Is USAC on track? Top gravel pros react to nationals news
Cycling's most passionate subset weighs in on USAC in gravel, prize money, the women's race, and worlds.
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Last week, USA Cycling announced the details of the first USAC Gravel National Championship, and the US’ top gravel pros have mixed responses.
While the collective reaction is far less oppositional than it was when the UCI announced it was going to host a gravel world championship way back in 2020, some riders — namely those who have already had careers racing under the auspices of the international governing body — are wary of USAC’s involvement.
- USAC Gravel National Championship details
- USAC CEO Brendan Quirk on gravel nationals
- Wrapping my head around UCI gravel worlds
However, most gravel pros are applauding the national federation for making decisions that reflect the current state of gravel racing in the United States.
The proposed route for the elite and age group categories is 120+ miles, and men and women will race the same distances in all categories. There will be non-binary and para-cycling categories. And, the only regulations for equipment are that no aerobars or e-bikes are allowed.
USAC is also putting up a huge prize purse — $60,000 — to be split between the top five men and women in the elite race.
We spoke to some of the country’s top riders to get their take on gravel nationals, namely what USAC’s involvement in gravel foreshadows, the prize money, the standalone women’s race, and the plan to support Team USA at gravel worlds.
USAC is back
As gravel has grown over the past 10 years, USAC has often taken a quiet back seat to the process. While some organizers use the governing body for insurance purposes, few have involved USAC beyond that. During a 2020 ‘summit’ that USAC held with race organizers of some of the US’ biggest gravel races, the message from the grassroots to the governing body was clear: we’re all good over here.
And, USAC didn’t push.
However, as many riders pointed out, the debut of the UCI Gravel World Championships last year hastened USAC’s entry into gravel event promotion. Furthermore, with what many considered a series of gaffes by the UCI in their inaugural gravel race, USAC was able gather information for a better understanding of what American gravel riders wanted in a championship event.
“As much as I hate thinking that rules, standards, and requirements will be part of the discipline at the ‘sanctioned’ level, it was inevitable,” said longtime gravel racer Amanda Nauman. “All we can do now is guide the format in the direction that we can be proud of as the birthplace of the discipline. Gravel has its roots in the US. There were a lot of misses by the UCI in 2022 and USAC has the opportunity to lead by example on how a legitimate gravel race should look now.
Other riders applauded the structure that will come with USAC’s involvement.
“I do appreciate that USAC can apparently command the sponsorship dollars necessary to hire course marshals and take other safety precautions typically absent from major gravel events,” said John Borstelmann. “As someone who participates in gravel with the primary goal of racing, rather than adventure, I want to see more road closures and traffic control at other races, so maybe this will be a teachable experiment for a more “professional” style gravel race.”
As for concerns that a national championship will professionalize the sport too much, many riders felt that USAC’s race was additive, rather than threatening. However, they also hoped that professionalization, or even a “development pathway” model wouldn’t squelch opportunities for young riders outside of that environment.
“The sport is growing from the grassroots to professional levels, and while the various series and events provide a ton of opportunities for both “enjoying the spirit” and competing, having a championship race gives us the same motivation of earning the Stars and Stripes jersey that is present in other cycling disciplines,” said Crystal Anthony.
“My hope is that gravel doesn’t become rigid and hard to navigate, particularly for those who are in the Midwest or who start riding later in life,” said Paige Onweller. “These riders have less resources to develop and less opportunities to race making it harder for riders to progress to an elite level. Gravel has provided newer riders like myself to really showcase what we are capable of, so I personally want to preserve that as USAC continues to get involved.”
“We are asking “gravel” to be a lot of different things right now,” said Kiel Reijnen. “For some it is a less intimidating way to enter the sport, for others it’s a competitive replacement for vanishing road races, for others yet, it is a welcome departure from what existed previously that celebrates all types of diversity in cycling. With USAC’s recent announcement it could even be argued that it is now a development pathway.
“Is that a good or bad thing? It will depend on who you ask, but in my opinion gravel has been and should remain “for everyone.”
“I think USAC having a national champs is only going to provide more opportunities, which is always a good thing,” said Christopher Blevins. “I can understand people not wanting to pursue the hyper competitive, international level of racing, and that’s what gravel has provided the past few years. But none of that gets taken away by providing opportunities to make the racing side of this discipline more concrete. As people who love riding bikes, we should want to see the level of competitive events increase right alongside the entry level, community based rides that aren’t about results. Both can happen at once.”
Sweetening the deal
Historically, there hasn’t been a significant prize purse at any USA Cycling National Championship events, but Brendan Quirk, CEO of USAC, says that could change depending on how it goes at gravel nationals.
As it stands, the org is dishing out $60,000 to the top five men and women in the elite race. None of the prize money will come from membership dues but rather from sponsorship and entry fees.
What do the riders think?
“I’m always stoked for bike racers to get a shot at a real paycheck,” Borstelmann said. “Most pros will not be able to resist the temptation of a $12k paycheck, so I bet we will see some of the country’s best cyclists show up as well.”
