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Gravel Worlds, officially the unofficial world championship of gravel, predates many of the other events we hear about constantly and the ones I attend annually.
The event is known for staying true to its original ethos and core beliefs, to an unwavering degree. The organizers don’t spend any money on marketing promotions, relying solely on their own social media efforts. While they realize the front of the race gets attention and will always be an important part of any form of race, they make it crystal clear that this event is about the other 99 percent of participants.
This shows in the pre-race announcements and in the awards ceremony, which takes over two hours for all categories to be honored. And, the categories go far beyond the typical gender and age groups to include tandem, non-binary, special needs, and many others.
This year the event staff created the 1000 Women of Gravel incentive, successfully pushing female riders to bring enough of their friends to create a bike race that actually mimics gender ratios in our society.
The name Gravel Worlds was born out of a tongue-in-cheek idea years ago, and people loved it. It’s a grassroots gravel race steeped in Midwest tradition, where the overall men’s and women’s winners happen to win the coveted prize of a rainbow jersey and a legitimate hand-forged pirate sword.
The rainbow jersey looks a bit different than you may be accustomed to, however; the UCI sent Gravel Worlds a cease and desist letter around the rainbow bands. So, the organizers here in Lincoln obliged by changing their design, and then turned around and trademarked their name!
Over the years, I’d held off on attending Gravel Worlds for a combination of reasons. Summer is the season of high alpine racing. For a precious few months, the high country opens up to extreme thin air adventure, and I prefer to find myself in Colorado, Montana, or Utah. Heading to Nebraska mid-summer simply didn’t appeal to me.
Furthermore, I excel on climbs, something Nebraska isn’t known for. But, I’ve come to this space not just to race but to experience the vast landscapes, terrain, and communities that make up the greater gravel family. I’d heard enough highlights from friends and colleagues that I knew Lincoln had to find its way into my travel plans.
The course is relatively non-technical with wide roads and fast, smooth, gravel, but what I didn’t realize until arriving and previewing some roads was that this course is never flat. You never climb more than 150 ft at a time, yet by the finish line we’d accumulated more vert than Leadville — a whopping 11,400 feet! The course profile looks like a fine toothed saw blade. I quickly realized the race would be very difficult and attrition-based, but it massively favors bigger and more powerful riders who can use their weight and strength to carry momentum along the undulations.
The tandem infiltration
We started in the dark at 6 a.m. The first 30 minutes were covered in the pitch black of night. As attacks flew all you could see were red tail lights flashing away. It was a surreal experience to navigate a peloton by a cluster of front lights. I knew it had to be hard all day if I was to have a chance. I pushed it on the steepest or longest hills I could find. Others had a similar desire and collaborated to maintain a high pace all day.
By halfway the eventual lead group had formed — there were five of us — but something I’d never experienced nor expected also happened. A tandem had not only infiltrated the final selection but had aided in making the race hard! I quickly realized these guys meant business, their pedal strokes divulged years of experience, their power and the way they navigated corners impressed me, and they had some (UCI approved) rainbow bands on their jersey sleeves. This wasn’t an ordinary duo on a good day.
Now, if you haven’t ridden with a tandem before, the way they surge and ride is very different. While at a disadvantage on longer climbs or technical terrain, they can absolutely haul on flats and downhills. The momentum they carry is gigantic.
The dynamic of the lead group changed as the pair was strong enough to close gaps that I or others would try and open. I made a conscious effort to make sure they were either with me or to not even try. As the smallest rider in the group I was in a losing battle; accelerating on a downhill is a much bigger effort for me. If I found myself in front of them on a paceline I would have to dig even deeper to get back on when this tandem train came barreling through. I made a conscious effort to position myself within the group to minimize these extra efforts, but it wasn’t always possible.
After 100 miles, during a headwind moment, the tandem riders asked us if we were cool with them being with us. The answer was a resounding “Yes!” It is an all inclusive race and this was another beautiful surprise that only mass start events can deliver. John Borstelmann joked that I probably hated them for all the extra work I was dealing with, and we all got a good chuckle out of it.
Coming out of the final aid, I was pretty empty and I could tell my number was coming up. Adam Roberge had opted to skip the final aid and push onward. John, being the hometown hero and defending champ, was riding with his heart on his sleeve. He’d lost a bottle cap early so only raced with one bottle full and another half full and sloshing around openly.
Eventually the tandem duo and John accelerated once too many for me on a downhill, and I popped. Up ahead John eventually made contact with Adam and set up a thrilling finale, only to blow through a turn (this course is self-navigated without signage). He and Adam stayed 20 seconds apart for the last 10 miles in an excruciating chase to the line where Adam took a well deserved victory.
As I rolled in, nobody seemed to know whether I was third or fourth. Does the tandem stand on the podium or are they in their own category?
Over finish line beers I got to know the two riders from the Netherlands and realized just what a league of their own they’re in — Tristan is visually impaired, and Patrick is his sighted pilot. Independently, these guys have the physiological profiles of world class athletes, and together they have won just about everything there is to win in the sport of tandem para-cycling: they have medaled at the paralympics and are world champs on the road and track.
They are also the only other riders to do a sub-4 minute pursuit on the velodrome. It was pretty cool seeing them link up with Ashton Lambie in the parking lot — every rider to have achieved that feat in history was chilling under a 10×10 tent in a hot parking lot under the Nebraskan sun. Tristan and Patrick had been in Canada the week before for the para-cycling road world championships and had opted to extend the North American trip to see what the gravel craze is all about.
The entire day had been a trial by fire for them. When rotating in a pace line with single bikes, Patrick had to make sure to pull far enough ahead so as to not overlap a wheel while still navigating the soft dirt on the crown of the road. They had to be well-oiled in the aid station stops, passing bottles and fuel between them, and they had to corner a longer machine while in a bunch of shorter ones that could pivot much sharper. I was astonished at how they put it all together in their first attempt.
In the end, the organizers settled on having me stand on the third step of the podium of solo riders, and the tandem in their own podium but with a special mention of how they were third overall. I was fine with whatever the outcome as I’d had a great adventure and met amazing folks. Just when I thought I’d experienced it all, another first in this ever evolving discipline.
Gravel Worlds, the real one in my mind, was a massive success.