With the days getting shorter and the intonations of #crossiscoming growing louder, many of the big gravel events on the 2018 U.S. gravel calendar are in the rear view. One of the big races still left to go is the 2018 Gravel Worlds presented by Lauf True Grit being held this Saturday on the gravel roads around Lincoln, Nebraska.
Riders will not be vying for UCI-sanctioned rainbow stripes (more on that in a bit), but they will be looking to capture a coveted title at an event—like most of the top gravel events in the U.S.–that has built itself into something special.
Gravel Worlds is Born
Gravel Worlds started in 2007 as the Good Life Gravel Adventure hosted by Lincoln’s Pirate Cycling League, which is the organization that still hosts Gravel Worlds today. “I put the event info up on the Pirate Cycling League blog and for some reason 25 people showed up and did it,” race director Corey Godfrey said. “Some guys from Kansas and I believe Iowa and Missouri showed up. The internets are a powerful thing, I guess. The next year 50 riders showed up. It was apparent that Gravel Grinding was getting more and more popular every year.”
The event’s success fits in with the Pirate Cycling League’s mission of providing non-traditional cycling opportunities that do not require a racing license. “I guess the whole pirate theme revolved around promoting and participating in events without an association to a sanctioning body or a cycling team,” Godfrey said. “If you wanted to join the team or participate in an event, all you had to do was show up and ride. Don’t have a team? Join the Pirate Cycling League!”
Godfrey did not elaborate on whether or not the team actually talks like pirates during its events. Stay tuned for more on that.
After the Pirate Cycling League’s success in hosting a gravel event with just a blog post, they set their sights a little higher. “Over some beers one night, I suggested rebranding the event ‘Gravel Worlds’ because there wasn’t a World Championship for gravel yet, and it was bound to get got by someone, so why not us?” said Godfrey.
Even though Gravel Worlds is not sanctioned by the UCI, it still needs a rainbow jersey, right? Well, about that.
“We were contacted by the UCI last year after the event,” said Godfrey. “They reminded us about their international license on the rainbow stripes. They were very cool about our inadvertent use of the rainbow stripes and kindly asked us not to do it again. Completely our bad.”
This year, the Pirate Cycling League will be giving out Gravel Worlds Champion’s jerseys that have rainbow-esque lettering but no stripes. Fortunately, the new jersey comes UCI-approved. “I’d like to visit Switzerland someday, but not because I’m getting sued in international court,” said Godfrey.
Although not necessarily a cycling hotbed prior to the gravel boom, the Great Plains have emerged as the heartland of U.S. gravel racing. The Nebraska-based Gravel Worlds joins Dirty Kanza in Kansas, Land Run 100 in Oklahoma, the now-ended Trans Iowa in Iowa and Almanzo 100 in Minnesota as an event that makes the region a booming cycling region in the States.
Similar to the other events, the race organizers have played a big role in building Gravel Worlds into the destination event it is today. Godfrey said the goal of Gravel Worlds was to create an event with a “polished, grassroots vibe.”
Unlike Dirty Kanza and its carnival-like three checkpoints where riders can receive assistance, Gravel Worlds does not allow riders to receive help from friends and family. Godfrey said this is very much by design, and it contributes to the event’s grassroots atmosphere. “Riders must either carry everything they need for the day or resupply at our mandatory checkpoints, optional oases, or small rural town convenience stores,” he said. We force the riders to interact with volunteers and locals in order to sustain themselves. That helps keep the vibe grassroots and in my opinion, adds to the experience.”
If you are looking to get a leg up on the competition by riding the Gravel Worlds course ahead of time, one, you are crazy, and two, the organizers do not release the route until the week of the race. There are two distances for the event, the 150-mile Gravel Worlds and 75-mile Privateer.
Every gravel event has its own genus of gravel. Godfrey described what Gravel Worlds rookies can expect. “The gravel is primarily of the pea-sized variety near Lincoln, though there will be stretches of larger, chunky cherry-tomato-sized gravel on occasion. Some of the roads have become hardpack and are as fast as concrete. There’s also a lot of minimal maintenance and dirt roads in the area.”
