What would another year of gravel be like without a little controversy about taming the casual, free-range style of racing and making it more conventional? Earlier controversies for the use of aero bars among the pros have faded from most gravel debates these days, now replaced with concerns over mass starts and drafting.
Life Time, which operates the Life Time Grand Prix series in the US, wasn’t waiting for the next round of sparring and has been assessing and adjusting guidelines for their off-road races, specific to elite fields.
The organisers of the rich series with a $300,000 combined cash purse planned to have a discussion this week with a handful of the invited elite women for feedback.
“With the evolution of our sport, we’re seeing a lot of changes in the women’s race. Notably, I see race organisers and fellow gravel pros all wondering how we can get the purest women’s race without the interference of the men’s pro or amateur races,” 2021 Unbound 200 champion Lauren De Crescenzo told Cyclingnews.
“I was on a call with USA Cycling last summer, discussing separate starts and the timing of the starts at the US Pro Gravel National Championships in Gering, Nebraska. They enforced a no-drafting rule quite well with moto referees, and I think it’s something worth exploring in other prestigious gravel races.”
In 2023, Life Time imposed a new rule for their seven races, including Unbound Gravel 200, that excluded the use of bar extensions among the competitors in the elite fields, specifically for safety reasons.
New for 2024 is the new rule to address the frenzy and fall out from mass starts. At this year’s Grand Prix events, there will be separate staging and send-offs for elite men and elite women at all seven events, either by a few minutes or up to 30 minutes, which the latter is the case at Chequamegon MTB 40 in Wisconsin.
“My experience racing at the UCI World Championships in Italy in 2022 was unique as the men’s race was on Saturday and the women’s race was on Sunday. I don’t envision this being possible at all US gravel races given the logistical challenge for promoters. However, I think there’s a way for us to move towards little to no interference from the men’s race. Maybe staggering the start by an hour or so, with the men starting first,” De Crescenzo added, and she said was looking forward to being part of a discussion with Life Time.
Miguel Crawford, who founded and still runs the Grasshopper Adventure Series after 27 years, said he found that the course itself could determine if a mass start was safe. The Huffmaster Hopper had a separate start for pro women following the pro men, with other age groups having set send-offs.
“Each Hopper is a little different depending on the course. If there is a big climb early on, we like to start ‘en masse’. This way riders are separated by ability and we avoid overlapping of fields,” he explained. Low Gap takes place this Saturday, and a climb early stretches out the riders from that mass start.
All Belgian Waffle Rides have combined starts, as well as SBT GRVL. Leadville Trail 100 MTB instituted start corrals in 2022. Rules vary across the many events with UCI Gravel Series as well.
Last year a double winner at Leadville Trail 100 MTB and SBT GRVL, Sofia Gomez Villafañe (Specialized) said race organisers needed to be clear about expectations for separate starts, or not.
“What are they trying to accomplish with a separate start? Are they wanting to have a women have the ability to race each other for the first ‘x-amount’ of time without having any of that start chaos, and then the groups start to mingle and it’s fair game? Or are they looking to have the women’s race not impacted at all by people that aren’t in their categories? Is that five-minute separation enough or not?”
Another issue at hand is drafting, which apparently is the main topic for a Life Time call with several of the top women in the series. It was not known if the discussion would lead to rule changes this season, and then ways to enforce those rules.
“We’ll see if they take our thoughts [and put them] into action. It’s a two-way street,” the 2023 Life Time Grand Prix women’s winner told Cyclingnews. Like De Crescenzo, she planned to be in the discussion with Life Time this week.
She said rules would apply for women not drafting off the men, but also men, pro or amateur, not drafting behind pro women, “nobody to draft off anyone else that is not in that category”.
“It’s a sticky point when you get into Unbound. It’s a stacked field for sure. Can we really send the women to do 205 miles without any drafting from men? Last year we were told we were going to have this ‘experience’ in [Unbound]. And it was all hyped up. The pro women’s field would have the ability to have our own race that wasn’t really going to be impacted by the pro men or the amateurs. Then 90 minutes in, we’re back to where we were the year before. I was really let down. I think we [pro women] deserve to have the same race experience that the guys get to have.”
Last year it was at a severely muddy Unbound Gravel 200 where Carolin Schiff made her winning move with 60 miles to go from a small pack of leading pro women, which included Sofia Gomez Villafañe (Specialized) and Alexis Skarda (Santa Cruz). When Schiff took off, it wasn’t a solo attack, but she grabbed on the back wheel of Ivar Slik from the pro men’s field and tacked onto the acceleration. And many of the women in the chase rode to the finish among groups of the men.
Villafañe admitted that many of her outspoken comments in the past had ‘bitten me in the butt’, but wanted to use “the platform that I have in order to help the women progress and get the race that I think we deserve, have the same race experience that they guys get to have.”