Gravel is global: Observations from the Traka

After a week in Girona, Spain for Europe's biggest gravel race, this is what I learned.

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After doing the Traka gravel race, I had a moment at the post-race meal.

First, there were the lentils. Then, big vats of pasta, rice, and paella. Bowls of olives and mixed nuts, of course, as well as cheese and charcuterie. Pie-shaped Spanish tortilla cut into bite-sized pieces. Chocolate cake for dessert.

At every table, there were a few bottles of extra virgin olive oil for glugging.

And so what if the beer was warm (and it was Heineken, yuck) and the bread was kinda hard, the food was delish.

And then someone told me about the fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Freshly-squeezed (Photo: Betsy Welch)

While these details may only interest the food-motivated like myself, they were among a catalogue of observations that I made at the Traka gravel race in Girona a few weeks ago. Among the more general motivations — yes, I would love to go to Spain in April, and yes, I would love to ride my bike there — I traveled to Girona to see what a European gravel race, the Traka arguably the largest one, was like.

Self-serve EVOO and OJ notwithstanding, I felt strangely at home the minute the event weekend began.

Gravel race shakeout ride, Girona style (Photo: Betsy Welch)

On the Friday before the event, I had my choice of three shakeout rides (I missed the hill climb on Wednesday due to delayed flights). At packet pickup that afternoon, there were beers at the Pas Normal Studios van and coffee at the SRAM tent. A mechanic from Hutchinson Tires provided neutral support — and said there was nothing he could do for my contaminated brake pads.

In the 36 hours leading up to the race, I ran into a whole heap of people I knew, many that I’d met at the Migration Gravel Race in Kenya two summers ago. Dennis from the Netherlands was there with his girlfriend, John the South African flower farmer with his wife, and so were friends from Team Amani.

Friends from all over the world (Photo: Betsy Welch)

During a city tour of Girona for media folks, I saw a woman in a Lauf t-shirt who looked strangely familiar — it was Rakel, the super strong woman Icelandic woman I rode with at the Grefillin, the windiest gravel race of my life.

I met people I’ve interviewed on the phone (Maarten from the Nordic Gravel Series) and others who I’ve admired from afar via social media (like ultra legends Sami Sauri, Josh Ibbett, and Mattia de Marchi).

Oh, and big hugs were in order with both Amity Rockwell and Sarah Sturm, the American women who would eventually finish 1-2 in the 360k race late Saturday evening.

The gravel ‘fam’ is indeed global.

Sturm and Rockwell, with a podium pine tree (Photo: Betsy Welch)

At the race start, the grass was dewy, and the Harry Styles song on the speakers would remain on a loop in my head for the next four hours. There were nothing but nice carbon fiber bikes all around, more European brands like 3T and Willier than Santa Cruz or Specialized, but those too. I even spotted an Allied from Arkansas.

I lined up next to a guy from Denmark, who said that gravel had become super popular back home. Like most everyone who rides gravel in Europe, he had ridden road before and said he preferred getting away from cars and chilling out a bit more on the gravel.

And, like many people who ride gravel in Europe, he’d decided that getting off the busy roads and chilling out a bit more was also fun to do at high speeds with thousands of other people at a gravel race.

The Traka, from 30,000 feet

If you’re familiar with the origin story of gravel in the US, some parts of the Traka’s history will ring true.

When Klassmark — a promoter with deep roots in the MTB and trail running scene — launched the Traka in 2019, 100 people registered. In 2020, the number doubled. Cristina Bosch, one half of the Klassmark’s indomitable founding duo, told me that she and her partner Gerard considered scrapping the gravel race altogether.

“Maybe the Spanish people don’t like gravel,” she recalled thinking.

Klassmark co-founder Cristina Bosch (Photo: Betsy Welch)

But, they kept it on the calendar, and in 2021, 200 people became 400 and jumped to 1,000 last year.

This year, the event sold out with 2,000 people registered across the event’s four distances.

Although gravel has had a decade-long head start in the US (more or less depending on the event), Europe seems to be quickly catching up. As someone who both chronicles and participates in gravel races, I was surprised by the similarities, intrigued by the differences, and curious about the trajectory of races like the Traka and gravel in general in Europe.

Let’s start with what’s similar.

As is the trend in US gravel, the Traka offered four distances, 360, 200, 100, and 50k. The 360 and 200k riders race on Saturday, the 100 and 50k on Sunday. Cleverly, the packet pickup for the 100 and 50k races is Saturday evening, just as the first 360k finisher is predicted to come in (that was Mattia de Marchi in 13 hours 🤯 ).

Watching Mattia de Marchi approach the finish line via livestream (Photo: Betsy Welch)

According to Bosch, 40 percent of riders signed up for the 200k, followed by the 100k at 28 percent. 22 percent opted for the ultra 360k, with the smallest number of riders riding the 50k.

Total rider numbers always seem to beget another question: how many were women?

