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Gravel race organizers intent on keeping rules minimal

The experience of the masses outweighs the need to enact new rules to govern a few elite racers, organizers say.

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Are more rules needed to ensure fair play? Do men and women need separate starts, and should teamwork be forbidden?

In the wake of drama that erupted after Lauren De Crescenzo’s win at SBT GRVL, some elite athletes and participants are demanding answers to some of gravel’s longstanding questions, and they want race promoters to enter the fray.

Many gravel race promoters say they’re listening to the questions but say that the answers aren’t that simple. Namely, that the experience of the masses stands to suffer if major changes are made for a minority of riders.

“I am staunchly opposed to putting things in place in my event that affects everyone but that only applies to one percent of the participants,” said Bobby Wintle, founder of The Mid South.

Gravel’s laxity when it comes to rules is part of its tradition. And more importantly, say race promoters, it’s what has created its greatest asset — a spirit of inclusivity.

The intentional absence of rules

When Burke Swindlehurst wrote the rules for the Crusher in the Tushar nearly a dozen years ago, it was his least favorite part of designing a race.

“I think I said, ‘don’t ever make me do that again,'” he told VeloNews.

As a former professional cyclist, Swindlehurst created the Crusher in the Tushar to embody what he loved about racing — amazing courses and friendly competition — with little of what he didn’t — like rules and seriousness. He is not alone in his near-allergy to having rules at his bike race.

SBT GRVL’s director Amy Charity, who also comes from a background in professional bike racing, said part of gravel’s allure is how different it feels from the confines of sanctioned bike races.

“Most of us involved in gravel, whether as promoters or riders, came to gravel because of the absence of rules,” Charity said. “SBT GRVL has a few simple ones: no outside support, follow the general cycling ‘rules of the road’, and no aerobars. That’s pretty much it. We believe that a minimal set of rules is necessary, but it’s up to the racers to determine their own so-called code of conduct.”

For the most part, this laissez faire approach has worked for gravel, and it’s also led to the creation of a successful sector of the cycling industry.

“I feel like we’ve done a really good job at it so far,” Swindlehurst said. “When people have been called out, they’ve been self-moderating.”

Nevertheless, as more professional cyclists have become involved in the discipline, some say that the gulf between the formal ‘minimal set of rules’ and the ‘code of conduct’ has deepened.

Lauren De Crescenzo’s win at SBT GRVL using the support of her teammates did not violate any of the race’s official rules, yet the outrage that bloomed on social media after the race indicated that some riders feel that a handshake deal is no longer good enough.

Wintle said that, for promoters, riders pushing up against the boundaries of decorum without actually breaking rules does present a tricky situation. However, he feels that adding rules that may only affect a tiny percentage of racers would be an irrational decision.

“It’s the big question mark,” he said. “We can’t just automatically say, ‘you’ll just be disqualified if you’re a woman working with men.’ The call and the want for equality is out there for sure from the racers, but they’re not saying they want what the UCI or USAC have to offer. There is another way. The beautiful thing about gravel is that we can say we’re not sure. We’re being presented with new circumstances, new information, new questions, new challenges, and we don’t have to have all the answers right away.”

A solution for some would not benefit the masses

One option being floated around as a solution to the issue of elite riders using road tactics in gravel racing is to start riders in separate groups, as they do in road races.  Swindlehurst does this at the Crusher in the Tushar, and riders are sent off in waves at Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego, but most gravel events begin with one big mass start.

And, like the dearth of written rules in gravel’s sparing rulebook, many promoters feel that the mass start represents what is unequivocally special about gravel.

“It’s one of the key distinguishing factors in gravel racing that separates it from other types of cycling events,” Charity said. “We believe that one start line and one start time is refreshingly simple for the riders and allows them the opportunity to line up where they are comfortable.”

Due to the long and arduous nature of gravel events, mass starts appeal to all kinds of riders, because they allow cyclists of similar pace and ability to ride with one another. Despite the potential for abusing gravel’s currently unwritten rules about teamwork, many pro women have said they would not prefer a separate start.

“The spirit changes when the fields are divided,” said Laura King, co-promoter of Rooted Vermont and also a frequent race participant. “Unfortunately, I do think that’s a race promoter’s only solution if a ‘rule’ is deemed necessary. Rules like ‘no domestiques’ aren’t enforceable, although they are a little bit of a deterrent.”

Nevertheless, whether a separate start or a rule against using dedicated helpers, promoters say that this switches the focus from the masses to the elite. And that’s antithetical to how they want to run their races.

Charity said SBT GRVL received some feedback about De Crescenzo’s alleged tactics, but she doesn’t feel it warrants a revision of the race’s rulebook.

“What you’re getting at with regard to negative feedback is from, and pertains to, about two percent of our riders,” she said. “We respect the feedback from everyone and listen to all comments, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever make a decision that could negatively alter the experience of the other 98 percent.”

The positive feedback is overwhelming

Of all disciplines in cycling, gravel is perhaps the best known for being accessible to a wide range of riders. It’s become the de facto proving ground for campaigns to get more women and people of color to start lines. Ensuring that all riders feel welcome is tantamount to the modern gravel race promoter’s goals, and despite occasional drama from gravel’s elite riders, promoters see it happening.

“The positive feedback that we have received is overwhelming,” Charity said, “about our commitment to inclusivity and growing the sport of cycling and the enthusiasm and positivity that characterized the tone of the weekend.”

Charity and other promoters acknowledge that as the sport grows, so will its challenges. However, they are also committed to safeguarding the elements — like few rules and a start line where people can choose their position — that have given gravel its unique edge.

Which could mean that the onus for fair play will continue to fall on the riders.

“I think that it’s on the shoulders of each one of us and on the shoulders of participants who are asking for change to understand what they’re asking for,” Wintle said. “We all need to be in consensus to some degree of how to proceed. Having tough conversations, asking ‘what is the point of what we’re doing?'”

“What we have is not broken,” he continued. “We have thousands of people everywhere. My event, events in Vermont, SBT. It’s working. And not just working, thriving. As loud as these things are, this is the minority. We’re changing lives, throwing amazing events, and people are having the times of their lives.”

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