Abi Robins was delighted with the email. It was March 2021, and Robins trained for about a year to ride at Unbound, one of the largest and most popular gravel riding competitions in the country. In an email, Unbound organizers announced that they had created a non-binary category for the first time. The organizers wanted all riders to feel comfortable as long as they endured 25 miles or more of tiring, muddy and rocky cycling.
“I have been acting non-binary for four or five years. When you live your life outside of the traditional categories, sometimes you feel like no one will see you, ”Robins continued,“ But then I get this email and I get a chance to compete in a category that actually matches me. am. I was very angry and pleasantly surprised. ”
Inclusion is one of the keys to understanding the sharp rise in gravel riding as a major cycling category. A midpoint between the road and the mountain bike, gravel riding, was around as long as there were bikes. However, it has become especially popular in the United States, where there are almost 1.5 million miles of unpaved roads.
During a pandemic, drivers are increasingly turning to these roads, partly to get outdoors and partly to avoid sharing lanes with cars. Any bike can be used for gravel riding, but gravel bikes have gear, wheel and suspension systems specifically designed for rough rides. According to consumer information firm NPD Group, from 2019 to 2021, revenue from the sale of crossbars and gravel bikes increased by 109 percent.
Gravel riding has also emerged as a major competitive cycling category, and some riders hope it could be part of a revival in the sport’s popularity, which peaked during Lance Armstrong’s dominance but never fully recovered from its scandalous downfall.
A total of 34 riders took part in the first year of the Dirty Kanza race, which will become the Unbound race in 2006. Until 2018, Unbound was acquired by fitness giant Life Time and switched to a lottery system for participants due to the high demand for slots. On Saturday, Emporia, Canada, competed in races ranging from 25 to 350 miles, with nearly 3,000 riders from around the world. And every year new competitions appear.
Kimo Seymour, president of events and media for Life Time, said, “The emergence of gravel makes a lot of sense.” “There are a lot of gravel holes around. There are small towns that want these festivals. Gravel driving is ubiquitous because you often don’t need a permit or police. You can simply select a course, create a GPS file and maybe buy a beer and a shirt at the end.
Although the initial races were mostly amateur riders, more skilled cyclists have recently moved from mountains or roads to gravel. Ian Boswell spent most of 2010 as a professional road racer, qualifying for the 2018 Tour de France. After retiring in part due to an accident and concussion, he moved to a house on an unpaved road in Vermont. Gravel riding helped him regain the joy of riding a bicycle that he had lost for ten years as a professional rider.
“Road racing has traditionally been very exclusive,” said Boswell, who finished third in this year’s race. “You have to have a license and be in a category. Gravel greets everyone. You can try for ten years to get to the starting line for the Tour de France and never get too close. You can win the Unbound lottery and be on the starting line next year with the best gravel racers in the world. That’s the beauty of gravel. This is an empty canvas. It is something completely different. There is a lot of freedom. “
Boswell won the Unbound 200 last year, beating former World Tour professional Laurens ten Dam by less than a second. “I thought I was retiring,” Boswell said. “I told myself that I would do this gravel job for fun, but I’m not a more professional athlete. Now I find myself in the spotlight more than I did on the European Tour. ”
Lauren De Crescenzo – a former member of the US World Road Championships team and winner of the 2018 US Cycling Board National Championship Road Race – was first among women last year and second this year. He switched to gravel while working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where the pandemic began six months ago.
“It was definitely a fighting strategy,” he said. “I was in the White House Working Group. It was very stressful. I looked at my data recently and realized that I didn’t drive much anywhere in my life. I had nothing to do in my life but work. I had to run to the ground and gravel. ”
De Crescenzo is one of many gravel riders who slipped this month after learning that Anna Moriah Wilson was shot dead. A year ago, Wilson, ninth in the Unbound 200, was killed in Austin, where he was visiting for a bike race. In honor of Wilson, Unbound hosted a 12-mile memorial sunrise the day before the official race.
“Moriah was a fierce opponent and a kind spirit,” De Crescenzo said. “This tragedy has made us all think that the gravel is a huge, strange family. The loss of one of us is a loss for all of us. “
For many riders, cycling is a form of relaxation called “gravel therapy.” Riding a horse is not only physical health, but also mental health – it is to break routines, find new ways and overcome psychological limitations.
Paulina Batiz, a single mother from Emporia, started riding for the first time to support her colleague with cancer. He saw attractions as a way for him to deal with some of the traumas he faced in his life, from losing his father in adolescence to raising his daughters and looking after his younger brother alone. This year, she became the first Emporia woman to complete the 200-mile five times.
“This is a release for me,” he said. “It’s a chance to solve everyday problems or problems I face in my life. All my frustrations and worries are crushed in that gravel. ”
Most riders do not go to events like Unbound in the hope of winning. They know that conditions on the road are unpredictable – temperatures at Unbound sometimes exceed 100 degrees, often with rain or even hail – and they just hope to finish. And enjoy the company of like-minded adventurers in the process.
Last year, Robins crossed the 100-mile finish line in 11 hours, 9 minutes and 3 seconds. They were the only non-binary racers, but Unbound’s organizers still held a special podium for them. This year, Robins tried to cover 200 miles, but could not finish the race due to mechanical problems and injuries. However, they were proud to see the full podiums for the 100 and 200 mile races in the non-binary categories.
“Gravel riding has become more of an athletic race,” Robins said. “We’re creating really strong spaces and communities.”