they are comfort bars! They are for old, beat up riders to get feeling back in their hands and let the artificial shoulder recover for the next tough stretch! You can help and encourage everyone or no one- personally in gravel i ve found the friendliest most helpful encouraging folks of all shapes sizes speeds and sexes- its been a joy! No matter the kind of bike or tires etc.. how many speeds, gears, crank lengths , suspension or no etc… its the people- the farmers , the volunteers, the racers and their friends and family… proud to be a part and thankful for the pirate cycling league

    Liked by 1 person

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