A deep dive into the details of the USA Cycling Gravel National Championship with USAC CEO Brendan Quirk

'Gravel is the most appealing entry point into the sport of bike racing. Naturally, more racers on the local level results in a bigger talent pool for producing the American world champions of tomorrow.'

Photo: Nic Tapia

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On Thursday, USA Cycling announced the details of the first Gravel National Championship in the United States. The event will be held in Gering, Nebraska on September 9; the event will also return to western Nebraska in 2024.

Read also: USAC Gravel National Championship details

It largely follow the script of other USAC national championships — elite and age group events will be separated by gender — but bears some gravel-specific details like equal distances for men, women, and non-binary racers.

Perhaps the most surprising detail accompanying the news was that a $60,000 prize purse would be up for grabs for the top five elite men and women. USAC has never offered a prize purse for a national championship event.

To get a deeper understanding of why USAC decided to host a national championship, how they selected a host venue, and what the governing body hopes to achieve with its first major foray into gravel race promotion, we spoke with Brendan Quirk, the CEO of USA Cycling.

VeloNews: Nebraska! Was this intentional? As in, a nod to gravel’s midwestern roots? 

Brendan Quirk: We didn’t start our process specifically looking for a city in the Heartland. Our foremost priority was finding a host community eager to play a leading role in making the race come to life. If you have a Mayor or a Sports Commission or a Parks Department Director who loves cycling and can rally community excitement and support – that’s a huge difference-maker. There’s no substitute for passion and collaboration.

VN: What was the process like to select a venue? Did cities bid, or did you outreach? 

BQ: Once we began making public comments about hosting Gravel Nationals for the first time, we immediately got inquiries from all over the country. What became immediately evident to us is that the story of how gravel can transform communities – especially ones that don’t already have a signature endurance sports event – is widely known and envied.

We did go through a process where cities submitted bids, and we were astonished by what the Scotts Bluff/Gering Sports Council sent us. The community already has a fantastic gravel event with the Specialized Robidoux Rendezvous, and they made it clear in their proposal that they want to make Nationals an event on par with the very best races in America. The set of stakeholders and the amount of support they’re bringing should make it an awesome time for everyone involved. We couldn’t be happier about being in Gering for the next two years.

VN: What were the greatest challenges in selecting a host venue? 

BQ: The central challenge we faced in our venue selection process was our relatively short timetable. It was fall of 2022 when we finally decided to commit to a Gravel Nationals in 2023. Our original hope was to host Nationals in May. But municipal governments move at a deliberate pace as a matter of course, so we couldn’t make it come together as quickly as we originally hoped. Without a doubt, our ambitious timetable caused some communities to drop out of the process.

Another challenge we faced is how packed the American gravel calendar is. It’s always touchy to add a new race, and the number of weekends available to us was limited – either because of existing races or because of prep for those races. For example, we considered hosting Nationals the week prior to Leadville, but so many riders acclimate for the race, asking them to come down to 3,900ft for Nationals didn’t feel right. But all’s well that ends well, and we think September 9th is ideal.

VN: Will a current race promoter be designing the course?

BQ: Aaron Raines, the organizer of the Specialized Robidoux Rendezvous, has been integral in the development of the bid submitted by Scotts Bluff/Gering Sports Council, including course development. Aaron will be a core member of our Local Organizing Committee, along with local tourism, city and Parks and Recreation staff amongst others.

VN: What informed the decision to hold a gravel nationals? Was it years of observing the growth of the grassroots gravel scene here? 

BQ: Nothing is more important to the success of USA Cycling than our commitment to listening to our members and key stakeholders. In 2022 I spent 150 days on the road — going to races, conferences, and events so I could get face-to-face time with the people who make the sport happen on a local level in the U.S.

A few clear insights came from these conversations, and one of them is the undeniable fact that the notion of “roadies” or “mountain bikers” is a thing of the past. Virtually everyone is riding multiple bikes.

We’ve all seen this come to life at the highest level of the sport. Look at the household names — Wout and Mathieu and Pidcock and Ferrand-Prevot and Vos. And we have young U.S. National Team members like Maddie Munro and AJ August who are also excelling at multiple disciplines. But the real phenomenon here is that everyone on a grassroots level is doing it, too.

Beginning in 2023 you’re starting to see how the teams are following the lead of their riders. On the World Tour it’s Jumbo-Visma and Alpecin and EF. And here in the US it’s why you see UCI squads like Virginia’s Blue Ridge-Twenty24 and Roxo Racing (just two examples of many) that are fully supportive of all the bikes their riders want to race – road, gravel, even eRacing.

I expect events will start to do the same – on the same weekend offering options for pavement, dirt, and gravel.

All of that is another way of saying – we’re holding a Gravel Nationals because the sport needs one. The racing is happening, the level of competition is skyrocketing, and nothing can touch the magic of getting to slip on a stars and stripes National Champion’s jersey.

VN: The prize purse is likely to cause a lot of conversation. It’s a first-ever for an American national championship. Why do it? And, why do it with gravel, a discipline that USAC has historically tiptoed around?

BQ: The first thing I need to make clear is that we’re not using a cent of membership dues to fund it, nor are we diverting funds from grassroots racing programs. 100 percent of the prizes will be funded by entry fees and sponsorship.

