Ruth Winder races the Leadville 100. She's sprinting out of the saddle, a slight grin on her face, as she rides alone.

Opinion: Let gravel be gravel

We're asking gravel racing to be something that already exists; I thought the point was it was different.

Ruth Edwards
by Ruth Edwards 01.10.2023 Photography by
Life Time and Cor Vos
More from Ruth +

Ahead of next weekend’s second-annual UCI Gravel World Championships, recent gravel and longtime road and track racer Ruth Edwards (formerly Winder) has some thoughts about the sport’s evolution. Edwards, a frequent contributor to Escape Collective’s Pretty Serious Bike Racing podcast, retired from an eight-year pro road career at the end of 2021, and raced two seasons on the US gravel circuit.

When I started racing gravel in 2022 I thought it was one thing. I thought, “Oh look at these crazy events people are doing! It must be fun or else why ride for so many miles in the middle of nowhere.”  But it very quickly showed itself to be something different. On drop or flat bars, unsanctioned racing is still a highly competitive, hard sport. After every race I think there is chatter about how to make gravel more competitive, and how to turn it more and more into a “how can I beat you better” competition.

The Leadville 100 this year was a good example: some of the fastest men made comments like, “Coming down Columbine is so dangerous! We need the course to change.” I also got annoying comments and questions like, “How many men helped you?” 

So after finishing Leadville this year I couldn’t help but feel a little irritated at my fellow competitors. Instead of loving Leadville for what Leadville is, they want to change it. If you want sanctioned racing, go do it! Cyclocross, road racing, track, mountain biking, any of them. We have that! It’s out there! I’m not going to say wanting that is wrong. It turns out, I want that too. But I am saying that gravel isn’t where I’m trying to find it.

I’m convinced these events can be fun and the epicness of them can be enough. I have seen it. I’ve seen it in the middle and also at the back. Even possibly toward the front, I’m pretty sure I found “it” at Leadville. I found it in so much joy. Sitting on the start line for 30 minutes before the start, laughing at the riders who squeezed in over the barrier at the last minute. I found it while riding with two of my good friends for an hour … before they both flatted out and I laughed at them knowing that a mechanical was likely just a matter of time for these particular two bull-in-a-china-shop style riders. 

Ruth Winder shown close-up in profile. She has a smile on her face as she lifts her sunglasses to put them in her helmet vent.

I found it again later, riding at my own pace, and in a little surge of pride when I still felt good halfway through. I found it in my supportive husband and crew I saw four times across the course. In the lovely person who played Dancing Queen and in the person who ran next to me cheering up Powerline. I found it in someone called Jack, who shared with me he also lost a friend that week and I knew I didn’t need to reply, and I think he knew too, we rode together for a while and cheered each other on. For ourselves and for our friends who can’t be here anymore. I found joy in crossing the line feeling totally finished. And I found it getting a hug from Ken and Merilee, who have been putting this race on since I was a year old. 

I wish I was brave enough to stand up and say, “No, Columbine is not dangerous, you are going too fast. It’s not the course, it’s not the other people out there, it’s you!” We, the pros, are in the way of the amateurs, not the other way around. Why, why, why ever ask Leadville to change just so you can feel more competitive? I thought gravel racing and these huge unsanctioned events were about community, about getting the chance to do something epic with your friends. 

Ruth Winder leads at the 2021 Ghent-Wevelgem road race. She's dressed in the stars-and-stripes jersey of US National Champion as she puts the hammer down and leads two other riders in a breakaway attempt.
Gravel helped Winder realize she has unfinished business at the sharp end of WorldTour road racing.

But I didn’t say any of that because I felt silenced. It’s not my intention to come across negatively or disrespect those whose desire it is to push this discipline from the “spirit of gravel” to WorldTour Gravel. But I also would venture to say I won’t be alone in this feeling and it’s ok for us to have an opinion different from those that are winning the most. I’ll see you at the rest of the gravel races this year, and you’ll see me racing, but you’ll also see me smiling with the thousands of people out there for the thrill of riding their bike over the thrill of winning. The people that we (the pros) need in order to succeed. 

I’m not done with bike racing. Not even a little bit. I’ve been a mountain bike racer in high school, road racer since forever, a track racer through an Olympic cycle and now a gravel racer for two years. Now, I miss racing. I miss tactics, going fast, playing, and the thrill of racing my bike. I feel capable and excited by the sport that I love and I know so well.  That’s why I’m going to jump back into competitive WorldTour cycling with both feet (I’ll let my team make the official announcement when they’re ready). I have wild dreams of going to the Olympics and racing the Tour de France. I want to get paid well, be treated professionally, and do bike racing to the rules. I don’t know if I will ever come back to Leadville again. But if I do, I hope that it’s not changed too much just for the sake of someone wanting to win. 

What did you think of this story?