Abi Robins was excited by the email. It was March 2021 and Robins had been training for almost a year to ride the Unbound, one of the largest and most well-known gravel riding races in the country. In the email, Unbound organizers announced that they were creating a non-binary category for the first time. The organizers wanted all riders to feel welcome – as long as they were willing to endure 25 miles or more of exhausting, muddy and rocky cycling.
“I’ve been out as a non-binary for four to five years now. “When you live your life outside of traditional categories, sometimes you feel like no one can see you,” Robbins said. I am. I was so outraged and pleasantly surprised. “
Participation is one of the keys to understanding the steep rise of gravel riding as a major category of cycling. A medium between road and mountain biking, gravel riding has existed for as long as bicycles have existed. But it has become very popular in the United States, where there are nearly 1.5 million miles of unpaved roads.
During the pandemic, riders increasingly turn on these roads, partly to go outdoors and partly to avoid sharing lanes with cars. Any bike can be used for gravel riding, but gravel bikes have gear, tire and suspension systems specifically designed for hard rides. According to NPD Group, a consumer data company, revenue from cross and gravel bike sales increased by 109% from 2019 to 2021.
Gravel riding has also emerged as a major competing category of cycling and some riders hope it may be part of a resurgence in the sport’s popularity, which peaked during Lance Armstrong’s rule, but has never fully recovered from his fall.
Only 34 riders took part in the first year of Dirty Kanza, the Unbound race in 2006. By 2018, Unbound had been acquired by fitness giant Life Time and transferred to a lottery system for participants due to the overwhelming demand for slots. On Saturday at Cannes Trade, nearly 3,000 riders from around the world competed in the races, which range from 25 to 350 miles. And new competitions emerge every year.
“The emergence of gravel makes a lot of sense,” said Kimo Seymour, president of Life Time events and media. “There are a lot of gravel places around. There are small towns that want these festivals. Gravel riding is everywhere because you often do not need permits or police. “You just take a class, create a GPS file, and maybe have a beer and a T-shirt at the end.”
Although the first races consisted mainly of amateur riders, more successful cyclists have recently moved from mountains or gravel roads. Ian Boswell spent most of the 2010s as a professional road racer, qualifying for the 2018 Tour de France. After retiring partly due to a collision and concussion, he moved into a house on an unpaved road in Vermont. Riding on gravel helped him regain the joy of cycling he had lost during his tenure as a professional rider.
“Road racing has traditionally been so exclusive,” said Boswell, who finished third in this year’s race. “You have to have a license and be in a class. Gravel welcomes anyone. You can try for a decade to get to the starting line for the Tour de France and never get close. You can win the Unbound lottery and be on the starting line with the best gravel runners in the world next year. This is the beauty of pebble riding. It is a blank canvas. It is something completely different. “There is so much freedom.”
Boswell won the Unbound 200 last year, beating a former World Tour Laurens ten Dam professional in less than a second. “I thought I was retiring,” Boswell said. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to make this pebble for fun, but I’m no longer a professional athlete.’
Lauren De Crescenzo – a former member of the US World Road Championship team and a medalist at the 2018 US National Cycling Championships – finished first in women last year and second this year. He moved to gravel riding while working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a position that began six months before the pandemic began.
“It was definitely a coping strategy,” he said. “I was in the White House Task Force. It was very stressful. I looked back at my data recently and realized that I had never driven more at any point in my life. I had nothing in my life but work. “I had to escape on dirt and gravel.”
De Crescenzo is among many gravel riders upset this month after learning of Anna Moriah Wilson’s shooting deaths. Wilson, who finished ninth in the Unbound 200 a year ago, was killed in Austin, where she was visiting for a cycling race. In honor of Wilson, the Unbound hosted a memorial sunrise 12 miles the day before the official race.
“Moria was a tough competitor and a kind soul,” said De Crescenzo. “This tragedy made us all think about how the gravel is this giant, strange family. “The loss of one of us is a loss for all of us.”
For many riders, cycling is a form of relief that is referred to as “gravel therapy”. Riding is not only about physical health, but also about mental health – it is about breaking the routine, finding new paths and exceeding psychological limits
Paulina Batiz, an unmarried mother from Emporia, first started riding to support a colleague with cancer. She found that walking was one way to deal with some of the traumas she had faced in her life, from the loss of her father as a teenager to raising her daughters and caring for her younger brother on her own. This year, she became the first Emporia woman to complete the 200-mile race five times.
“It’s a release for me,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to solve the problems of the day or the problems I face in my life. “All my frustrations and stress are crushed on this gravel.”
Most riders do not compete in races like Unbound in hopes of winning. They know that the conditions along the way are unpredictable – in Unbound, temperatures sometimes exceed 100 degrees and there is often rain or even hail – and they just hope it ends. And to enjoy the company of a community of like-minded adventurers in the process.
Last year, Robins crossed the 100-mile finish line after 11 hours, 9 minutes and 3 seconds. They were the only non-binary runners, but the Unbound organizers nevertheless held a special podium ceremony for them. This year, Robins attempted the 200-mile race but failed to finish due to mechanical problems and injuries. However, they were overwhelmed with pride when they saw full podiums for the 100 and 200 mile races in the non-binary categories.
“Gravel riding has become more of just a sport,” Robins said. “We are creating really strong spaces and communities.”