Abby Robbins was excited about email. It was March 2021 and Robbins had been training for almost a year at Unbound, one of the largest and most famous gravel-bearing competitions in the country. In the mail, Unbound organizers said they were creating an Arab category for the first time. The organizers wanted every rider to feel welcome – as long as they were willing to endure 25 miles or more of tiring, muddy and rocky biking.
“I have been non-binary for four or five years now. “When you live outside of traditional categories, sometimes you feel like no one can see you,” Robbins said. I am. I was very outraged and pleasantly surprised. ”
Inclusiveness is one of the keys to understanding the sharp growth of gravel bearing as a major category of bicycles. The midpoint between the road and mountain biking, gravel riding has been around for as long as bikes have been. But it has become especially popular in the United States, where there are nearly 1.5 million miles of unpaved roads.
During a pandemic, horsemen increasingly roam these roads, partly to get out 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 rough riding. Revenue from the sale of cross and gravel bikes increased by 109 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to the NPD Group, a consumer data firm.
Gravel walking has also emerged as a major competitive category for the bike, and some riders hope it may be part of a revival of the sport that peaked during Lance Armstrong’s dominance but never recovered from its scandalous fall.
Only 34 riders competed in Dirty Kanza’s first year, the race to become Unbound in 2006. By 2018, Unbound was acquired by fitness giant Life Time and switched to the lottery system due to the high demand for slots for entrants. On Saturday in Emporia, Cannes, nearly 3,000 riders from around the world competed in races ranging from 25 to 350 miles. And new competitions appear every year.
“The emergence of gravel makes great sense,” said Kimo Seymour, president of Life Time events and media. “There are a lot of gravelly places around. There are small towns that want these festivals. Gravel walks are everywhere because you often do not need permits or police. You just choose the course, create a GPS file and maybe end up drinking beer and a t-shirt.
While early races consisted mostly of amateur riders, more successful cyclists have just 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 partly due to an accident and concussion, he moved home to Vermont on an unpaved road. The gravel ride helped him regain the joy of the bike he had lost for decades as a professional rider.
“Traffic 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 one of the categories. Gravel welcomes anyone. You can try to get to the starting line of the Tour de France for decades and never get too close. You can win the Unbound Lottery and be on the starting line with the world’s best gravel runners next year. This is a wonderful thing for carrying gravel. This is a blank canvas. It is something else entirely. There is so much freedom. “
Boswell won the Unbound 200 last year, beating former World Tour professional Lawrence by less than ten seconds. “I thought I was retiring,” Boswell said. “I said to myself, ‘I will do this gravel work for fun, but I am no longer a professional athlete.’ Now I find myself in the spotlight more than I ever did on a European tour.
Lauren de Crescento – A former member of the U.S. Road World Championship team and a 2018 U.S. Cycling Board National Road Championship medalist – took first place among women last year and second this year. He turned to wearing gravel while working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a position he began six months before the pandemic began.
“It really was a coping strategy,” he said. “I was in the White House working group. It was very tense. I recently looked at my data and realized that at no point in my life would I go for more. Nothing else has happened in my life other than service. I needed to escape to the dirt and gravel. “
De Crescenzo is among the many gravel riders who have been spinning this month after learning of Anna Moria Wilson’s shooting death. Wilson, who finished ninth in the Unbound 200 a year ago, was killed in Austin, where he was racing. In honor of Wilson, Unbound hosted a 12-mile memorial race the day before the official race.
“Moria was a fierce competitor and a kind spirit,” de Crescenzo said. “This tragedy made us think about how this giant, strange family is in the gravel. The loss of one of us is the loss of all of us. “
For many riders, being on a bicycle is a form of relaxation that they call “gravel therapy.” Riding is not only about physical health, but also mental health – it is a violation of routine, finding new ways and crossing psychological boundaries.
Paulina Batiz, a single mother from Emporia, first started riding to support a colleague with cancer. She found that walking was a way to cope with the traumas she had suffered in her life, from losing her father as a teenager, raising daughters, and caring for her younger brother independently. This year, she became the first Emporia woman to complete a 200-mile race five times.
“This is a release for me,” he said. “This is a chance to solve the issues or problems of the day that bother me in my life. All my frustration and anxiety is falling apart in this gravel. ”
Most riders do not go to events like Unbound in hopes of winning. They know the conditions on the course are unpredictable – temperatures in Unbound sometimes exceed 100 degrees and often rain or even hail – and they just hope to finish. And enjoy the process in the company of fellow adventurers.
Last year, Robbins crossed the 100-mile finish line after 11 hours, 9 minutes and 3 seconds. They were the only non-binary racers, but the Unbound organizers still held a special podium ceremony for them. This year Robbins tried to race 200 miles but could not finish due to mechanical problems and injuries. However, they were overwhelmed with pride when they saw the full podiums for the 100 and 200 mile races for the non-binary categories.
“Wearing gravel has only become part of sporting events,” Robbins said. “We are creating really powerful spaces and communities.”