UNBOUND Gravel marks the start of a highly anticipated gravel season and, as always, promises to offer some great head-to-head racing across all categories. Possibly the most unpredictable and most exciting competition of the weekend will be the professional women's race, thanks to an incredibly deep field of women with wildly diverse riding backgrounds and strengths. It's also not just the professional women's field that has seen explosive growth in the past few years. Across the board, more women are joining the gravel community thanks to better support and attention from the bike industry, race directors, media, and simply thanks to the welcoming community that we call gravel. Former professional road racer and current gravel specialist Amy Charity breaks down the state of women’s cycling and why gravel is leading the charge in getting more women involved at every level.
By Amy Charity
The emergence of the gravel riding phenomenon in the North American cycling scene has fundamentally shifted the state of women's cycling, propelling it to the front and center of importance and relevance in the cycling industry. In addition to the welcoming culture of gravel riding, many brands, media, and event organizers have either played a role in this critical shift or are quickly realizing the importance of focusing on women's gravel. While women's cycling, in general, still faces many challenges before it is on equal footing with men's cycling, women's gravel racing is leading the charge and setting an example for how it can be done.
Gravel appeals to an incredibly broad spectrum of athletes from recreational cyclists to current professional mountain bikers, roadies, and triathletes. The welcoming culture of gravel riding has broken down many barriers to cycling, and this change has opened the floodgates to women who are willing to give this discipline of cycling a shot. The intimidation factor is low - women can line up with their friends, their spouse, their kids...or not. It's completely up to them. By contrast, signing up for a road race often means understanding your 'category' and buying a racing license, and lining up with a small group of women in your category, not necessarily with your friends or family.
Cycling brands are also beginning to pour resources into creating products for women and ensuring that women are representing their brands. Cycling brands are finding value in highlighting women as their ambassadors, and they are hiring women to make decisions within their organizations. Women are noticing and are purchasing these products that work well for them and enhance the overall experience of gravel riding.
The fundamental shift to prioritizing women in gravel cycling is additionally noticed when scrolling through the race results or top cycling news stories. Historically, it was challenging to find women's results from events. These stories came out later or were buried beneath the men's results. With gravel events, women's results are often front and center, and the women's stories are making the front page of cycling news.
Many gravel events across the country are following suit and finding creative solutions to increase representation in their events. Offering guaranteed entries, equal prize money, or the ability to invite a friend for free, event organizers are offering solutions to ensure that women feel welcome. The fact that many of the gravel events in the country are run by women (e.g., Kristi Mohn, Michelle Duffy, Rebecca Rush, Jessica Cerra, Whitney Allison, Amanda Nauman, and myself) is a key factor in this fundamental shift towards parity in cycling.
The result of the concerted efforts by brands, media, and race promoters, coupled with the inclusive nature of gravel riding, is real progress. Cycling remains a male-dominated sport with much of the status quo steeped by tradition. However, the investment in women's gravel cycling has substantially increased the number of women gravel cyclists. The single start line, typical in most gravel events, is the visual representation of what gravel cycling is all about. Women lined up next to men, representing all ages, abilities, and riding backgrounds, with an equal opportunity to hammer at the front or enjoy the ride at a more modest pace.
The start list for UNBOUND Gravel underscores the state of women's gravel racing with large field sizes and riders with varied riding backgrounds. The professional women’s field in the 200-mile race, for example, will feature some of the top cyclists across all disciplines. Top contenders for the podium include Kaysee Armstrong (originally from mountain bike racing), Whitney Allison, Jessica Cerra, Lauren De Crescenzo, Flavia Oliveira, Olivia Dillon, Hannah Shell, Andrea Dvorak, and Alison Tetrick, Amy Charity (former professional road cyclists), Tiffany Cromwell and Shayna Powless (current pro road cyclists), Heather Jackson (triathlete), Amity Rockwell and Kae Takeshita (gravel racers). The depth of the field is impressive, and we can’t wait to see how the race unfolds.