Sarah Sturm: The dirt on the UCI gravel world champs

Thoughts from an experienced, inexperienced gravel connoisseur

Photo: Etienne Schoeman for Specialized

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Racing the UCI Gravel World Championships in Italy was a lot like navigating travel in Europe. It was vaguely familiar but also chaotic; it doesn’t make sense sometimes and is really fun but also quite challenging.

I think a lot of people were surprised to see that I decided to attend the first ever UCI gravel worlds in Italy last weekend. I would guess that folks probably put me in the “spirit of gravel” camp rather than the “gravel antichrist” camp. In some ways I too was surprised that I found excitement at the opportunity to race this inaugural event.

At the beginning of the season I was unsure about UCI’s entry into the sport of gravel. I think a lot of us were quick to assume that the UCI’s involvement with gravel racing would in-fact kill the sport that we’ve come to love over the past five years. I was absolutely one of those people.

Read also: UCI gravel worlds, a threat or an opportunity? American racers headed to Italy chime in

(Also — I’m going to attempt to use the term “spirit of gravel” as little as humanly possible, which could be a more impressive feat than actually winning a rainbow jersey at gravel worlds.)

So why go? It’s worth mentioning that I was vaguely aware of the (not so) underground boycott going on mostly on the men’s side of things. I understand that we vote with our attendance in a race, but for me in this case I felt like the needle wouldn’t move one way or the other if I were to sit it out. No one in Europe would be shocked that Sarah Sturm wasn’t there. And honestly, no one in the US would probably have noticed much either.

More importantly — I had an opportunity to make the event happen with full support from Specialized. I felt that going to race the thing would give me an important vantage point of how the sport is evolving. The race weekend did just that — it helped me learn, there were some things I really enjoyed and some things I didn’t. Keep in mind my minimal experience with UCI and my five years of US gravel racing as I write about my findings though, context is everything here.

Where I come from

I knew I was throwing myself into the deep end with this one, as I have very little road experience and this race seemed like road/peloton experience would be a big advantage. That proved to be true.

A bit about my professional cycling background: I entered gravel with a background in continental UCI cyclocross, mountain biking, and a touch of road (many moons ago). I love competition and racing at a high level, but my interest fell short of wanting to play the points game that is often required to attend European or World Cup UCI events.

For me personally, it never felt like a great ROI to pour my efforts into specific races that didn’t interest me to attempt to earn points to hopefully get selected by USA Cycling to then pay for myself to compete overseas. Singlespeed cyclocross balanced out with some high-end continental racing was a much better fit for me, but it meant I had to say goodbye to the idea of racing world championship events.

(Photo: Etienne Schoeman for Specialized)

Enter gravel racing, the wild west of bike racing, where you could sign up for whatever you wanted to, bring any sort of bike, and try to win.

Read also: Wrapping my head around a gravel world championship that doesn’t really resemble gravel at all

The simplicity, plus the physical and mental challenge, is what appealed the most about gravel.

The courses are often designed to be incredibly challenging for any and everyone out there, be it in length, elevation gain, terrain, etc. Oftentimes, with what I will now refer to as ‘OG gravel,’ these features are what define the race for us. Then, when you mix in other fast people, you get something between a race of attrition and a dynamic, tactical race. The mixture of all of these aspects is what differentiates gravel from road racing.

Gravel world championships was a gravel race albeit a very different flavor than what I am accustomed to. The highlight for me was getting to race against only (very, very fast) women. The race also felt safe with roads closed off, but it felt too short to have any race attrition like we are used to at gravel events. Also, you had to know how to move around an aggressive peloton, so it favored those with a decent amount of road experience.

What we raced

I had a few days to scope out the 140 kilometer course and get a feel for how the UCI interpreted gravel. The most interesting thing about the weekend was they somehow found an incredibly flat route for us to race nestled between surrounding hilly and mountainous towns. One theory/rumor was that the course designer was from Vicenza and wanted it to go past his house. I’m still unsure if that’s the case, but if it is true I think that’s pretty funny.

Before riding the course, I thought it was going to just be a straightforward road race. With a peloton, tactics, and lots of TT power. It definitely had those elements, but the first portion was much more selective towards off-road skills than I’d thought. Even though it didn’t prove to be enough to truly favor those technical skills.

The course was essentially one long, flat cyclocross race with 140k and 700m of climbing all in the first 20k. There was a turn every two minutes with varied terrain from gravel double track and roads through twisty towns to sketchy bike paths and random bits of single track. We started directly into a climb and got siphoned into a narrow dirt path, down a switchback descent into an even more narrow bike path. With zero time to ease in it did feel like a cyclocross start but with cement and steel barriers … and an entire peloton.