Just 14 percent of the total riders, Bosch said. The percentage varied depending on the distance, however, with women making up nearly 40 percent of the 100k.

While some races in the US are nearing an average of say, 20-30 percent women’s participation, 14 percent isn’t uncommon across the pond either. What is becoming less exception and more rule, however, is the expectation that equal attention is paid to the women’s race, whatever its numbers, by both the organizers and the media.

The top ten women in the Traka 360k (Photo: Betsy Welch)

At the Traka, it was a relief to see all the camera flashes and stoke for both Rockwell and Sturm as each one crossed the finish line in the dark and drizzly weather; and, judging by the applause at Sunday’s podium presentation, the crowd seemed to be biased toward the top 10 finishers of the women’s 360k.

Another familiar vibe I picked up on over the weekend was ‘keep the UCI out of gravel.’ Although many of the European riders I spoke with were quite aware of the UCI Gravel World Series and even planning to attend one of the races, they also seemed to stick to the script that, when it comes to gravel, grassroots is better.

Klassmark itself is walking the tightrope between the business in the front and party in the back; while the Traka is is part of the newly launched — and unsanctioned — Gravel Earth series, its next gravel race, Hutchinson Ranxo, is part of the UCI Gravel World Series.

All of the other organizers in the Gravel Earth series were in attendance at the Traka

Speaking of the mullet protocol, this is one place where US and Euro gravel aren’t necessarily on the same page.

Just as the front of the race wasn’t dominated by a few dozen fulltime pros, nor was the back brought up by riders in jorts smoking joints. I raced the 200k, where it seemed that everyone was mostly business — but in a European, stop for a big lunch in the early afternoon, type of way 😉.

Will Euro gravel get more pro? Probably, and quickly. With that, will its cross-cultural counterpart also flourish? That part I’m not as sure about.

However, I think the most important questions don’t have to do with either of those factions at all. Those are: will never-ever or novice riders feel comfortable at a gravel race in Europe? Will gravel become a gateway to the sport, rather than a place just for experienced riders to slot in?

This shakeout ride definitely wasn’t for beginners (Photo: Betsy Welch)

Although it’s not without flaws I think the US gravel scene has done a good job at creating a culture where you don’t have to have experience in any other discipline to show up at a gravel race; beginners may be overshadowed by the fast-growing fast riders, but they’re certainly welcome.

As the Traka and other races grow, they’re going to bump into the same challenges facing US gravel, a major one being safety. During the 200k race, a rider collided with a car and was hospitalized with severe injuries. The next day, in the US, a rider/car collision at Rasputitsa in Vermont resulted in a death.

While some race organizers are scrambling to add more course marshals at busy intersections — and the Traka had these — on open roads, there’s no guarantee that riders won’t encounter cars. And the drivers of those cars, be they rural Spaniards, Vermonters, or urban San Diegoans, may not be aware that there is a bike race as they drive to work on a Saturday morning.

The Traka, from the ground

Many of these observations began as kernels of thought during my own day riding the Traka 200k. Often, I’m torn between fully giving myself the experience of a bike race and making sure I do the job I set out to. At the Traka, it was no different, which means that the person, the rider really, that I am inevitably shows up loud and clear.

I loved the landscape of the flat sections of the route; coral-colored poppies filled troughs along the roadside and dotted the endless fields of green. I did not love how fast everyone was going, and I let myself get dropped repeatedly. I don’t care, I thought. This is how it always is, and this time I’m in Spain.

I had to stop (Photo: Betsy Welch)

I loved the route’s big, burly climb during the hottest part of the day. I chose my line well through the sandstone slabs and passed a dozen men who were visibly suffering. This is also how it always is, even though I inevitably get passed by some of those men on the descent.

I also loved it when the tiny ember of competitiveness that simmers somewhere in my consciousness of ‘I don’t care’ got stoked.

When there were probably only 10-15 miles to go, a group of six Italians overtook me on a shady straightway. There were two women embedded in the group, and a tall guy was pulling up front. I hitched a ride, moderately annoyed — first at the girls for getting pulled around, and then at myself, for riding the entirety of the race alone.

Always smile for the photographer (Photo: The Traka)

The course got tricky and technical as we neared the finish. I pulled away on a short, steep climb, but the Italians caught me. Then, we all took a wrong turn, but I was the first to notice and turn around. We dropped into some singletrack along a creek, and I decided that I really wanted to beat those girls.

The last mile of the course had us on some janky, urban singletrack behind the Nescafe factory, and that was where I knew I’d truly dropped them. I grinned as I rounded the finisher straight all alone.

New friends from Pas Normal greeted me with a cold Radler, the Traka folks draped a souvenir mug around my neck, and the Italian girls rolled in a few minutes later. After high fives and freshly-squeezed juice and sharing stories of the day with friends new and old, I went back to the hotel to shower. Then I rode back to the venue, had a beer, and waited for Amity and Sturmy to finish their big race.

It all felt strangely familiar.

An American in France

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