August 17, 2022

Will the pros change the ‘spirit of gravel’?

I always roll my eyes whenever anyone mentions “the spirit of gravel,” but it’s hard to ignore that the sport really does seem to have a spirit of its own. The community. The connection. The level playing field. The equity. The inclusion. Yes, there’s more work to be done, but you can’t say gravel isn’t trying to be the most welcoming and inclusive sport out there. And it’s awesome. But is that spirit in danger?

Whether it be the sport’s natural trajectory of popularity or maybe a result of pandemic times, more and more very legitimate professional bike racers from the road and the mountain are coming to gravel. Some are “retiring” right into professional gravel racing, some are leaving the discipline they might be more well known for to come to gravel, and some are just coming directly in as gravel professionals. And it’s plain to see that it’s changing the sport — but the jury is still out whether it’ll change for the better or whether gravel will become like a lot of other bike sports: elitist.

From the start, gravel has never really been about winning. It’s been about crushing yourself & your goals alongside a few of your closest (or not) friends and achieving something you maybe didn’t think possible and having a blast doing it. Whether you were at the business end of the race or the party in the back, everyone was in it together. And then you all had a beer together at the end — from the winner all the way down to the final finisher. And there’s a magic to that.

I will admit to being torn about what’s really best for the sport & whether it’s even something worth getting involved in — maybe it’s better to just let it ride its course and see where we end up. I’m relatively new to gravel, all things considered, having started riding gravel around 2015/2016, but that’s been just enough time to see it before there were many, if any really, pros racing. And part of me doesn’t want it to change. The other part of me spends a good deal of time pushing for women’s equity in sport and thinking about ways to do that.

There are a lot of things that can be done that won’t have much of an effect on the experience for the “every day rider” or “casual racer” types: equal prize purses for men and women, for example. That should be a MINIMUM and won’t have any measurable effect on anyone else’s experience other than that of the podium finishers. But one big thing that comes up a lot is splitting up the men’s and women’s pro races, so the women can compete against each other and don’t have to race with the men.

This is something that Lea Davison — cross-country mountain biker on the World Cup circuit and Olympian in 2012 and 2016, who turned gravel racer this year — posed to her Instagram followers after UNBOUND this year. Her argument for women only starts: “It’s a completely different dynamic having a women’s only start. I can go a whole race without even seeing the women I compete against. It removes most of the fun tactics out of racing, and it’s a game of how long you can hang onto the lead men or how good of a group of men did you end up with.”

She definitely has a point, but UNBOUND is UNBOUND, and riding 200 miles of gravel will never feel like an XC race. Just days before the Leadville 100 (the next stop in the Lifetime Grand Prix series), Davison announced she was pulling out of the series to focus on mountain bike racing. Her reasons: “the fun factor” (aka not having any during gravel races), “the safety factor” (the need for more safety protocols), and “fairness” (that separate women’s race argument), according to VeloNews.

This does all raise a difficult conundrum that I don’t have the answer to. Hopefully, you watched the Tour de France Femmes this year, and if you didn’t, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?! Just kidding (kind of). One thing that stood out was the impact of showcasing the women and showing that women’s racing is exciting and people love it, they love to watch it, and they love to spectate in person. My hope is that it will help elevate the fandom around those riders, which will lead to more (and better) sponsorship deals, more promotion, higher salaries, and everything else that should come with being a professional athlete.

Many of the top male riders in the pro road peloton earn in the millions every year in salary alone, according to Cycling Tips. The women? I couldn’t find public information on what the top female riders make, but according to a study commissioned by the UCI, male World Tour pros earned on average about 44% more than their female counterparts in 2021 (it was about 67% more in 2020), according to Cycling Weekly. In that season, the minimum salary for the women was increased, but still only to about $20,000 (USD); by 2023, that number is supposed to match the men’s minimum salary at about $32,000. This pittance has all led to most of the pro women also having to have a “day job” outside of cycling to make ends meet. Cycling Tips has a great breakdown of all of the inequity and disparity here, so I’m not going to go too much more into it, but you get the picture.

Now, I couldn’t really find much public information on the salaries of professional gravel cyclists, but I can guess. It’s also pretty well known many of the female pros in gravel also have second jobs, or have also started companies, or races — or both — and so on. At the time of winning the 2021 UNBOUND Gravel 200, Lauren De Crescenzo was also an epidemiologist working at the CDC in Atlanta. Shortly after that win, her coach and team, Cinch Cycling, matched her CDC salary so she could race full time. But many other women still have to have full-time jobs, in addition to training and racing. I’d be curious to know how many of the pro men in gravel have to have “real” jobs outside of cycling to pay the bills. And no, hosting your own podcast doesn’t count as a second job — no shade, it just doesn’t count in this context.

Ok, so what does all this have to do with splitting up the pro men and women’s gravel race starts? The point is that I do think there’s clear evidence that showcasing the women’s races and giving them space to properly race themselves would make inroads on some of this inequality by giving them a more defined platform to grow their fandom. Could their sponsors pour money into promoting, advertising, & marketing for them and also make inroads there? Sure. But that’s unlikely to be a super common occurrence without the fandom first. It’s a real chicken-and-egg question. But it also raises other questions about how exactly you do that and what it looks like: Staggered starts? Different days? I don’t know. I’m guessing there are a lot of different opinions here too.

Whitney Allison — pro gravel cyclist and one of the founders of FoCo Fondo and Bike Sports in Fort Collins, Colorado — says that splitting up the pro men’s and women’s races is not necessarily the answer, but that women “do need a fair and protected opportunity to compete in gravel, like the men get, in order for us to again fight for equity in sport. When we dismiss that experience, that gap continues to grow and we will see less women rise to the top of sport.”

Allison was part of a group of pro gravel women who met via Zoom last year in an effort to identify and address some of these issues. Another issue that came up was groups of men specifically racing certain events with the goal of ensuring the success of a particular female rider. There was a lot of drama around this at a couple of races last year that I’m not going to rehash here, but IYKYK.

Allison says it might not sound like a big deal on its face, “but now that means that for a professional woman to compete, she needs to bring a set of men with her in order to be competitive. That is a huge financial hurdle where women are STILL getting a fraction of the sponsor dollars that men with the same race results get.”

Personally, I’m a little worried about the down-event consequences for the rest of us if pro races are split up. If you split up the pros, then you have to split up the pros from the rest of the riders, and then the rest of us become age-groupers, and then gravel starts to feel more segregated & elitist, like road cycling or triathlon — which many of us came to gravel to escape!

Abi Robbins, Queer Gravel founder and the first non-binary winner of the UNBOUND 100, argues that splitting up the pros “immediately puts women as lesser than the men. There are plenty of women in the sport who give the men a run for their money, to split them up means there’s no real chance for women to really show up and fight for more than a consolation prize.”

Back to the spirit of gravel: Robbins says, “As soon as males and female racers are separated in gravel, then all of the amazing movement we’ve made including non-binary folks goes out the window.”

“The real beauty of gravel is that we’re all in it together. We have the same start gun, and we ride the same course, toward the same finish. To deviate from that erodes what makes gravel special,” Robbins adds.

That feels like as good a place as any to leave it for now. I’m fairly confident that if you’ve read this far, then you agree that we need to elevate the women in this sport and ensure fairness and equity, but what’s the best way to do that?

Let us know what you think!

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