One reason we’re doing this is that prize purses are becoming a central part of the gravel scene. You see it with the standalone prize lists at both SBT GRVL and BWR, and also with the series purse with the Life Time Grand Prix. Sponsors love gravel, and money allows organizers to hypercharge event buzz and participation, which is great for those sponsors.

If this works as we expect for gravel nationals, in a couple of years we’d consider doing the same for both our Mountain Bike National Championships and our Cyclocross National Championships.

A little-known fact is the incredible participation we get at both of those events. We had 1,700 riders at Mountain Bike Nationals last year, and 1,200 at Cyclocross Nationals. Just like gravel, you get a mix of world-class racing in some categories, and huge participation in the rest.

We have to test the impact of a significant prize list somewhere first, and that place will be Gravel Nationals. It’s reasonable to imagine that in time Gravel Nationals should become our single-biggest event for participation. We need to pull out all of the stops to make that happen.

VN: What do you think having a prize purse will accomplish?

BQ: The strength of participation is what drives the entry fees, which is what drives the quality of the race experience. And a great experience is what drives participation. Ideally, it’s a flywheel for growth and for creating stable event economics. What works for the for-profit event promoters is just as valid for us.

VN: One thing you’ve talked about is giving Team USA more support at the UCI Gravel World Championships this year. Why is that important?

BQ: It’s obvious that gravel has reached an inflection point where it’s two sports in one. You have “Spirit of Gravel” events that skew to the social experience, then you have legit, knives-out slugfests. I’m talking about flat-out racing – exactly what you saw at the front of Big Sugar Gravel in 2022 as an example.

The future of both forms of gravel is limitless. And our belief is that Team USA can play a huge role in growing both parts of the sport, but especially the latter – the racing part.

Without a doubt you’ll see more and more of the world’s best road and mountain bike pros doing gravel worlds. If Belgium and the Netherlands and Great Britain are sending their very best athletes to gravel worlds, the U.S. needs to do the same.

Just like mountain biking was, gravel is an American creation. By all rights we should dominate it because it’s ours. Historically, the biggest catalysts for growth of American bike racing are racing heroes – Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong, Kate Courtney. A dominant American gravel champion has the ability to do the same. And you’re only considering dominant if your palmares include a World Championship.

If we want to have genuine powerhouses who can legitimately contend for a rainbow jersey go to gravel worlds —  think Keegan Swenson or Quinn Simmons or Kristen Faulkner — then we need to provide them real support. That’s what we’re doing as an organization in 2023. Winners grow the sport. So let’s bring the real contenders to the start line.

One step in this direction is that the winners of the elite men’s and women’s Gravel Nationals will both automatically qualify for gravel worlds, and we’ll provide them with “Tier 1” funding for the race. This means we cover their travel and all related costs to the race.

Second and third places in the elite races will also qualify for Worlds, but they’ll do so with Tier 2 funding, which means that they’ll need to cover their own airfare and pay a nominal “Team Service Fee” to cover all of the support services we’ll provide at the race.

VN: We’ve talked about USAC’s vision for its involvement in gravel – more junior and collegiate racing opportunities, as well as better support of worlds-bounds athletes. What else? Will we start to see more USAC-sanctioned gravel racing, or will USAC maintain its peaceful coexistence with the existing gravel scene? 

BQ: We are a non-profit that exists to support the growth of bike racing in America. This includes gravel. Whether you sanction with us or not, we want to see more opportunities for Americans to race bikes – any bike. It’s not “peaceful co-existence,” it’s unequivocal support of anyone aiming to do the incredibly hard work of putting on a bike event.

That said, I have a clear expectation of more USAC-sanctioned gravel racing. We are working our tails off to develop a robust set of event organizer resources to make it a no-brainer to sanction with us, especially if you’re a relatively new organizer. This means more than insurance – but a whole range of support that makes putting on races less difficult, and to help organizers make ends meet. If they lose money, then guess what – their races cease to exist.

Beyond this, we have an internal Business Innovation Working Group underway at USA Cycling where we’re dissecting our current business model. We need to find new ways to support and provide tangible value to riders, event promoters, and clubs across all disciplines. We can do better in this space, and we need to chart our path to the future. Businesses that stand still die, and I don’t want that to happen here at USAC.

If we get all of this right, then I think our role in the year-round sport of Gravel will continue to grow, and it’ll do so pretty darn quickly.

VN: What are USAC’s goals in gravel right now?

BQ: Gravel is the most appealing entry point into the sport of bike racing. More gravel racers ultimately means more road and mountain bike and cyclocross racers. Naturally, more racers on the local level results in a bigger talent pool for producing the American world champions of tomorrow.

Our goals are maximum participation, American dominance of the sport on a global level, and to embrace how the innovative force of gravel is forcing us to evolve as an organization. Our historical struggles fitting into gravel culture will possibly prove to be the best thing that has ever happened to USA Cycling.

VN: What do you hope to learn from this inaugural event?

BQ: Oh man, so many things! There are some obvious ones:

Did we get the “key” rules right? That is, should men and women race separately?
Will anyone throw a fit about ‘no aerobars’?
Did the prize purse drive participation the way we hoped?
Did we choose the right age cut-offs for the shorter course?
What did the course have too much of and too little of?

The real lessons, though, will probably come in the category of “… you don’t know what you don’t know.” This will be our first-ever large-scale gravel event, so I know we’ll get plenty of feedback on how to improve for 2024, and I can’t wait to hear it all.

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