Gritty Take: The Riders Hold The Power – by Guitar Ted
Recently there has been an uptick in the “Us vs Them” discussions as seen on social media and in the comments sections of various forums and media websites. The old saw, “Don’t let “them” ruin gravel!” has been raised to fever pitch. This due to the rumors and news reports that the current purveyors of so-called “real professional cycling”, the Union Cycliste Internationale, are interested in putting their stamp on the off-pavement competitions known world-wide as “gravel racing”.
First of all, as the Editor and part owner of Riding Gravel, I have been very aware that we don’t do opinion pieces on the site very often. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been putting my thoughts out there. You can see my past thoughts on the gravel scene on my personal blog since 2005. (Click here for the page on my opinions and views on gravel. The latest opinion piece is here. ) So, if you’ve followed me there on “Guitar Ted Productions” then you already know a lot of what I’m going to say here. Now with that out of the way…….
I find much of what people hold to be true and “real” about the UCI, or U.S.A. Cycling (USAC), for that matter, to be missing the mark. These organizations have been held responsible for professional level cycling, and to some degree, amateur competitive cycling, for decades in one form or another. However; the thought that these organizations are infallible, and are the default for having any “legitimacy” in terms of professional cycling because of their own existence is not real. The fact is that we give them that position. They do not represent anything without the allegiance of cyclists and those that support sport. This includes cycling brands, marketers, and media.
USAC, in particular, suffers this in reality. Their “legitimacy” and power comes from our conscious or unconscious support, or lack thereof, of that organization. To wit: The licenses which bring in the money which USAC needs to continue are not being sold at the level that they once were. This has caused consternation and concern within the organization. Concern to the point that USAC recently held a summit to “open up a dialogue” with gravel event promoters, (Note: only select event promoters were there), and USAC. Why? Because the “gravel scene” does not pay USAC money, or any mind, when it comes to the style of events and the kind of cycling gravel riders enjoy.
This neglect of USAC by the various gravel events has resulted in wording and dialogue over the past, and up till this day, which reflect that power struggle. I’ve seen wording that says “the gravel events scene is like the Wild, Wild West”, or that gravel event promoters are ‘hobbyists‘. This seemingly being the cause for suggestions by the UCI and USAC that the gravel segment is in need of ‘control’ and organization. And in fact, it is the promise of having ‘controls’ and rules governing sport that the UCI offers as benefits to this varied palette of events across North America.
The UCI posits that with the rise of professional level involvement, and the prestige that some of the events have now, that this begs for a unified front which fits in with every other facet of cycling which the UCI governs to this day. They would say that the UCI has the organization and format down, so why would gravel cycling go anywhere else? There is no other way. Right?
Well, this plays well to the “default mode” that many cyclists believe in, but it isn’t the way it has to go, and obviously, it is not the way it is with gravel racing. The painful truth for the UCI is that gravel racing thrives because of its variety. The various rules, formats, prizing, and most importantly, the various experiences this brings to the table, are exactly the reasons why the gravel segment of cycling is growing and what the UCI oversees is not. The UCI would snuff out this variety and make gravel cycling look like it does under their rule now. And just how does that look?
Well, despite the flowery words and platitudes seen on the UCI’s “Mission, Vison, Values” page, the perception of cyclists in the gravel scene is that the UCI has failed at doing a number of things which gravel cycling has done on its own. Take equity for female and male racers in terms of courses and pay-outs, for example. At any gravel event, males and females race the same courses, get paid the same, and race together. This is not at all the case with the UCI. Gravel races do not have arcane rules about socks, tire widths, or bicycles, which we all know that the UCI does have and enforces. We all know that USAC enforces the requirements that races have officials, certain styles and ways to use number plates, and that they require a certain fee from every racer attending to be paid by the event promoters. And let’s not forget licenses. And what about doping controls? Gravel races don’t have that.
Well, the UCI and USAC do have this, yet we see every year more stories about cheating. So, the way they do things is no guarantee you won’t have cheating in gravel events either. The efforts that the UCI and USAC try to make in terms of doping controls are admirable, but that isn’t a reason to bring the UCI or USAC into gravel events. Not until they prove they have been preventing drug cheaters from winning. Then what they do could be termed as a “benefit” to gravel events.
Insurance for events is another reason folks bring up USAC as a benefit. Well, they aren’t the only game in town for insurance. While it is true that USAC has softened its stance in terms of requirements to offer insurance to gravel events, it is obvious that USAC and the UCI are not in the game to be insurance providers, or to be altruistic benefactors to cycling. No, let’s be clear- The UCI and USAC want in because they stand to have a lot of prestige and to make a lot of money from bringing gravel events under their auspices. Gravel cycling has become a big growth segment in cycling, and money is being spent in bucket loads by people going to the events on gravel. Every news article about this subject brings up the number of gravel events and how many “sell out in minutes“. This being a reference to the money making opportunities and popularity which gravel events have. Things that the UCI and USAC are keenly aware of and strongly desire to benefit from.
So, is having the UCI run a “Gravel Worlds” a benefit to gravel cycling? Would this make gravel cycling “legitimate” in terms of professional cycling? Or would this be, once again, the same old dog and pony show we’ve seen play out for decades. You know the one. Where females and males are separated and treated unequally, where cheating is still a big problem, and where traditions and structures are in place which are inherently exclusionary. Does that sound like a way to change cycling, not just gravel cycling, for the better, or for the worse?
Guess what? You get to decide. Not USAC. Not the UCI. You do. The power is in the hands of the people. You’ll either support the UCI and USAC, or you won’t, but ultimately, those organizations are just there because someone else gave them the power to be what we think they are. So far, I’d say that over the past 15 or so years the gravel community has spoken pretty clearly on this point.