A sign of gravel bike racing’s success is how pro bike riders are getting involved.
When mountain biking started gaining momentum in the early 1980s, top amateur roadies in the United States got interested in racing those events as well. Steve Tilford, back then a top domestic road racer with cyclocross skills, won the first ever NORBA National Championship, in what was his first-ever mountain bike race. In those days, the competition was largely other road racers who also had gotten interested in the new sport—there really was no one else, as cyclocross was so small that most everyone doing that was roadies first. And the MTB racing boom of the 1990s saw plenty of pro road racers trade in their slicks for knobbies as the money flowed to the dirt, which itself was a reflection of the surging public interest.
Make a race visible enough and a pro sees something that’s ripe for the winning. World and Olympic champion track racers and world champion cyclocrossers routinely give up competing in the disciplines they mastered in order to find greater fame and a bigger paycheck on the road, even if it means going from a star to a domestique, as Lars Boom did. Tour de France champs Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas were Olympic and World champions on the track before migrating to road racing. Tour and World Champ Cadel Evans won the MTB World Cup twice before moving on to road racing.
Much in the way that cyclocross has attracted both roadies and mountainbikers since the aughts, gravel attracts all three. Gravel has the added advantage of newness, like where mountainbiking was once. And as with early mountainbiking, gravel has a format that isn’t rigid, and rules that aren’t fixed. Gravel can easily pitched as longer cyclocross, less technical mountainbiking, looser road racing, and even pull in touring and fitness cyclists by being beyond easy categorization and something they can finish. That its new and unformed, without long traditions and big money, it’s also following mtb’s roots by seemingly being about fun and having a scene that’s less predictable. For pro riders, the fact that other pros aren’t there makes it more enticing. A win is a win, no matter where. Maybe more so now than before. A podium pic on social media looks pretty much the same regardless of where it is.
Likewise, media feasts on the new and novel. Sure, that (track, road, mtb, cross) race can be covered again, but it’s been covered for years, and both the writer and editor are excited for something new to keep themselves and their readers tuned in. And then other media get FOMO and jump on the bandwagon.
Gravel is not like fixed-gear crits, which seem to have come and gone already. Gravel races seem to be driven by being more about the participating than the spectating. The difference is striking. Fixed-gear crits seem like an easier sell to sponsors—short events on tight, urban circuits that are easy to shoot, film, and cover, where it’s easy to hang logos, see logos on clothing and bikes, and create social media feeding frenzies. Gravel races seem like an easier sell to participants: long, hard rides in interesting places. And striking contrasts with fixed-gear crits: few spectators, hard to shoot or film, and few obvious places to plaster with corporate images. Don’t know if someone would GoPro an eight-hour race.
When I read about the gravel scene, people are going out of their way to point out how special, how unique, it is. The same was said about cyclocross, about mountain bike races, and before that road racing, and long before that track. People competing at something that seems goofy or new or unique and doesn’t have the trappings of work or even ‘regular’ competition. It can be about fun, because the competition seems almost beside the point.
Which makes it kind of strange to see pro riders getting involved to the point of having gravel pros. Good for them, I guess, but at the same time, the profit motive changes things. Competition suddenly starts to matter, even if they say it doesn’t. Or they can pretend it doesn’t matter to them, but those behind them might not have as easy a time saying so.
It’s also hard to imagine there’s much, if any, profit in it. The star of gravel seems to be Colin Strickland, but he’s an exception, and his own success as a pro could well hinge on the fact he’s sponsored by Red Bull. Looking at his jersey and roster of sponsors, it’s hard to imagine that most give him money, though the Red Bull helmet graphic treatment could be the key to his success. A few written queries to Red Bull have yielded nothing, though this site with questionable information puts the average Red Bull sponsored athlete receiving over $90,000 a year. That number seems high for a cyclist who is rarely seen, competes kind of infrequently, and has only 18,000 Instagram followers, but even if he’s only pulling down third of the alleged Red Bull average, it could very well mean that, with a few of his other sponsors tossing in a few thousand bucks apiece, his income is more than the UCI minimum salary for WorldTour racers, which is what he allegedly just turned down from WorldTour team EF Pro Cycling.
For the most part, pro gravel racers seem to be more in the Ted King mold, transitioning to something else from the life of a pro racer. Laurens Ten Dam is doing the same. So is Geoff Kabush. Ian Boswell is upfront about this, saying it was time to leave road racing and that he’ll also be working in other capacities for his main gravel sponsor, Wahoo. Acoustic tours for aging rock stars hitting the festival circuit. It’s hard to imagine that former WorldTour racer Peter Stetina, formerly of WorldTour team Trek-Segafredo, isn’t transitioning, though he claims otherwise. Stetina doesn’t seem to have a cash sponsor supporting his gravel program, though like King and Ten Dam, he seems to be tied to a gravel event, either as promoter or front man. Perhaps he, like T.J. Eisenhart, who for the last few years has been a Continental Pro with a few incarnations of the Hincapie outfit, sees himself as an entrepreneur, and is racing this year at a loss, hoping that either there’s money to be made after this year as the sport grows, and they got in early, or that they can transition to something else after having a soft retirement, riding bikes, traveling less, working on business skills, building a resume.
Kudos to all for trying, but the idea that this is an exciting new avenue for pro racers is hard to see, as the switch means going from being a dedicated racer to being a racer/publicist, where you have to manage all the details of your career in addition to training, travel, and racing. It seems like a step back to or towards scraping along. It’s hard to imagine most gravel pros pulling down a living wage, even a 12k dreamer wage, on possibly 20 races in a season that might or might not get covered anywhere. And might only result in a podium or finish line picture when it is covered.
It’s hard to know where gravel racing will be in a year. Life Time Fitness seems to be making a play to control the big events. They own Crusher in the Tushar, Dirty Kanza, Big Sugar, Leadville, and more on the way, it seems. This could mean more sponsorship, more media, a possible national series, higher entry fees, all of this, or none.
Trying to see gravel from a sponsor’s perspective, gravel can be great exposure if the cost is low enough. Gravel might be growing as a niche, but there is no indication that it’s adding cyclists to the fold. More likely, it’s changing what a cyclist’s next bike will be. Instead of buying a cyclocross bike or updating one’s road/mountain/’cross bike, people are hanging on to the older bike and buying a new gravel bike. As a result, the total numbers of bikes being sold probably isn’t increasing, and that limits what a bike company can do, and wants to do, to support gravel racing and racers. Likewise, it’s hard to see, at least at this moment, that gravel racing is creating new bike fans. It’s seems more plausible that it’s either a new distraction for those already interested in racing, or a new focus for those tired of more established racing disciplines.
As the Strickland example suggests, probably the best way to be a pro is have one or more sponsors from outside the bike world. But as the discipline is in its infancy, selling the idea to a company unfamiliar with the sport or the crowd it has, seems like a tough pitch unless they can neatly tuck it in to their existing marketing campaigns.
That’s where social media comes in. Racers, for better and worse, can keep themselves, and their sponsors, in the public eye by being active on social media. Regular updates keep the racer in the collective consciousness of those who follow them. And sponsors can use those updates themselves to keep their names and gear in the public consciousness—keeping people who visit their sites or have liked their pages reasons to stay in the company’s world. Being a personality is cool, but it’s hard work, and unless there are some unknown forces helping the scene grow dramatically, it’s easy to imagine the collective gravel consciousness overwhelmed if more than several people are traveling this trail.
If it’s successful, that means more pro riders, more competition. It’s not hard to imagine that teams will form, and then…
Better get ‘gramming.