By Betsy Welch – VeloNews
In September, the UCI confirmed it would sanction a gravel world championships in 2022. While the announcement was met by a mixture of chagrin and excitement, the most enduring reaction has been one of bewilderment — is it actually happening, and if so, when and where?
While the UCI still has not revealed any details pertaining to “gravel worlds,” VeloNews recently spoke with Erwin Vervecken, the off-road and gravel manager for Golazo Sports, the Belgian sports marketing agency that is coordinating the UCI Gravel World Series qualifier events for the 2022 UCI Gravel World Championships.
Vervecken confirmed that Golazo has submitted a preliminary calendar of 15-20 races to the UCI and is awaiting the sanctioning body’s approval of the series. He anticipates that the calendar will be approved during meetings at the upcoming cyclocross world championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas and announced by the UCI in early February.
VeloNews has contacted the UCI on numerous occasions to discuss details surrounding the gravel world championships, but so far, the governing body has not responded to inquiries.
Where in the world
While Vervecken would not reveal any specifics about the locations of the world championship qualifying races, he did confirm that the UCI Gravel World Series would include event venues around the globe.
“We have races on almost all continents,” he said. “We have races in Canada, the United States, Mexico, races in Europe and also Australia and one in Asia. So it’s a real-world calendar. Certain events still need approval from their national federation, but we’ll end up with 15-20 qualifier events.”
Vervecken added that the United States and Canada would both host “more than one” event.
While some of the races will debut for the first time during the world series event, Vervecken said that the majority — all but three — will be existing events. During the process of putting together the series calendar, Vervecken reached out to his expansive network of event organizers and producers across the globe. For the last 11 years, the three-time cyclocross world champ has coordinated the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, and he relied on many of the same relationships to help put together the inaugural gravel series.
He cited “an existing or experienced organizer who was proven in the past that they run a high quality event” as criteria to be considered for inclusion in the series.
Another qualifier for inclusion, Vervecken said, was the size of an existing event. He sought out races that had healthy participation in the past but not in the leagues of thousands of participants.
“It won’t be the big events. They don’t really need us to still grow,” he said.”The events I’m talking to most of the time are events with between 500-1,500 participants, not the real big ones.”
In order to further vet the existing races, Vervecken called national federations into the approval process. He said that, in the U.S., USA Cycling made the final decision as to which American races would be part of the world championship-qualifying series.
Chuck Hodge, USA Cycling’s chief of racing and events, would not comment on how the governing body was involved in the World Series development process but did tell VeloNews that the organization is taking an active yet restrained approach to its involvement in the discipline.
“I think USAC is staking a stance with this that we want to be very respectful what has organically developed with gravel and appropriately be involved with the existing community and the UCI and other organizations,” he said. “To try and respect the spirit of gravel as well as look forward to what we all know is coming.”
Vervecken said that, among both organizers and federations, interest in the UCI Gravel World Series was healthy and feedback was generally positive. Some organizers were hesitant to commit in 2022 due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. Others’ ears perked up when the UCI announced that it would sanction a gravel world championships. Riders, he said, “are generally curious as to what is going to happen. What events will be part of the series, and mostly where the world champs is going to be held.”
Rules and Regs
In terms of regulations, the UCI Gravel World Series may seem fairly lax during its first iteration. Vervecken has taken most of the cues for the gravel series’ rulebook from the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, the qualifying races for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships.
Unlike road or ‘cross worlds, gran fondo worlds is targeted toward a non-professional audience. Vervecken expects gravel worlds to be a mashup in terms of participants.
“The focus in gran fondo is on masters and cyclotourists,” he said. “In gravel, elite riders of the top level, riders from the WorldTour, from UCI teams, can participate, can qualify and do world championships. We expect the top riders.”
Nevertheless, all riders will compete in their age group, including pros. The top 25 percent of finishers in every age category will qualify for the world championships. Age categories begin with a large 19-34-year-old field and then carry on in increments of five years — 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, and so on.
In terms of equipment and course regulations for the Gravel World Series, those will also mirror Gran Fondo rules.
For example, there are very few rules regarding what type of bike participants may use. In fact, all are welcome – save for time trial bikes, e-bikes, and tandems. The UCI 6.8kg minimum bike weight rule will apply.
Vervecken explained that the reason for laxity around equipment regulations has to do with gravel’s wildly varying chronological age across the globe.
“Most events in Europe are around three to six years old while the oldest events in the U.S. are probably 15 years old,” he said. “I’m sure in the States, 80 to 90 percent will ride gravel bikes. I think 50 percent will be on mountain bikes in places where gravel is very small. For them, it’s really important that mountain bikes are allowed. For the event in central Africa, I’m sure half of them will be on road bikes.”
Regulations around the type of terrain in the qualifying races are similarly flexible, although certain standards will apply.
Vervecken said that in his initial conversations with the UCI, he proposed that the events each have at least 75 percent gravel.
“In the States and Australia, it’s no problem, but in certain countries in Europe, the road network is more dense,” he said. “So we lowered it a bit. I think the minimum of an event in the series is at least 60 to 65 percent gravel. It’s not our goal to have a copy of Strade Bianche, the big majority should be gravel.
“Also it should be on wide, open, existing gravel roads, no singletrack, and no technical downhills,” he said.
Generally, each of the races in the UCI Gravel World Series will be about 100-150km in length, or, said Vervecken, “let’s say the goal is to have events in the 3- to 5-hour range. So it will be shorter than some of the classics in the States.”
Elevation profiles will vary.
“Let’s say it’s also a mix of everything,” Vervecken said. “We have a race in Holland which is totally flat for obvious reasons.”
While the allure of the first-ever elite gravel world championship title is likely to attract a host of professional road riders to the qualifying series, Vervecken’s hope for the first round of the event is that it provide an exciting and inspiring opportunity for any rider who wants a shot at the rainbow stripes.
“I always tell everybody that the goal is to have a mixture of riders — in the front, you have a race, a competition, riders battling for the victory. And in the back, you have fun riders who stop at the feed zones, who stop for a drink and something to eat, and then ride in a group with their friends. Their goal is to finish the event,” he said. “I compare it to a marathon. That’s what we want to achieve with gravel. People share the same roads and the same event as the top stars. Especially if you wanna go and do world champs. Hopefully, that’s the success of gravel.”