Road racing has always been the biggest driver of public interest in the sport of cycling, especially when looking through a competitive lens. In recent years though, there has been marked shift towards adventure racing, and how off-road riding can not only improve a rider’s ability on the road, but also own its worth as a standalone discipline.
There is a plethora of varied events that take place throughout the year, allowing racers to take part in concurrent road racing and adventure-based seasons. Today we will be taking a look at just some of the disciplines available, including gravel racing, cyclocross, ultra-distance and extreme events, as well as a more broader look at how the Covid-19 pandemic potentially sped up our shift towards adventure.
If lockdown taught me anything, it’s that I took the natural world for granted. As a keen road cyclist I found myself being drawn towards more ‘off the beaten track’ routes that would allow me to take my bike onto farm tracks and wooded areas.
I soon decided that it was time to ditch the usual routes and take my mountain bike out for a spin. It allowed me to go even further into the unknown and take on challenges I never thought I would undertake, and it was the pandemic that made this happen.
Taking a wider view, there was a lack of road racing to keep fans entertained, meaning that riders and fans had to find other ways to entertain themselves and this led to them taking up alternative training methods in order to keep fit. A peculiar thing happened after lockdown ended though, this supposed ‘fad’ did not end and many people never went back to the usual pre-lockdown activities that they had left behind.
Lockdown and its cause were certainly not good, but we all had to make the best of things and I am thankful that it allowed me to discover adventure cycling. Gravel bikes are very similar in structure to road bikes, including their drop handlebars, however there are some key distinctions. For instance, they feature lower gearing ratios and wider tyres that allow for greater control of the bike on the toughest of terrains.
Of all the disciplines that has enjoyed growth in the past few seasons, gravel racing is undoubtedly the most popular and is fast becoming a major sport in its own right. That said, gravel racing is not a new concept, with events such as L’Eroica in Tuscany having taken place for over 20 years, based on cycling’s historic relationship with the loose stuff. If you think about it, gravel is about the oldest form of cycling there is.
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The modern discipline is finally gaining the attention it deserves though, with the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships set to take place from 8-9th October in the Veneto region of Italy. For those of you that aren’t familiar with gravel racing, the discipline essentially bridges the gap between road and MTB. The races are often quite long, like road events, and feature a series of testing gravel tracks that are often incredibly rough and can cause chaos at any given moment.
There are many great gravel events throughout the season, but the one to watch is certainly Unbound Gravel (formerly the Dirty Kanza). This event takes place in the Flint Hills of Kansas and is widely regarded as the most prestigious gravel race of the season.
When it comes to the big bike companies, they too have been absorbed by a love of gravel. Most major producers now sell a gravel range that often exceed the price of regular road bikes. This just goes to show that gravel is taken seriously and is truly is here to stay.
Cyclocross and the Classics
Perhaps the most familiar of the adventurous events in this piece, cyclocross (CX) really came into the limelight a few years ago with the emergence of superstars such as Marianne Vos, Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert.
For some time now the CX season has taken place during the off-season for road cycling. This of course means that the eyes of the action-hungry cycling world are focused on the discipline for many months each year.
CX is the perfect representation of adventure cycling’s growth in recent times. Previously it was seen as a kind of preparation for the Spring Classics that came the following road season. But nowadays, the greatest stars of CX are focused on the winter season as much as, if not more than, the road season and the rainbow bands are an equally coveted title as they are on the road.
This next edition of the CX World Championships will take place in Hoogerheide in the Netherlands, the heartland of the discipline.
The infamous ‘Rad Race’
Another kind of adventure that can be had inside or outside are extreme events. The first that springs to mind is the famous Rad Race ‘Last Wo/Man standing’ challenge, a race that’s held annually and sets riders against one another, competing to be the last person standing on a small indoor criterium track. It’s very like the Elimination race in track cycling, in that the last to cross the line after a certain number of laps is pulled out until – you guessed it – there are two left to contest the sprint.
It may sound simple, but like its track equivalent, the bikes the riders race on have no brakes and use fixed gears, making for a night of thrills and spills. It’s easily one of the most exciting events to attend in person, not least for the beer and food approach that many favour over racing it themselves!
It is fast, it is furious, and it is an adventure like no other.
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Racing doesn’t matter
For all this talk of adventure, the disciplines that we’ve mentioned so far have all still involved racing of some kind. Adventure is far more than this though, one person and their bike is all that is needed to take on the world.
Cycling has long been accused of being a sport that is too focused on numbers and records, which had led to some of those involved forgetting why we started riding bikes in the first place. Having fun is the most important thing to factor in when you get in the saddle and head out for a ride (whatever discipline you’re taking part in), and that’s what adventure cycling has brought back to cycling.
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I don’t want to sound overly philosophical about it, however humanity has lost its connection with nature in the past decade and, though it may sound counterintuitive, racing merely exacerbates this issue. Think of the Tour de France caravan, a corporate frenzy that exists for the sole purpose of advertising and selling products during a race that takes us to some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Riders are also put under such immense scrutiny by their teams, media and fans, which can sometimes drive them to the point of mental and physical exhaustion (take Tom Dumoulin, for example). Removing the chaos of racing from your routine can make you happier and bring you closer to both the bike and the natural world, and for me this is what adventure cycling truly represents.
Hopefully this short introduction to the world of adventure cycling might inspire you to dust off the old mountain bike or even invest in a new gravel bike to take on the white roads for yourself. Either way, getting out and bringing yourself together with the outside world is the key to it all, so do it whatever way feels right for you. Don’t forget to get mountain bike insurance from Yellow Jersey to cover crash damage and theft wherever you are in the world!