Colin Strickland commentary: Gravel racing should not become pro road cycling

Colin Strickland argues that gravel should keep its spirit of self reliance by steering clear of road racing tactics and pro team structures.

Photo: Ross Morales

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

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

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

All are welcome in gravel, and the added horsepower will no doubt increase the spectacle that we are collectively producing. But I would like to share a couple of important insights on gravel racing to help familiarize these new arrivals with the way we do things and the reasons behind it. Thusly, you will be better equipped to contribute and thrive in the new environment you are entering.

So, what is gravel racing?

In essence, gravel racing is a shared experience. All riders complete the same course with a stubborn self-reliance, from the first finisher to the last. This equality of the challenge across all riders — from the winner to the final finisher — is gravel’s most important quality. It makes what the elite riders do RELATABLE to everyone at the race.

Strickland breaks away at the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200.
Strickland breaks away at the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200. Photo: Brad Kaminski

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

These aspects of gravel racing are essential to the discipline because they allow each finisher to deeply explore what they are made of, and how far they can push their limits. For the race winners, it allow spectators and fans to see what the fastest racers are made of, and how far they can push their limits of suffering, willpower, and sheer stubbornness.

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

So, here’s the other important part. Equally important to winning a big gravel race is HOW you win the race. Did you take your turns on the front to drive the pace? Did you honor group consensus when stopping at neutral feed zones? Did you fight for the win, and give every ounce of effort you had to keep the chase group in hot pursuit until you reached your ultimate breaking point?

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

Or are you the kind of racer who is willing to just sit behind other riders battling for the win? Are you the rider who refuses to contribute to the pace because you are desperate for any minor placing to justify your sponsors’ expense?

Here is what gravel racing is NOT:

Gravel racing is NOT a road race on gravel bikes. There are countless differences, but an important one is that gravel races have emerged as grassroots events that challenge a variety of riders to simply finish the grueling long courses. Man, woman, and machines, battle the relentless terrain and elements. Yes, this has quickly evolved, and it has attracted faster riders to the races. Now, even top pros are jumping in to further the mission of blasting ourselves against the grueling courses and discovering whether we will triumph or fall to pieces.

Both outcomes are equally respectable.

When you consider gravel racing’s roots 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 banding together to leverage their collective power in numbers to gain tactical advantages over other riders. If teams do not have an equal number of riders, then there’s no justification for teams in elite gravel races. We’re racing as individuals.

The fact is that team tactics invariably create a less exciting race narrative in gravel. In addition, teams diminish the impressiveness of an individual’s result. Every rider should be giving his or her ALL to arrive at the finish in first place. Every rider is potentially your ally, and every rider is potentially your adversary, and these relationships shift and morph as the race scenario unfolds. In gravel there’s no bullshit or sneaky tactics. Everyone races for the win with honor.

Road racing is a rolling game of chess, where teams of equal riders leverage strategic advantages against one another. It is similar to historical warfare, in which individuals are sacrificed to benefit the collective victory of the team. The only ultimate allegiance is to one’s team. Cutthroat, sneaky, and general cagey tactics are completely acceptable, if it means your teammate will emerge victorious. Team victory is the one, the only measure of success in a race. There’s little camaraderie across team lines, and general distrust and resentment his common across 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 called off this year. The Colorado Classic has been called off this year as well. Most major UCI races have pulled up stakes in the USA, leaving Europe as  pro road racing’s traditional hotbed. Why? In my opinion, the road racing format is difficult to communicate to new fans in America. It is overly complex, boring, negative, non-inclusive, and difficult to relate to in general (with the exception of fast-paced criterium racing).

Meanwhile, gravel racing has emerged from the ashes of the road scene, and it leaves the BS tactics behind by keeping only the authentic and relatable aspects of the sport. We are all racing hard, we are all trying to win, and we are all pushing ourselves to the maximum.

Team structures are an essential feature of 100-plus year-old European road racing tradition, as team sizes are always equal in number, just as they are in most respectable sporting activities. These are strategic games of chess, where all sides start the match without arbitrary self-assigned advantage. That would sorta be the definition of “unsportsmanship.”

And hey, we’re learning every day that even the most experienced pro road racers can conform to gravel’s unorthodox attitude. Take Laurens ten Dam, for example, who has shown himself to be a natural at both racing gravel and also adhering to gravel’s unwritten rules around good sportsmanship. He jumped into his first American gravel race last week at the Gravel Locos Hico 150, where he proceeded to laugh, and smash, chat, and smash, honor feed zone group stop consensus, and smash, and eventually attack solo, and smash some more. Laurens ten Dam gets it.

I look forward to battling it out in dust with the worlds fastest, hardest men and women of cycling, and drinking beers at the finish. But I hope you understand what we are doing here, and why we do it this way.

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