Friday, January 24, 2020

Get Off My Gravel

So, the buzz has been that USA Cycling has its eye on gravel racing. Not to be left behind, the UCI is apparently looking too

I would like to point out that this is not new. I found a Cyclocross Magazine article from 2015 where USAC's former CEO, Steve Johnson said, “The gravel segment is the Wild West of bike racing, and it really needs us right now.” 

Dunno... seems like gravel riding and racing have done just fine.

The question is, has either USAC or the UCI ever done anything good for cycling? While my experience with the UCI is zilch, I've been a USAC member off and on for years and even at one point was a USAC "certified coach."  To be honest though, the whole race license thing is a bit cumbersome, and has been a factor in me NOT racing more often.

Let's look at running races for comparison. I've run in many many races--on the roads and in the woods--and it's so simple. For $20 or $30, I'll get a timed event on a marked course with aid stations and maybe a t-shirt. There are course marshals, police details sometimes, and usually a post-run party of some type. For longer races, the fee might be a bit more, but you get the idea. No annual fee, no racing license. 

And, the vibe at the running races is also waaaaaaaaaaay more chill. You get all levels of fitness, and people participate just to go to an event and have fun. I get the same fun vibe a gravel rides. 

I feel that USAC will kill that vibe, and from what I've seen on the interwebs, most people agree. 

Maybe I'm jumping to judgement too soon, and maybe the fact that Tim Johnson is involved will be a good thing, but certainly some of the quotes from the older 2015 article are sheer lunacy.

For example, USAC wanted to define gravel: "stones and pebbles may not be larger than 1cm in diameter." I can just see an army of USAC officials out there with calipers. 

The former CEO also "maintains that the modern-day cyclocross bike, while built to handle the rough terrain and stress of a cyclocross race, is ill-suited for events longer than an hour and courses that typically have limited turning, and can be dangerous in multi-hour events when riders are fatigued." 

Do we need a governing body to tell us how to adjust a bike for different events? Would I EVER check with USAC to see if I could ride the same mountain bike for an hour race or a 24hr race? 

Anyway, back then, USAC thought that those rules would "reduce the number of people stressing out in the garage, trying to assemble a Frankenbike for their local gravel event." If building a bike stresses you out, you should never get off your Peleton. Building bikes is the reason to ride bikes and race bikes and build bikes, because, well, bikes.

One more from that article though, the former CEO also said, "It’s not like people did this type of cycling thirty years ago." Yeah... NO ONE EVER rode a bike on a gravel road before... guess he wasn't well versed in the history of bike racing.

So now, USAC is looking at gravel again. Are they doing so with the same lens? Do they want to add rules and restrictions on stone size and tire size and bike geometry? Will we need approved sock length?

I LIKE gravel just the way it is. I like the crazy courses. I like hitting gnarly class IV roads in Vermont. I like aid stations with chocolate covered bacon. I like that one of the rides allows you to dismount and go through a bar for maple bourbon shots. I like riding alongside people on fat bikes and hybrid bikes and MTBs from the 90's and full carbon "gravel bikes" and retro bikes with friction shifters and everything in between. 

Does gravel as a segment need uniformity and rules? Isn't the variability part of what makes the events fun? And yeah, I get it that I'm doing mostly "rides" and not "races," but rules have a way of creeping and I'm quite pleased with my Frankenbike and I'll ride whatever damn width tires I want. 

So what will USAC add to gravel? 

Legitimacy? Doesn't seem to need any external validation. 
Participants? Seems like most rides are selling out.
Insurance? I think the promoters have figured this out.
Most costs? Hmmm....

I get it, USAC needs members and road racing is dead and most MTB riders would rather just ride than race. Cyclocross is probably declining too...
The thing is, I can't see ANY reason to join USAC unless your only focus is on racing. The memberships, in my opinion, don't offer much, and the race licenses are really only needed if you're racing.

I guess we'll see how it plays out. I'm hopeful that the events I typically participate in will not get involved.

As the article in Velonews said, "For now, it seems, gravel races will continue to operate outside of USAC’s oversight, and under the direct supervision of the event promoters and directors. After the gathering in Bentonville, it was clear that this is the preferred trajectory of both the race directors and USAC."

So, I'm heading on over to BikeReg to start looking at 2020.

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