“The payout is a huge plus,” said Hannah Shell. “Gravel races are resource and time intensive. Budgets for a privateer program like ours are already tight, but with a 30k prize purse for the women’s race we can definitely justify traveling to the race and betting we’ll at least break even.”
“I’m curious how this will change future national events but this will certainly make gravel riders consider making it a higher priority, unlike last year’s “qualifiers” for worlds,” Onweller said. “My fear is that when there is more money involved, it can often become more political as we have seen on the road scene. For a long time, gravel has been the wild wild west and I think some structure is probably needed, particularly in the selection processes now that there is a world championship that will only continue to develop in coming years.”
“The prize purse is obviously a plan to draw a broad and stacked field from across disciplines,” said Ted King. “While I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad thing, a least for the time being, I prefer to race for belt buckles, cowboy hats, and one-of-a-kind art.
“The payout aspect of this is interesting,” said Payson McElveen. “Of course it’s a good thing for folks in my position so it feels silly to critique, but it is a little odd to me that 60k is being distributed to only the top five men and women. If the goal is enticing a deeper pro field, I would have structured that payout to reward the pro field more deeply. Especially on a midwest style course that’s likely to have unpredictable mass finishes, I think a lot of great riders will be enticed by that payout but leave empty handed.”
Women separate but equal
One of the biggest critiques of the UCI Gravel World Championships last year is that women raced a shorter course than men — 140k to the men’s 190. While other world championship races also see women racing shorter distances, this did not fly with the gravel crowd, which is used to everyone on the same courses.
USAC heard the complaints loud and clear — and for some women, this is making all the difference in their decision to participate in nationals where they will race separately from men.
“When I reached out to the UCI last year to ask why the women’s course was shorter, their response was essentially that women’s courses are always shorter,” Onweller said. “They pointed to all the other disciplines where women world races are a truncated version of the men’s. That might be true in other disciplines, but it has never been that way with gravel. The fact that USA Cycling recognized this and chose to follow suit with the founding principles of gravel is massive. I am definitely adding gravel nationals to my calendar.”
“It’s also a massive step for men and women to race on the same course and race the same distance,” Shell said. “I was so disappointed and disheartened when the UCI chose to shorten the women’s course at worlds last year. The fact that USA Cycling decided not to follow suit with the UCI and make women’s and men’s races the same distance makes me feel like my complaints and others were heard and taken into consideration.”
“I’ve grown accustomed to the fair treatment and equal distance gravel races provide women,” said Emily Newsom. “I deeply appreciate that many gravel events have created a category specifically for non-binary athletes creating an opportunity for all athletes to compete. My hope is that USAC will continue this positive trajectory, ensuring fairness and equity towards all categories.
“I sincerely hope that they can make the necessary sacrifices to give the women their own race, or whatever it takes to give them a fair race and a fair share of the spotlight,” Borstelmann said. “And with that kind of money involved, there had better be a watchable livestream of both the men’s and women’s races.”
“Good for gravel being the same length I guess,” said Ruth Winder. “Personally, I never understood this argument with men and women in road racing. I don’t need to race as long as them to prove I am good at the sport. Women and men are not the same and I get fed up with the comparison. All that being said, quite honestly, I love being a female and the sport has improved so much of my career and one day women will have the same opportunities I know it.”
Last year, riders could qualify for the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships by finishing in the top 25 percent of their age group at a qualifying race, or by applying for discretionary approval by USAC.
Due to a variety of factors, not that many people qualified — or applied. The riders who did go were responsible for their own travel costs.
This year, USAC plans to give more support to the riders who qualify via the gravel national championship.
The winners of the elite men’s and women’s races will automatically qualify for gravel worlds and will receive “Tier 1” funding for the race — USAC will cover their travel and all related costs.
Second and third places in the elite races will also qualify for worlds, but they’ll do so with Tier 2 funding, which means that they’ll need to cover their own airfare and pay a nominal “Team Service Fee” to cover support services.
Most athletes were happy to hear this news.
“Committing to full support at UCI Gravel World Championships for top three riders in the men’s and women’s elite races is huge,” said Lauren Stephens. “It was exciting to represent the USA last year but having support will be a game changer. Gravel will always have some aspect of self-support. But this is the World Championships, it’s a special event. Imagine if they did this for all disciplines!”
“I think the overarching success will be from the creation of a true US national team,” said Alexey Vermeulen. “I would love to see the US field a team that can work together and bring home the rainbow stripes.”
“Of course, I would love to see an American win the World Championships, solidify our place on the world stage, and in the process, grow our sport,” said Lauren De Crescenzo. “A proper qualifier with USAC backing is a huge step in making that happen.”
“I think it makes so much sense to send the top three from nationals to worlds,” Shell said. “It’s transparent and fair, and will result in the most deserving racers representing the US. This direction feels more legitimate and will eliminate speculation that politics or favoritism played into the decision.”