Women’s gravel: ‘We’re not racing each other,’ says Sofia Gomez Villafañe

The Unbound 200 champ says that a pro woman's experience in gravel is dictated by her efforts in relation to men, not the other women competitors.

Photo: William Tracy

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

In Zach Nehr’s power analysis of Sofia Gomez Villafañe’s race-winning effort at Unbound Gravel, the endurance coach and VeloNews contributor, said it was “one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen.”

Gomez Villafañe finished the 200-mile race in 10 hours and 27 minutes, 46th out of 1,240 total riders. She put in massive power efforts during the first three hours of the race and then was able to maintain a steady effort of 3-4w/kg for the last 100-plus miles.

A few days after the race, Linda Guerrette, a well-known photographer in the gravel scene, posted to Instagram that she was stewing over something she’d read about the race — “that because Sofia had a sizable lead at the beginning then I guess there wasn’t a women’s race.”

Guerrette countered that observation with her own: “That sizable lead was down to a few minutes multiple times during the race which isn’t nothing in a 200-mile gravel race. It was game on for all of these women all day long. I was out there watching it in real time.”

Of all the subsequent comments on Guerette’s post, one stood out.

Gomez Villafañe chimed in herself after a few women had responded with hearts and raised hand emojis.

“Until we have our own start and no drafting rules from the men there will never be a real women’s race,” she wrote. “The men have a bigger impact on how the women’s race plays out than the actual women that are racing it.”

When I asked if Gomez Villafañe realized that her comment might be interpreted as bravado or against the “spirit of gravel,” she didn’t try to deny what she’d said. She just said it again.

“Well, there wasn’t even a women’a race. I was never racing the women. I was racing the men. Yes, on the results I’m the first female finisher and was the first to finish the women’s race. But out there, we’re not racing each other.”

‘The game is played a certain way’

Gomez Villafañe has a long history of racing against other women.

The 28-year-old began racing cross-country mountain bikes in high school through the NorCal High School league, competed in MTB and ‘cross at the collegiate level at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and then went on to race on the domestic and World Cup XC circuits. She represented Argentina at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Gravel is Gomez Villafañe’s first foray into mixed-sex racing, and her experiences over the past two years have inspired an almost academic interest in how the races play out. She told me that she had been trying to research other sports where men and women race together to understand the effects on outcomes.

She found that in some high-profile running events, like the Boston and New York City marathons, elite men and women start separately from each other and the amateurs. She also read through the the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Book of Rules and noted that the governing body doesn’t recognize a woman’s world record if she is paced by males.

A staggering image – Gomez Villafañe alone on rider’s left makes the selection elite men early in the race. (Photo: Wil Matthews)

“It’s interesting to see how other sports do it,” Gomez Villafañe said. “At Steamboat, my first gravel race mass start, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I felt like I wan’t racing the women. It took me a bit to figure it out.”

Since SBT GRVL last August, Gomez Villafañe has figured it out, and to great success. She won BWR Asheville the following weekend, and this year she won the Rule of Three in Bentonville a few weeks before Unbound.

In addition to months of race-specific training and testing equipment, Gomez Villafañe says that the tactical bit of elite gravel racing is relatively simple.

“If you ask a woman, ‘what is your plan?’ it’s like, ‘try to make fastest selection you possibly can, hope no other women make it and that you made the fastest selection and that no one’s with you,'” she said. “That’s the race in a way.”

Like some in the elite gravel peloton, Gomez Villafañe is not a retired pro from a different discipline. She is building her career as a professional cyclist, and her job is to win races.

So, given the current format of gravel where mass starts are the norm, she’s fine with racing the best way she knows how — by working with men out on course.

However, she also envisions a different future for the sport, one where certain races separate women from men and pros from amateurs.

“The game is played a certain way and I’m willing to play it that way,” she said. “And that does take skills. I love racing the men. The way I’m pushed is above and beyond what I thought I was capable of. But I’m also willing to advocate for a women’s race and exciting racing and that storyline. I think that would grow the sport.” 

You gotta keep ’em separated

Some gravel races have experimented with start lines separated by gender, to varying degrees of success. For many years, women started ahead of the men at Crusher in the Tushar. However, the excitement of racing elbow-to-elbow with just women could be fleeting; once the elite men rolled up, the field splintered as women latched on to men’s wheels.

