The first ever Gravel World Championships captured much interest this year, and David Van Orsdel rode as part of Team USA. While the racing itself may have been unremarkable, it was also the beginning of something big – as 2022 may be noted as the year that gravel racing really took off.
– Story by David Van Orsdel –
Even before the course was announced, many North American riders were grumbling that the UCI was going to ruin gravel, but for those of us there, any talk of the race not being “gravel” enough went straight out the window as we ventured into the unexplored (for the UCI anyway) world of gravel racing on an international stage. Vicenza is a long way from Gravel’s homeland in the American Midwest, but with the presence of top World Tour racers, the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships was always going to be a total question mark for everyone, no matter the location, course, or who designed it.
Up until now, the world of gravel has been dominated by headlines from races across the US like Unbound, SBT GRVL, and the Belgian Waffle Ride. However, with the UCI stepping in and adding a European flavor to this uniquely American discipline of cycling, there’s a sense that the stiff winds of change have started to blow out of Europe. Change can be scary, and particularly so for those like the gravel pioneers of long, straight windswept roads of Kansas and the American West who have brought gravel to where it is today.
At the World Championships, the evolution of gravel was front and center in everyone’s minds. In our figurative American team camp, where most are used to long, adventurous, self-supported events, it was a bit of a shock to see the big road trade teams show up with full teams of mechanics and multiple bikes to choose from. It was quite clear that we weren’t anywhere near Kansas where self-reliance is valued above all. In proper gravel fashion, there weren’t any team cars or neutral support following the race in the 194km between Vicenza and Citadella, which made some of the road pros a bit nervous.
However, in reality there were mechanical and feed zones about every 10-15km for those fortunate enough to have a full team staff at their disposal. In addition, the roaring crowd packed huge sections of the course from start to finish. It was certainly a far cry from dusty, desolate midwestern roads. It was the collision of two worlds: the hyper organized, all-powerful European road scene against the free flowing, self-supported nature of the gravel and endurance mountain bike worlds.
Perhaps the fight for the soul of gravel, whatever that may be, was being played out in real time on the roads, fields, and dirt paths between Vicenza and Citadella. However, to focus on the differences between the traditional old world European ways in one corner and the new world pioneerism in the other would be to miss the point. This event was a historic turning point in a rapidly changing and growing discipline of the sport, and every rider on the start line felt the significance of what we were about to embark upon. We may not have known what to expect, and we certainly do not know where the movement will take the sport in years to come, but waiting for the starting gun we all knew deep down that we were part of a moment that will define cycling in the generations to come.
In the days before the World Championships, as bigger and bigger names announced their presence, the race started to feel more and more like stepping into Madison Square Garden. Adding to the weight of the announcements was that no one, apart from the Italian team, knew much about the course and therefore what the best equipment choice would be. I was fortunate enough to have Santa Cruz Italia to lean on and provide a pretty sick looking Stigmata to handle any unknowns the course would throw at me, and am lucky to know the course designer, former pro, and sometimes colleague Angelo Furlan. I certainly wasn’t shy about bothering him about the minute details of the course in the weeks leading up the race to pass onto the American team, but most riders went into the race totally blind.
As you would expect for a race of the magnitude of a world championship, almost everyone pre-rode the course in the days leading up to the race. However, in the midst of a global parts shortage, unless you had an Alpecin Deceuninck or Specialized camper, team car, and multiple bike options like Matthieu van der Poel, Gianni Vermeersch, and Peter Sagan, you had to ride the equipment that you had when you set foot in Veneto. For those coming from outside Europe and without a big team set-up, the unknowns made the challenges of competing against some of the world’s best riders even more difficult.
If there is one adage in cycling that always rings true it is that the riders make the race, so even if the course had been a bit more “gravel” (whatever that means), it was always going to be defined by the riders on the start line. From the last finisher, to those in the chase groups like myself, and all the way up to Daniel Oss and Gianni Vermeersch fighting it out for the rainbow jersey, each and every one of us ventured into a complete unknown world without any idea of how the day was going to play out, except for epic and historic. What could be more “gravel” than that?
From the gun, it was full gas (at least for me) as everyone tried to get into the questionably placed singletrack downhill only about 1500m from the start. At this level, there is no room to make mistakes or to be a bit off your game. You are either in the group, or you’re not. If you don’t have the ability of a top World Tour rider and you’re on the backfoot at any point or for any reason, you’re probably going to finish the day that way.
It takes a while to digest 194km of racing, especially a world championship. Stress and emotions run high, and then the whole race passes in the blink of an eye and you’re left with anticlimatic post-race lull, wishing you could go back and do it all over again.
Unfortunately, that is not how it works. It’s time to reflect and enjoy on the collective accomplishments of everyone in the race. We have our teammates, which in a national team selection is largely bound by nationality and common background. As an American living and racing in Europe on European teams for the last decade, racing with other Americans for once was a beautiful, yet foreign, experience for me. However, what makes cycling so special is that we have moments of alliances of circumstance in which we lean on our competitors as almost teammates for brief moments of time and we get each other through tough spots, though there is always an underlying desire to beat them.
In my first world championships this is extra special, and an experience that I am not sure can be replicated anywhere else. I went through every emotion possible, I threw up multiple times (yes on the bike at 40km/hr in the group), I had numerous cramps, but in the end I fought as best I knew how alongside a group of men with whom I now share a common bond.
There is no emotional roller coaster like it, and I’m not ready to get off just yet – I want to go around and around until I can’t any longer.
Hope to see you all again next year at Gravel World Championships or whenever we have the pleasure of pinning a number on together next.
David Van Orsdel is an American bike racer and coach residing in Lucca, Italy. He has raced for over 10 years as a professional and elite amateur on the Road, MTB, and Gravel in Italy, France, Spain, and Belgium. He currently dedicates the majority of his time to coaching cyclists and runners from the US, Canada, and Europe and consulting cycling tour companies on the best routes & locations in Europe. He can be reached at devocoaching.com, his Instagram @dvanorsdel, or by email [email protected]
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