If you’ve missed the explosion in gravel riding in the last 5 years - have you been living under a rock? Gravel bikes are everywhere, and the discipline has boomed for good reason. Gravel hits that sweet spot of versatility and accessibility, letting us roam from singletrack trails to tarmac and everything in between.
With the 2023 Gravel World Championships just around the corner, what better time to delve into the world of this ever-changing, undefined discipline? This month, we sat down with three Team SunGod gravel riding experts who have come to the sport in very different ways - 2022 Gravel World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, UCI road cyclist-turned-gravel rider Ted King, and gravel content creator Elliot Phillips aka @vc.letsgetit.
From how to get into gravel, to the highly debated role of the UCI, to where the sport will be in 5 years; read on for a deepdive into the discipline, from the most dialed-in minds in gravel.
Table of Contents:
From tarmac to trail: Entering the world of gravel biking
Ted is a gravel pioneer, entering the discipline from UCI road cycling almost 10 years ago. I wrapped up my World Tour career at the end of 2015 and at that point we weren’t even using the word “gravel". Back then, gravel bikes were frankenbikes, cobbled together with the best of what’s available.
Suddenly the industry was getting up to speed on making specific equipment for the specific needs of gravel. It was an exciting time to be working with companies as we tinkered with product development, created product launches, and attended and raced events, all because this was really the nascent years of gravel. Tire development, the myriad options of gear ratios, disc brakes, clothing… it’s all been quite a trip.
Now, we’re recognizing that gravel is its own discipline, not just a niche slice of the industry. Racing has jumped the shark, and riders are aspiring to be pro gravel racers instead of honing their cycling skills in other disciplines and bringing it to gravel. As a result, I’m once again analyzing my TSS, FTP, and nerding out on my own training for the sake of performance...
Pauline took the gravel world by storm last year when she walked away from her first and only gravel race as World Champion. Last year before the World Championships I was feeling a bit unsure, because for me gravel is more for discovering and exploring; not racing. But it was the end of the season, so I was a bit tired mentally, and the mix of road and MTB made the gravel race feel new and fresh.
I've realized that for people a bit like me, who like road racing and who like MTB, gravel is a good mix, it's good variety. Also, it's the best way to discover new trails - on a gravel bike, you can just take one trail and follow it, and you can go everywhere.
Elliot represents a new generation of gravel riders, as a full-time gravel content creator. I've been gravel racing for the best part of 3 years now. I first got into it when I was just riding my cyclocross bike and doing more training on that, and I started looking at videos of the US gravel racing scene. That really inspired me to see what else is out there. Eventually I started racing gravel and the rest is history! Now I race a gravel bike basically for a living at this point - so gravel has been a great find.
Gravel and the UCI: Destroying its roots or spreading the gravel love?
Ted: 5 years ago, mentioning the UCI and gravel in the same sentence was laughable. Then just a few years later I was attending meetings held by USA Cycling with other American event directors about the UCI’s interest in gravel. It was still odd, like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, but it’s as though the UCI saw the light that gravel was wildly popular in the USA while domestic road racing was sinking, and ultimately there was money to be made.
I think the state of cycling in the USA is different from most places around the globe. Americans really don’t know about nor care about the UCI and I think that sanctioned races will have a harder time gaining traction here compared to in Europe, where gravel is just now starting to take flight. The UCI can sink their teeth into events more easily there and help shape the landscape of European cycling instead of the Wild West, which is American gravel.
Elliot: I think [the UCI] is a good thing in a way, in that it shows gravel to more people. People who weren't aware of gravel before now know about it, which is definitely a good thing. And that will only further expand the gravel love.
So as long as the UCI keeps the ethos of gravel, where it is still available to almost everybody, I think it'll be ok. Gravel has its roots in America - it always will do - and the European races differ from the US races. For me, American races have a bit more of a welcoming and inclusive vibe, there's more music and they feel a bit like a festival - the European ones feel a bit more serious. Generally, the UCI are focused on European races anyway.
I think you have to look at it with a glass-half-full mentality and hope the UCI do the right thing in the end.
What are your predictions for the gravel biking landscape in 5 years' time?
Elliot: I don't think [the UCI] is going to take gravel away from its mass participation roots, even in the next 5 years, but I do think it's going to become harder to be competitive in gravel because it opens up the competition to a higher level. Which is a good thing. But it also means that people who are working day jobs, who could previously get a good result, will be fewer, and we'll see more full-timers riding. More guys coming out of World Tour, some dropping out and some still in, attending these events. As more money becomes involved, more teams will become involved, and I think the privateer, individual nature of the gravel racing scene will lessen.
Pauline: Gravel is a really good entry-level discipline, as it’s more accessible. It's not as technical as MTB, and it’s less intimidating than road because there are fewer cars. So it's a good mix! So, with more races, more people - we can see that gravel is becoming bigger and bigger....
Ted: Different races have different flavors; they can be fun and zany, or designed for the purebred racer. So my prediction is events will continue to be created and grow all throughout the world. The UCI will homogenize the races on which they have their grasp. Event promotion in the gravel space is often a labor of love, so for the best events to continue to succeed, they will need to professionalize as well.
I would love to see gravel maintain a strong sense of its roots, where having a good time and a sense of adventure is paramount. And I’m hopeful it continues to put more people on bikes, which is nothing but a good thing for modern society.
And finally... 6 tips from our pros for gravel success:
Set up your wheels and tires tubeless. Make sure you pick a tire with a decent tread that's got good puncture protection. AND know how to fix it as well, with a plug tool and a CO2. Learn how to use those things first. - Elliot
Make yourself comfortable. You can ride in jeans and a flannel. You can take the cycling position that your local bike shop sent you out the door with as set in stone. You can ride with hockey tape as your bar tape. But there is often a better, more comfortable way. - Ted
Get everything set up the night before. Get your nutrition sorted, work out how many grams of carbohydrate it's going to take you to get around, make sure the tires don't have any punctures, make sure you've recce'd the course. Because there's nothing worse than running around like a headless chicken on the morning of your gravel race. - Elliot
Just ride your bike! Training for a particular event with specific intervals and doing recon of the course might move you up a couple of places, but for the sake of having a good time as you test out these new gravel waters, just be sure to ride your bike. When in doubt, ride some more! - Ted
Be self-sufficient. Know what you’re doing when it comes to changing a flat, tightening a loose cleat, replacing a chain, or getting yourself un-lost. All of these skills can be achieved by hanging out at a bike shop, joining a cycling club, or just practising these skills once or twice yourself. - Ted
Use versatile equipment. Use good lenses that work in a range of conditions - in gravel you can be on the road one minute, where it's often really bright, then on trails where it's darker the next. I always wear SunGod's photochromic sunglasses because they transition on the move, so they're good for light and dark. - Pauline
"Cycling is a journey. Each ride is a time to learn something new, so don’t be hesitant to tinker with positions, change up your cycling kit, try out some different nutrition. Over time you’ll see what works well for you and what doesn’t, ultimately leading to a better, more enjoyable ride", says Ted.
If you're feeling inspired by these gravel biking pioneers, and want to get a piece of the gravel action yourself, make sure you've got the right kit for the job.