The growth of gravel has been a part of the narrative of cycling for several years now, and in 2019, one of the big entries to the ever-developing story was the pros are coming. Or more accurately, the WorldTour pros are coming.
Professional bike racers from mountain biking, cyclocross and even track racing have long been a part of the gravel scene, but at the turn of the new year, EF Education First announced it would be sending riders to the Dirty Kanza 200, Leadville 100 and Three Peaks Cyclocross.
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As the spring progressed, there were questions about which riders would be a part of EF’s team as well as how the WorldTour pros would be received and whether or not they would “ruin gravel.”
The Year of the Gravel WorldTour kicked off in a bit lower-key fashion at May’s Belgian Waffle Ride when Trek – Segafredo’s Peter Stetina quietly entered the road and gravel (groad, if you will) race in Southern California and not-so-quietly took the win.
When we chatted with Stetina after his win, it was clear he enjoyed the experience quite a bit and had plans to race more “alternative events” in 2019. One of those proved to be the Dirty Kanza 200, as Stetina and teammate Kiel Reijnen entered the lottery with the common gravel man and earned a spot on the start line in Emporia.
Joining them were the EF Education First squad of Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton and Taylor Phinney.
Before the race, it was clear the WorldTour riders were cognizant of the attention on them, and they showed a desire to earn their way into the gravel community. Why, they even got in some twitter banter with Geoff Kabush about aero bars.
The WorldTour riders proved successful in the Dirty Kanza 200, with Stetina finishing second and Morton and Howes chasing for third. Reijnen finished an impressive sixth after an early flat, and Phinney had a day to forget, results-wise but still seemed to enjoy the 202-mile grind, as much as one can.
More importantly, all reports suggest the WorldTour pros did not ruin gravel at the Dirty Kanza. The EF riders were minor celebrities in the expo area on Friday, and out on the course, they put in a valiant effort to chase down Colin Strickland (Meteor x Giordana x Allied) during his incredible 100-mile solo ride.
The Dirty Kanza 200 was not the end of the Year of the Gravel WorldTour. Morton, Stetina and Howes finished 3-4-5 at the Leadville 100, and Howes also raced at the Crusher in the Tushar.
Women domestic pros also got in the act, with DNA Cycling sending teams to the Belgian Waffle Ride, DK200 and Crusher. Lauren Stephens (Team TIBCO / Silicon Valley Bank) finished second at the Crusher in the Tushar and then a month later, teammate Brodie Champman and her went 1-2 at SBT GRVL.
One rider who really enjoyed the opportunity to race gravel and gravel/road events was Stetina. Like, really liked it.
Near the end of 2019, Stetina made the decision to leave the WorldTour and stake out a career as a gravel – alternative event privateer in 2020. As he said in our interview with him, signs point to more road professionals following his lead in the future.
2020 stands to be another big year for gravel. Fortunately for the folks already selling out events in like 2 minutes, the WorldTour pros did not ruin gravel when they traded their skinny tires for those plush, high-volume gravel tires.