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Plenty. In fact, the two races are more dissimilar than alike.
One is a 180km WorldTour-level road race with a 60km or so of the dusty white stuff packed with 20-plus trade teams. Unbound Gravel is a mass-start, 200-mile race of attrition among individual riders across the Great Plains of Kansas.
At Strade Bianche, the winner receives $16,000 and a fancy trophy. At Unbound, a cool shower and a cold beer are waiting at the finish line for everyone.
We asked Lachlan Morton, who’s raced both of the marquee gravel races. He gave us some interesting answers.
“It’s totally different. At a gravel race, you’re generally by yourself and self-supported besides the aid stations,” he told VeloNews. “The team dynamic of racing changes everything. The level of competition is generally higher at a road race.”
‘At a gravel race, 15 guys can win. At Strade, 60-70 could’
What do they have in common?
Beyond racing across gravel, both races helped reshape the narrative around what a bike race can be and what it should look like.
Strade Bianche broke new ground with its introduction in 2007, and pushed gravel into the forefront of innovation in the sport more than a decade ago. Since then, gravel is becoming more of a fixture on the European road scene.
Unbound Gravel (formerly called Dirty Kanza), started the previous summer in Kansas. The long-distance race was on the cutting edge of the now-booming gravel scene. So much so, now nearly two decades later, the UCI is getting in on the action, and will award its iconic rainbow jersey in 2022.
Morton has raced in both events and knows the differences and some key similarities between the two iconic races.
“At a gravel race, there are about 15 guys who can win,” Morton said. “There are 60-70 guys who could win Strade Bianche. The level is so high today in the peloton.”
Morton, 30, won’t be racing Strade Bianche this weekend, but the adventure racing star all but admits he wouldn’t be close to the winning edge of the race this year.
Morton twice started Strade Bianche, but did not finish in 2018, and was over the time limit in 2019. That same year he was fourth at Unbound Gravel.
The EF Education-EasyPost star is already dabbling with some road racing into his calendar. He debuted in Spain at the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior and raced Gran Camiño in February.
Morton has carved a nice niche for himself, where he can pick and choose between road surfaces and disciplines. EF Education-EasyPost still pays his check, and he’s committed to racing on the road whenever the team needs him.
What’s his favorite surface? The road is certainly the most painful.
“In general, I would say it’s way more intense and less enjoyable and less fun on the road,” Morton said. “It’s nice to be in that environment … for small periods of time.”
No ‘Alt Tour,’ but something else ‘big’ in 2022
Morton will be seeing plenty of everything in 2022.
The Australian has also played a key role in reshaping the idea of what a professional bike racer can be. He has the ability to dip in and out of different disciplines, racing on gravel, road and dirt with chameleonic ease.
In addition to his two road races in Spain, he already raced mountain bikes around Spain’s Menorca island. He has a few more interesting events up his sleeve. He confirmed to VeloNews he will not be repeating his smash hit of 2021 “Alt Tour,” but hinted “something else big” is in the works. He and teammate Alex Howes are both expected to race the Life Time Grand Prix series this summer as well.
So is he a cross-discipline star in the ilk of Tom Pidcock or Mathieu van der Poel? Morton doesn’t view himself that way.
“Those guys are on a much different level than I am,” Morton said. “I am having fun just mixing everything. It’s fun, it’s motivating.”
So what’s his take on gravel sectors being introduced to such races as the Tour de France?
It’s one thing to have a gravel-centric race like Strade Bianche, where it’s all or nothing on the day. The classics-style riders are used to that, be it the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix or the bergs at Tour of Flanders.
— Strade Bianche (@StradeBianche) March 4, 2022
It’s quite something else when some publicity-hungry race director decides to toss in some random sectors of gravel across the top of a high European pass just to “spice things up.”
Morton said as a fan he loves it, but as a professional, realizes the dangers.
“From my singular perspective, I am like, yes, it makes it interesting,” Morton said of gravel. “I can also understand the argument that it doesn’t have its place. I also feel like it’s not my place to say either way. I am not doing enough road racing to be a real stakeholder.
“If you work a whole year to get a race and then you have a flat in a gravel sector you’d probably feel, yeah, they don’t have a place,” he said. “But most of the time I am watching on TV, and the gravel stuff is exciting.”
Right now, Morton is enjoying the ride. And he’ll be watching Strade Bianche on TV.
“I am in an ideal situation now, it’s nice to be able to mix all these kinds of things,” Morton said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do it, I am trying to hang on for that for as long as I can.”