(Photo: Etienne Schoeman for Specialized)

Unfortunately, that early techy selection was still less important than the remaining 80 percent of the race. It was a pleasant surprise that my decision to switch from 33mm Pathfinders to 38s wasn’t a death sentence. (I did that to avoid risk flatting on the first part if I had to take an undesirable line given we were most likely going to be descending with a large group).

However selective the beginning of the race was with a few punchy climbs, a moderately narrow, switchback gravel descent, and a few sections of rougher, rocky climbing and descending followed by the only sustained (pavement) climb, there wasn’t enough of it to make the rest of the race anything but a flat and powerful road race.

That isn’t the UCI’s fault though, it’s just another race that happens to be flat.

Rules — the good and the bad

As I have come to understand (mainly from the experience of my Specialized teammate Sofia Gomez Villafañe, who represented Argentina) part of the appeal of UCI racing is that everything is standardized in order to be fair and optimized for the high performance athlete — in other words, predictable.

This event, compared to longer standing Worlds events like road or XCO, was a bit of a loose unit. Athlete’s didn’t have to go through the same qualifications as other world championship events and there was very little regulation on equipment. You could show up on a mountain bike if you’d wanted to, and that’s huge for the UCI.

On the other hand, communication from the race organizers wasn’t fantastic, neither was communication from USAC to the American riders. Perhaps that’s always how it goes, but this group of American athletes were fairly green in terms of worlds experience and would’ve liked a bit more from USAC.

Luckily we had the experience of veteran racer Lauren Stephens (the team’s top finisher who paid her own way to get to the event) to help answer a lot of circulating questions. At the race, information was difficult to find. We weren’t sure exactly what would be marked on the course for safety, how call-ups would work, or what number plate alterations were really allowed.

I’m sure there were more unknowns, but I’m one of those fly-by-the-seat of your pants kind of riders and didn’t think about half of that anyway.

One good thing about rules, however, is that they really can alleviate stress in some scenarios. Because this was a first year event, we had a lot of questions.

Initially there wasn’t going to be any sort of starting call up order, but they changed that due to the aggressive start climbs (normally there is more of a slow roll out in endurance racing). So, the morning of the race they came up with a call up list comprised of racers with UCI points and big gravel race results … huh?? The decision to have call ups was to keep riders safe going into an aversive start. Ultimately it was a safety decision which I don’t think had much of an impact in the smaller women’s field, and apparently they only got part of the way through the mens call ups before they just said f-it and let them all go!

That part actually feels similar to the OG gravel we know.

(Photo: Etienne Schoeman for Specialized)

What didn’t however, was the UCI’s decision to have the women’s race 140k while the men got 194k, which included an extra two-lap circuit at the end, circling the finishing city.

The feelings surrounding this seem to be varied depending on what type of racing and background you have.

Those who are used to racing and participating in the regulated, sanctioned events under the UCI umbrella are used to this sort of experience. The men always race a longer distance than the women in order to keep the finishing times similar. Those who come from OG gravel, or unsanctioned racing, are used to men and women racing the same distance and often starting together.

Read also: Should gravel races have separate fields for elite women?

After this season my opinion on separate women’s starts has actually changed from “hell no” to “yes, please” for both safety and fairness reasons, plus after this race I realized how important it is for women to just race other women. However, I still feel strongly that a defining part of gravel racing is the length of the course and that being equal to the men. Defining the difference between road racing, road racing on dirt roads, and gravel racing is actually what we’re talking about here.

I think the reason people have adopted the’ term that shall not be named’ is that it’s really hard to pin it down. To me, the beauty of the sport of gravel is that there are a lot of ways to do it, look at SBT GRVL versus Unbound versus Rule of 3 versus BWR versus Crusher in the Tushar. All of those events are completely different in how they execute the race, the terrain, distance, objective — it’s all varied. Three of those are even raced with road tactics and two are less that way, but one thing is common among all of them, the men and women race the same course.

There are a lot of takeaways from attending this event for me. The learning curve was steeper than any of the climbs in the race. Truly, it was more than an honor to race next to such amazingly talented women from all over the world. I got to meet some fans from Europe and even as far away as the Philippines. I got to feel what racing at the world class level was like and understand a different race environment.

I think there are certainly aspects that need to change, and I don’t agree with some of the choices made. In some ways it was validating that athletes who compete on the US gravel “circuit” could hold space at a world championship event. Perhaps the UCI is actually nervous about us coming into their sport versus the other way around?

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