OKBET CYCLING | Nathan Haas – To what end(s) does this serve? Gravel World Championships: Unpacking the Competition
Nathan Haas : It’s been less than an hour since we crossed the finish line of the race in Cittadella, Italy, and I find myself tucked away in a corner of an ancient stone-built farmstead restaurant in a little village not far from there. As I finish off the last of my grappa from dinner, I realize that this classic digestivo is the ideal companion to help me process the ride I just completed. This is my first chance to step back, take a broad view, and attempt to make sense of the first UCI Gravel World Championships.
Maybe it’s the grappa, maybe it’s the wine, maybe it’s the warm embrace you get from the amazing bigoli (one of my favorite pastas). After all, who can say? Nonetheless, here I am, sitting with a grin on my face.
It’s a grin that goes beyond the present; it’s part of an attitude that formed in the wee hours of that morning and could have been prompted by nothing else except the events of that day.
Had I been mistaken about all I believed to be true about the UCI Gravel Worlds? Did my grin indicate that I realized I may have jumped the gun in my assessment of the situation? The day spent cycling had been strenuous.
In the first thirty kilometers, I had a collision that ended in breaking my pinkie finger, but I didn’t give up. Over the course of many kilometers, two riders broke away from the rest of the group and built up a sizable lead on the off-road course.
We sprinted, yo-yoed, and battled our way to a victor from the pair who had been out in front the whole time. The 16th place finish is something I can be pleased with. I raced my first complete gravel season to the end, and I finished well in a new and exciting event.
Re-wind After 24 hours, I can say that things did not get off to a good start.
During the pre-race meeting, we learnt that the WorldTour riders, the vast majority of whom had never ever ridden a gravel bike, were awarded the first row at the start due to their renown and road rankings. Indeed, we are already in the first stages of the GRAVEL World Championship. It was also suggested that mountain bikers and cyclocrossers should be given preference since they earn UCI points, too.
What about the cyclists who want to ride on gravel, though? Although I and many others had planned our seasons around it and used it as a springboard for Worlds qualifying, it turned out that the UCI’s Gravel World Series did not count against any overall rankings or provide any points toward Worlds qualification. We were informed that we would have to line up last.
As a result of Nico Roche’s viral tweet that evening, which provided context, the gravel community felt as if our sport had been hijacked. We’d been pushed to the sidelines in favor of the great stars who’d qualified only via national selection and then stolen the show at the crucial juncture, the juncture constructed by the people who cared most about the sport.
Fortunately, this was fixed, and several of the gravel riders moved to the second and third rows of the starting lineup. Even yet, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Because of his low UCI MTB point total, Olympic winner Tom Pidcock had to start from position 70 at this year’s MTB World Championships. While I understand that the race’s major names may get seed money, unique privileges, and VIP treatment outside of the starting and finishing lines, I believe that everyone should be treated fairly within those boundaries.
A count of 10 is opposed by a count of 1.
Let’s discuss these trump card players. Let me be quite clear: I have no problem with the addition of certain A-listers. Like I’ve mentioned previously, the tide is on the rise. I love competing against the world’s quickest men and I don’t mind losing if I don’t come out on top. However, maybe an excessive amount of emphasis was placed on these wildcards, on countries picking anybody they want.
First, let’s take a look at the Italian squad. There were 10 (ten!) male riders in the competition. When it comes to Road Worlds, eight is the cap (nine if you have the reigning champ). Why then are we bringing in even larger squads?
Even more so, every single Italian rider was a road specialist. Among Italian cyclists, Mattia De Marchi stands out as the greatest gravel-specific rider. He has won the Traka, Badlands, Ranxo, and other important events over the last several years but was not invited to the elite race because the organizers decided to take a whole road “pro” squad instead.
Although he wasn’t in the same age group as us, Mattia still raced since he’s a hero and wouldn’t miss the opportunity. Respect for the high-minded action. For him, it was a great injustice not to be allowed to participate in the division to which he really belonged.
The Italian squad of ten ended up functioning as a single entity, competing as a group rather than as individuals.
On the Australian side, there were five people, but we didn’t meet until the starting line, and we lacked any kind of team infrastructure or support. The National KIT was so expensive that we had to purchase one for ourselves. There’s nothing can be done about it, and we accept it for what it is, but it severely hinders our ability to compete.
I, Carlos Verona, and Nico Roche used an inordinate amount of effort in the first 120k attacking and attempting to catch up to the two leaders, but our efforts went unnoticed on television. The remaining nine Italian cyclists, guarding Daniel Oss’s position up the road, constantly prevented us from passing.
After years of competing in the Australian Road National Championships, when every rider faced off against GreenEdge, I may have had memories typical of post-traumatic stress disorder.
We have found a way out of this
Actually, fixing this isn’t rocket science.
Rather of having ten wildcard positions available for each race, I think the UCI should limit each nation to only five. The same time, include qualification points for UCI gravel events. This would result in a more fair and genuine event by attracting more serious gravel cyclists.
To sum up, the UCI did an excellent job of hosting the event. It’s impressive in size and appearance, but also tremendously demanding in practice.
After taking everything into account, I still really enjoyed racing it. I’ll give it another go next year with the hopes of cracking the top 10 or possibly making it onto the podium. It will still be very difficult, but there is no finer stage on which to give it one’s best.
Let’s simply make a few adjustments and recognize that, if gravel is its own field of study, it ought to be treated as such. Yes, the big names could still be up, but we wouldn’t want any experts to be left out.
Do we really want to delegate this? Here on my Cyclingnews blog, I was thinking of starting to incorporate some statistics on gravel ranks, similar to what you see in MTB rankings. It might be meaningless, but at the very least the federations should take heed.
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