The boom in gravel racing makes it a strong alternative to a career in the WorldTour thanks to increased sponsor interest and rapid expansion in events.
Elite men racers have long swapped skinny tires for fat ones or the pine boards of the velodrome for pavement.
What’s unique about Stetina’s move is the timing. The gravel sector is booming, both in terms of bike sales as well as events. In many ways, it’s similar to the explosive growth (perhaps not in scale) of the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Everyone can see the market shifting,” Stetina said. “In America, cycling isn’t a spectator sport. It’s a participatory sport. Fans like to watch the pros, but they also want to ride the same roads and test themselves. That’s why the gravel events are so good.”
Especially in the United States, the gravel scene is booming. Prize money purses are slowing growing, but it’s the sponsorship model where pro riders make their money. Stetina’s privateer program likely would not earn him the same wage as a super-domestique salary on the WorldTour, but he will be able to make a living professionally racing his bike on gravel and endurance-style mountain biking.
Stetina’s deal with Canyon, a major bike manufacturer, confirms the interest among sponsors at the marketing momentum building in gravel.
It will be interesting to see if more pro riders defect from the ever-increasing demands of the WorldTour and test their luck on gravel.
Former WorldTour pro Ted King was already active with an “alternative” calendar when Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton, both of EF-Education First, explored new roads in 2019. Recently retired WorldTour pro Laurens Ten Dam is expected to join the bandwagon next year as well.
The transition from road to gravel shouldn’t be that hard, at least in terms of technical skills. Stetina won the Belgian Waffle Ride and finished on the podium at Dirty Kanza hot out of the gate in 2019.
Gravel doesn’t present the bike-handling challenges that roadies face when they start racing mountain bikes. Or the contrast that mountain bikers confronted when they left the solitary, almost time trial-like efforts for a crowded peloton, where positioning, cornering, and pacing become paramount. Cadel Evans, who eventually became the first Australian to win the Tour de France, admitted he struggled with cornering at first due to differing surfaces between off-road and road racing.
For Stetina, who already had success racing on the gravel series, he’s interested in seeing how a full-time commitment will affect his engine and his performance.
“The training will be different for these endurance events,” Stetina said. “It’s going to be a voyage into the unknown, but with the results I had this year, I’m optimistic.”
Stetina’s venture into gravel is following a well-worn path among racers looking for new challenges in untested disciplines.
Cyclocross and road racing have long seen cross-pollination as the discipline emerged as a perfect complement in the post-war years for road riders to stay fit and earn extra cash during the winter. Roger De Vlaeminck pioneered the way in 1970s, winning a world title in cyclocross as well as dominating the one-day monuments. Riders like Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar, and Wout Van Aert have all enjoyed top road careers on their cyclocross roots.
The mountain bike boom in the late 1980s and 1990s saw high-profile migration across the discipline dividing line. Former roadies tested their mettle on fat tires with mixed results. Jerome Chiotti won a world MTB title in 1996, but later forfeited the victory because he later admitted he was doping to win it.
Dominique Arnould, now a sport director, was the Mathieu van der Poel of his day, succeeding across three disciplines, including winning a stage in the Tour de France, a world cyclocross title and success on the mountain bike World Cup circuit in quick succession in the early 1990s.
Others came out of mountain biking to succeed on the road, including some whose legacies are tarnished by the EPO era. Floyd Landis and Michael Rasmussen, who also won a world mountain bike title, both transitioned to the road only to run afoul with anti-doping authorities.
Evans and Ryder Hesjedal both enjoyed highly successful World Cup mountain bike careers before winning grand tours on the road, with Evans winning the Tour in 2011, and Hesjedal becoming the first Canadian to win a grand tour in the 2012 Giro d’Italia.
Jean-Christophe Péraud, a silver medalist in mountain biking in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, also had a very successful road career. Peter Sagan cut his teeth on the mountain biking scene before winning three world titles on the road.
What stands about almost all of those storylines is that the athlete largely gave up one discipline to focus on another.
Bradley Wiggins the track Olympic gold medalist was never going to win the Tour de France weighing 83kg. Wiggins made the full-time switch to road racing in 2009, and by 2012, became Britain’s first Tour winner only after he slimmed down to be able to get over the Alps and Pyrénées.
The lone exception, at least when it comes to jumping between disciplines, is Dutch sensation van der Poel. He not only is racing in three disciplines simultaneously, he is succeeding in all three. This year, he won the world title in cyclocross, won three of four mountain bike World Cup races he started, and came close to winning the road world title. And last weekend, he promptly won his first cyclocross race of his season.
Van der Poel’s biggest obstacle? Burnout. He’s put the Olympic Games in mountain biking as a top goal for 2020, but he also wants to race Paris-Roubaix for the first time, win another cyclocross world title, and maybe take on the Vuelta a España for a grand tour debut.
“It must remain fun for him,” cautioned Corenden-Circus team manager Christophe Roodhoof . “If it’s always pushing, pushing, pushing, then that is not sustainable.”
And like Stetina, van der Poel is creating his own commercial vehicle to make room for his cross-discipline dedication.
As Stetina found out, many top WorldTour team managers don’t like their riders moonlighting in gravel races. Van der Poel has been able to build his own team at Corenden-Circus that allows him to balance his ambitions across any discipline he fancies.
It remains to be seen how long the gravel boom might last. Sale figures suggest it is the fastest-growing segment in the bike market. Roadies like gravel because it gets them off heavily trafficked roads without sacrificing performance.
Just like in mountain biking in the 1990s, the market will eventually get saturated. By the early 2000s, road bikes were suddenly all the rage, with customers not shy about spending five figures on the latest lightweight, carbon-fiber frames and wheel-sets.
Also at the center of any riders crossing disciplines is the passion and the challenge of a new goal line. For Stetina, racing on gravel was most fun he had on a bike in years.
“This is my new passion,” Stetina said. “I felt like time was right. Instead of grinding it out in Europe for the next few years, it’s time for a new adventure. I am still going to be a pro rider. I’ll just be doing different kinds of races.”
He won’t be the first, nor will he be the last.