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Opinion: Gravel Worlds
An incredible race, but work to be done.
Gravel Worlds. What a race, what a course, what a weekend.
With all that said, it wasn’t without fault. Gravel is a discipline built around parity. Equal race distances, prize pots, and coverage. This weekend showed there’s still work to be done, the organisers deciding not to televise the women’s race was stupid.
It was Kasia Niewiadoma who came out on top in the women’s race. A full race report can be found here. As I wasn’t able to watch the race (again, stupid), and that my personal experience is on the male side, this piece will focus on the men’s race.
This time last year the Gravel World Champs were jokingly referred to as the Bike Path World Champs and won on a road bike. They were heavily criticised and rightly so. The route designers, to their credit, seemed to learn from their mistakes.
The latter part of the circuit featured trails which you’d be more likely to find dog walkers than cyclists. Fast and loose downhills, horrendously steep uphills. Weaving in and out of towns, over small bridges, down bike paths. This course wasn’t at all safe and by the looks of TV images it even went through some peoples back gardens. Perhaps controversially, that’s perfect for a gravel race.
Now, my personal background in Gravel is small. I’m an ex-roadie who wanted to continue racing when I wasn’t quite good enough to go to the World Tour. I’ve done a few races in Northern America, including Unbound. So I have at least a little experience to write from.
Gravel is unlike any other discipline. There are no follow cars to feed from or get neutral support. If you have a mechanical, you fix it yourself or limp home. There are no race radios either, meaning time gaps a few and far between.
It’s bloody hard too. I lacked respect for Gravel racing, thinking my engine would be big enough to make up for my lack of skills. I was incorrect. Gravel racing is like junior racing. It’s full gas from KM0. If you don’t believe me, just sign up for one and see what I mean.
The favourite going into the race was Wout van Aert. Other World Tour pros such as Gianni (and Florian - they’re not brothers) Vermeersch, Connor Swift and Alejandro Valverde were expected to perform well.
Keegan Swenson was the flag bearer for the Gravel Pro contingent. The American’s largely boycotted the event last year, but the country with the most specialists turned up in force for 2023 and promised to ride for Swenson.
For those of you that don’t know. Keegan Swenson is the best Gravel specialist in the world. It would be easier to list the races that he hasn’t won this season. The Unbound winner finished 5th, outsprinted by the former road World Champ, Alejandro Valverde.
Swenson seemed to play the final kilometre to perfection, forcing Valverde to ride the front. But, the old Spaniard was simply too fast in the gallop to the line. Alejandro Valverde is a convicted doper who was banned for two years at the start of last decade. He’s part of the old guard and seemingly showed no remorse for his actions. In my opinion, it will not be a bad thing when he finally hangs up his wheels.
The winner was daredevil Matej Mohoric. Alone in the last 15km, it was a thing of beauty watching him ride the descents. If you have time, go back and watch that final 15km. He is a magician on the bike. Riding berms which weren’t even there, taking risks and braking late. It’s amazing how much someone risks when they don’t know the true time gap.
He briefly came unstuck, crashing on an innocuous right hander while changing from tarmac to gravel, but still. His win was easy in the end, famous and impressive. Florian Vermeersch was in second, and Connor Swift rounded off the podium in third.
In a post race interview, Mohoric said that his Gravel Worlds is only second to Milan-San Remo in his palmares. Just a quick reminder that the Slovenian has won stages in all three Grand Tours.
By the looks of it, this was a proper bike race, The course was good, it was a proper gravel event. But, again I’m going to reiterate that I can’t really have a true opinion as the bloody organisers didn’t televise the women’s race,
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Gravel World progresses. Will we see more World Tour pros dabble? Will they just turn up to fight for the rainbow at the end of each season? The next four World Championships are in Belgium, France, Australia and in 2028 at the Super World in France.
For at least three of those, it seems likely that we’ll have World Tour contention, simply given the geographical nature and ease of travel. I wouldn’t be surprised if Australia has a lack of World Tour riders, and is the first time a Gravel specialist wins.
It seems a shame that the United States aren’t hosting a Gravel World Champs anytime soon. It’s the place that is directly responsible for the growth of this new discipline. They’d do it correctly, and more than likely bring an epic course that pushes World Tour riders out of their comfort zone.
Gravel Worlds 2023, better than 2022, but work to be done.
This is piece is just a collection of quick post race thoughts from my couch at home. Once I’ve spoken to friends who competed in the race, if there’s appetite I’ll get another thing up.
I’m now in the off-season, enjoying some time off the bike and trying not to think about riding. With that said, I’m starting to plan the opening races of 2024. As things stand it’ll be Mid South, Rattlesnake and then BWR Utah. I’m off back to US Gravel next year. If you’re interested in following along, please subscribe here, or follow my Instagram.
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