Even though Gravel Worlds takes place in the Great Plains, there will still be plenty of climbing in store for the riders. The course usually adds up to between 8,000 and 11,000 feet of climbing for the 150-mile route, depending on the year and what device you are using to measure elevation change. “You can be in the middle of Lincoln and in 10 to 15 minutes be on gravel in the country,” Godfrey said about the course. “It’s a beautiful thing. The elevation can also vary. To the northwest of Lincoln are the Bohemian Alps, which have a lot of rolling hills.”
An Elite Event
While a popular destination event for amateurs, Gravel Worlds has also become known for its impressive Elite fields. Perhaps Elite riders were initially thrown off by the “Worlds” name and then just keep coming?
However the event became an Elite destination, the list of past winners is impressive. Alison Tetrick and Colin Strickland won last year, and winners before them include Kae Takeshita, Rob Evans, Rebecca Rusch and Neil Shirley. “The level of competition and the prestige of being a World Champion keeps the Elite riders coming back,” Godfrey said. “It’s been fun to watch the top riders duke it out. Some have been completely wasted at the finish. The gravel around Lincoln is deceptive. The hills don’t look that challenging, but those hills are relentless. One after another after another.”
In terms of what to expect this year, Godfrey said he is looking forward to two great races. “I’m really excited to see the battle among the top women and men. Alison Tetrick is back to defend her title and Kae Takeshita will give her another epic battle. They sprinted for the finish last year in what was the most exciting finish ever at Gravel Worlds.”
“The men’s defending champion, Colin Strickland, is back and highly motivated to notch another victory. Mat Stephens is always a top contender too. Soren Nissen is making the trip over from Luxenberg to throw his hat into the ring. It’s gonna be a fast race!”
Even though he has made his event into one of the top destinations for the best gravel racers in the country (and beyond), Godfrey said that is not the most rewarding part of what he has built. “As a promoter, the most satisfying part is seeing someone dig deep and accomplish something they weren’t sure they could do at the start. Those moments change lives for the better, and I feel lucky to be a small part of that.”
Nine Basic Rules
After this year’s Dirty Kanza 200, talk about rules in gravel racing and “the spirit of gravel” were all the rage. The Dirty Kanza has 25 rules. Gravel Worlds? Just nine.
Most interesting of these is rule number one: Don’t be lame. The event website says it covers a lot of ground.
Godfrey expanded on the “Don’t be lame” rule. “The rule of not being lame covers a lot of behaviors that we feel are antithetical to the spirit of gravel grinding. Since we’re pirates, we can and will disqualify those that exhibit any lame behavior.”
I asked Godfrey about the “spirit of gravel” as it pertains to Gravel Worlds, and he offered some thoughts from a racer and promoter’s standpoint he has developed over the past decade.
“I totally understand the spirit of gravel ethos, and I also subscribe to it myself,” he said. “From my experience, the organic groups that form during gravel events make them a lot more fun and memorable. I’ve met some incredible people during gravel grinders because we ended up riding the same pace all day.”
With the Panaracer/Stan’s NoTubes p/b Bicycle X-Change team expected to make a big showing at Gravel Worlds and hints of more gravel teams forming in coming years, Godfrey also talked about their future in gravel events like Gravel Worlds. “I gotta be honest, those that want to win, racing with a team makes it a lot easier. The evolution of the gravel grinding genre is going to see more teams. And as a promoter, it’s impossible to ban it and really hard to police if you were to create a rule against team tactics. As the sport gets more popular, the team tactic involvement only makes sense for those that want to do well.”
2018 Gravel Worlds
The 2018 Gravel Worlds kicks off at 6 a.m. CDT in Lincoln, Nebraska. More information about the race is available at gravel-worlds.com. Cyclocross Magazine will be on-site in Lincoln to cover the racing to close out our 2018 gravel coverage.