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‘Tis the season for “best of” lists and annual wrap-ups.
Read also: VeloNews Awards 2022: Women’s road racing
Truth be told, I’m not really a “best of” type of person, I get excited about lots of things all the time. When it comes to gravel, what makes the discipline so good is how dynamic and ever changing it is: basically it’s the opposite of ‘best of’ — there are too many good races, too many good bikes, and too many good people to shove one or two down such a narrow chute.
So, take these with a grain of salt, as they only skim the surface of what’s great in the world of gravel.
To all the grassroots events in Florida and North Dakota and Indiana — I see you. Dark horses — I’m watching you. And, bike brands — bring it. It’s the diversity of personalities, ideas, and initiatives that keep me coming back to gravel year after year.
Gravel woman of the year: Moriah “Mo” Wilson
When I wrote the subtitle for “Getting to know Mo,” I had no idea it would be reprinted hundreds of times over, in news outlets around the world. In early May, Mo was the “winningest woman in American off-road,” and I knew she was only just getting started.
Our last conversation was long, mainly because Mo had such thoughtful answers to my questions. I felt like she’d just given me a hundred puzzle pieces, and I couldn’t wait to see them all put together.
As we all know, a horrible tragedy robbed everyone from seeing the puzzle to completion.
Mo was potential consummate: a burgeoning pro athlete and also someone who was constantly considering how she wanted to show up off the bike, as well. As her friends and family have so graciously shared with the press, the Mo that we were getting to know had been there all along, carefully cultivated by her family, sports, and the communities she engaged with.
There is no silver lining to tragedy, only how we chose to carry on in its wake. Mo’s time in the gravel world may have been short, but we can make her legacy long-lasting.
Gravel initiative of the year
Too many to pick just one, which is such a good thing.
1. 1000 Women of Gravel Worlds
In 2010, the first Gravel Worlds had 100 participants. 11 women signed up the inaugural year with four DNS, four DNF and three finishers. In 2022, the Nebraska event celebrated a major milestone: 1,000 women participated in the event, which equalled about 40 percent of all riders.
Reaching parity in gravel has seemed pie-in-the-sky, but that isn’t stopping organizers from trying. Gravel Worlds isn’t the first, nor will they be the last event to keep trying to get women’s numbers up, but they should be celebrated for making such the lofty goal of 1000 women in 2022 — and reaching it.
2. Team Amani to US
I’ll never forget when I first heard about the Amani Project — I was listening to the Thereabouts podcast, driving over a high mountain pass on a late summer evening in 2020. Then, the project’s goals were to use e-racing as a way to get East African riders on pro racing’s radar and then to host those riders at races in the Netherlands.
Now, the Amani Project has created two gravel stage races in East Africa, hosts local series in Nairobi, and has a team of a dozen riders from Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. Construction is underway on an athlete training center in Kenya.
In 2022, some of Team Amani traveled to the United States to race gravel and XC — a monumental accomplishment on many levels. They raced among the best in the US in Leadville, Lincoln, and Steamboat Springs; in August John Kariuki won the Vermont Overland gravel race.
Heartbreak bookended the trip, however, when Sule Kangangi, Team Amani’s captain and the driving force behind much of the progress back in Kenya, died at the same race. Now more than ever, the Amani Project has a reason to press on.
3. Ride for Racial Justice 2.0
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, two friends from Colorado led a group ride in Denver called The Ride for Racial Justice. Then, those two friends — Marcus Robinson and Neal Henderson — had the idea to turn the group ride into a group training/support/resource initiative of the same name.
Ride for Racial Justice debuted at SBT GRVL in 2021 with 25 BIPOC riders, but I believe the real victory was the fact that the program wasn’t a one-off. In 2022, a new group of 25 came together to train and ride; and, some 10 riders from the 2021 group also came back to the event in Steamboat Springs.
Next year, the program is bumping up to 30 riders, and eight alumni — including Robinson — are traveling to Europe for the inaugural FNLD GRVL.
Gravel man of the year: Keegan Swenson
It’s been rare in gravel thus far to have one rider dominate so thoroughly. In 2022, that rider emerged and either with him or because of him, gravel racing began to take on a new tone.
Keegan Swenson, 28, had been trending toward long-distance efforts for a few years before fully going gravel in 2022. Way back in 2020, he won one of that year’s only gravel races — BWR Utah — without a front brake.
In 2022, Swenson signed up for the Grand Prix and dominated the series. He narrowly missed victory at Unbound, but followed up with wins at Crusher in the Tushar and the Leadville Trail 100, where he nearly set a course record. The next day, he turned himself inside out to win SBT GRVL.
Elsewhere in 2022 and gravel-adjacent, Swenson did set a course record — he rode 21 laps of the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo course. He also defended the cross-country national championship title.
When I asked Swenson if he was going to try and race the new Singletrack Series in addition to the ’23 Life Time Grand Prix, I didn’t get the answer I was looking for from the former MTB pro: “I used to think gravel and races like Unbound were just ridiculous,” he said. “But then I put my mountain bike ego aside and went all in on them and now I’d say it’s my favorite style of racing.”
Gravel event of the year: Life Time Grand Prix
Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the Life Time Grand Prix changed the tenor of off-road racing in 2022. The series rallied some of the best riders in the US and gave them six races to target for the year; it also gave fans and media six months of storylines to chase.
Challenging riders to do their best at events as disparate as Unbound (200 miles of gravel) and Chequamegon (a 40-mile drag race) makes for interesting racing, and doing it over six months kept our appetites whetted all season long. The prize purse was more than just gas money, and that’s important now that being a professional gravel racer is a thing.
Furthermore, the Grand Prix ushered in a rising tide: already, a global gravel series and a domestic MTB series have been announced for 2023, and I know of a few more that aren’t ready to go public yet.
Gravel bike of the year:
Also, could not choose just one, and keep in mind this is only limited to what I rode, not what was put out there in the world.
Also keep in mind that these two bikes couldn’t be more different from one another.
1. Argonaut GR3
This one is for the singletrack-riding gravel cyclists out there. From Bend, Oregon’s custom builder Argonaut, the GR3 is a slacked-out speed machine (yes, those things can co-exist). The GR3 isn’t a typical gravel bike by typical gravel bike standards, but it works by putting the party in the front and the business in the back.
Keep an eye on this bike and Argonaut team rider Sarah Max in 2023 — they’ll be ripping it up in the Life Time Grand Prix.
2. BMC Kaius
This bike came wrapped in the package of hype that I tend to roll my eyes at: ‘race,’ ‘aero,’ and ‘performance,’ mmhmm sure.
However, one of the highlights of the Big Sugar Gravel weekend in Bentonville in October was getting to ride this bike. The Kaius isn’t BMC’s first gravel bike, but it’s perhaps the most thoughtful. Gravel focused geometry like a longer reach and front-center, coupled with a short stem, make the bike incredibly easy to handle. A perfect carbon tune dampens teeth-chattering washboards.
All of those features are important, and if they come with aero, fine. In fact, at Big Sugar, aero was everything. I’m pretty sure that’s how I won the race.
Full review: BMC Kaius at Big Sugar Gravel