What I have come to realise this year is that the term “gravel” really means different things to different people. The gravel roads that are available to ride vary wildly in different parts of the world. It sounds obvious really, but it means that someone from Sweden for example has a totally different idea of what a gravel race looks like to someone from France, let alone the USA or Argentina. That makes it a bit tricky for the UCI to find a gravel route fitting of a world championships that suits everyone. Last year they received criticism for the course, with competitors complaining that it was too much like a road race.
The varying terrain also makes it difficult to make the right decision about tyres and wheel choices for races. “Gravel” as a term really incorporates pretty much anything you can ride without requiring suspension (and even then, some of its borderline for short sections). So, unless you have ridden a course it is hard to choose, and you often see people at the side of the track just a few km into a race having already blown a tyre. Tyres labelled “gravel” on the internet vary wildly in quality and composition, and despite telling you in the spec what they are meant for, tyre manufacturers are trying to meet all the different needs and still getting to grips with what gravel racing really is. As are some race organisers who seem to see it as a challenge to put pelotons of riders over ugly single track terrain. The result is that the choice is often a compromise between durability and weight, speed and grip, and compliance and resistance.
For all my gravel races this year I have ridden 45mm Pirelli Cinturato Gravel RC tyres on my Parcours Alta wheels, which is probably the widest anyone uses for racing. With big knobbly treads, I was erring on the side of caution. I compromised for speed, gained in grip and compliance, and chose the most durable tyres I could. I was usually the only rider in the start pen with such wide tyres, but I didn’t care. I didn’t have a single puncture or wheel failure in 1500km of racing (and well over that in training), and I trusted the combination.
Heading into the world championships, word on the grapevine was that the course was going to be half hard-packed gravel and half paved surfaces. Google earth tells you little in terms of the technicality, so I decided it was the course to test myself on. I needed to have more speed on the road parts of the route, so I opted to put on 35mm tyres with a much smaller tread (Botranger GRI) on my deeper section Parcours Ronde wheels.
Arriving in Italy a few days before the race I went out and rode 80km of the 140km route. To my surprise the UCI had well and truly upped their game, this was a course worthy of a World Championships gravel race. It was probably the most technical course I had raced (excluding Badlands – slightly different pace) and was not a fast road-race type route at all. Sections of deep river gravel, grass, mud, river fords, loose descents, loose climbs, and gradients that had to be seen to be believed were all there. This was in no way the kind of course to test my new “skinny” tyres on, but there I was, 35mm fitted on the Ronde, looking sharp and ready to rock. One thing I have learnt from 10 years of professional sport is that stressing over equipment choices, bike admin, or uncontrollables the day before a race is a sure way to be exhausted on the start line often for no real benefit. I had managed in the recce, I would manage during the race.
In the end I did just that. The race was insanely tough from start to finish and I gave it my best. The lower rolling resistance probably helped me a bit on the paved sections, and a lot of the steepest climbs were fortunately on rutted concrete. Through the technical parts I just did my best, I stayed upright, and I focussed as hard as I could. There were a few times that I had to jump off and push (often because other people were in the way), but I was really pleased with my ride. I had gone to Italy with no expectations in terms of position. I just wanted to soak it all up and enjoy the experience and I did that. While it was one of the hardest courses I have ever experienced, it was also an absolute pleasure to be representing my country in an elite bike race. Having had a few crashes this year, I am always ecstatic to get to the finish line unscathed, and I had a huge wide grin as I came crossed it in Pieve de Saligo.
But I will say this, I love the new challenges that gravel racing is offering this triathlete. There is so much to learn, and so much to know. Experience is everything in a sport where equipment choices, wheels, tyres and tyre pressure can make the difference between cruising around or being battered to death. It is exciting and frustrating in equal measure. The sport is growing rapidly, equipment is changing all the time, and I am only just starting to understand the intricacies of how to ride the technical routes, how to read the races and how to pace them. I hope next year I will get more opportunities to learn.