In the past, elite women started after the men at BWR San Diego. This format seemed to work well; women could size up their competition and assess their place in the pack.

When Lauren De Crescenzo, who finished second to Gomez Villafañe at Unbound this year, was accused of having male domestiques assist her at SBT GRVL last year, I reached out to a handful of pros to see if a renewed conversation about the start line format at gravel races was warranted.

The responses were mixed.

Gomez Villafañe and De Crescenzo were two of the riders who advocated for a separate women’s start, or a separate race altogether. Others agreed, for both reasons of safety and integrity.

Yet, more argued that the mass start helped define the true spirit of gravel — one race, one start.

Now that Gomez Villafañe is fully committed to racing gravel as part of her multi-discipline career, she’s more invested than ever in how the racing plays out. She sees various ways to rectify the current model of having women race within the men’s race, and she doesn’t believe one set of rules has to apply to every event, or that it will quash the spirit of gravel.

Gomez Villafañe plays the game. (Photo: Brad Kaminski)

“The spirit of gravel applies to the ethos of the race and the amateurs on course but not to the pros,” she said. “We need rules to make it good, safe racing. I didn’t race Unbound for an ‘experience’ or because I thought it would be super fun. I have to do it because it’s part of the Life Time Grand Prix, so I’m gonna prepare. I’m gonna show up.”

It’s complicated to have a small field of elite riders trying to prove themselves in a discipline that caters to the masses, but gravel’s reality is that more riders like Gomez Villafañe could be coming through the ranks.

Race organizers have historically been loathe to implement rules or differentiate between the pro and amateur experience, but with money and prestige on the line, separating the two could ultimately save both experiences.

“The reality is we’re racing,” Gomez Villafañe said. “There’s contracts on the line, there’s exposure, there’s career-making results. This is huge for us and we want the rules.

“No one has asked, ‘what if we separate the pro field from the amateurs?’ Even at mass start events, you could have rules. Just because the pro women start on their own, amateur women don’t have to start on their own. You could still do a mass start but after.”

Gomez Villafañe realizes that her celebrity gives her a megaphone, but she’s not trying to drown out the 95 percent of people who race gravel for fun, or for personal results.

In fact, she used the Unbound results page and Instagram to reach out to female age group finishers to conduct an informal survey: “are you OK with having rules apply to pros that don’t apply to amateurs?”

“I asked them, ‘like what about TT bars?'” she said. “Or pros having outside support at certain points while amateurs are required to use feed zones. I remember how I was freaking out at aid stations at Steamboat because I had to go quickly, and that wasn’t cool to everyone else there. But I was racing.”

Gomez Villafañe remembers winning her age group at that race, thinking “‘are you kidding?’ And then there’s the local girl who’s training her butt off? That’s not fair.”

As with the lack of agreement in the professional female gravel peloton, Gomez Villafañe’s citizen research project didn’t yield resounding consensus.

A lot of women said they loved to start together, with either friends or a partner. They realized that using groups to draft off of was essential in a long race like Unbound. However, some said that they were competing within their age group and wished they knew who the competition was from the start. 

“Someone said they wished there would be an overall amateur podium,” Gomez Villafañe said. 

As riders have had more time to reflect post-Unbound, the conversations about the women’s race continue. Lea Davison, who also comes from a professional XC MTB background and is learning the ropes of gravel, also took to Instagram to share her feelings about the event.

“I can go a whole race without even seeing the women I compete against,” she wrote. “It removes most of the fun tactics of racing, and it’s a game of how long you can hang onto the lead men or how good of a group of men did you end up with.”

For many of the pro women, Crusher in the Tushar on July 9 is the next race on their calendar and the third in the Life Time Grand Prix series.

Gomez Villafañe thinks the format of the Utah event would lend itself perfectly to a separate women’s race. And that that would drum up excitement, give media a true women’s race to cover, and let racers shine in a whole new way.

Until that happens, she’ll keep playing the game. But she won’t stop asking questions.

“At the end of the day, I’m being paid to win the women’s race,” Gomez Villafañe said. “But it would be a lot sweeter to know that I, by myself, put 10 minutes into Lauren and won. Or when I raced Tiffany [Cromwell] and Flavia [Oliveira] at BWR, that I attacked them and dropped them. That’s so much sweeter than, ‘oh, I made this selection.’

“So, when will we get to just race? Have a true women’s race? Attack each other. No ifs, buts, asterisks. It’s just all there.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.