Words by Brian Co of SoCal Cyclist
Not long ago, gravel events were something people dabbled in. You did it to take a break from the rigors and stress of other disciplines. It was and still is an experience where you could let loose. Wear t-shirts, drink beer, camp out and swap war stories. You can still do all of those things after races in other disciplines but there’s something about the fraternity of gravel events that you just can’t get in other events.
Looking at 2019 in the short-ish life span of the gravel scene and there are riders really taking a serious focus on gravel. With events selling out in mere minutes and World Tour teams announcing participation in gravel events. Rider’s may flirt with making a competitive career out of gravel. While most still do it for fun, they also do it to as a change of pace or to get away from traffic and the elitism of other events. The camaraderie personal best and memories are why most people enter the events but there is a small group of riders, like in any competitive based event who are going for the win.
I’ll be the first to admit. I am biased towards road riders crossing over to most other disciplines. I remember in the 90’s when mountain bikers were winning greuling events, most were doing 80% of their training on the road but few would credit their success to riding a road bike doing hill repeats. A road background gives you the training structure you need to put in the effort when you need it most and sustain yourself on those long climbs. So while gravel may be the popular new kid in school, road riders are the nerds they turn to when studying for the big day.
2019 could be the year of the gravel pro. What I mean by that is most people who are in contention to win may be riding and racing full time, have coaches, strict diets use power meters and peak for specific events. Sounds an awful lot like what roadies have done for years. In the not too distant future we could see actual Belgians winning the Belgian Waffle ride or someone who has known gravel as their only sport and career.
Until then, here are my top five picks for gravel athletes to keep an eye on for 2019.
#5 Lachlan Morton
Lachlan Morton - He’s a bit of a wildcard as he hasn’t done the big name gravel events in the United States but he helped the gravel genre take off with his film series “Thereabouts”. Another World Tour grad, he has ridden for Garmin, Jelly Belly and now EF Drapac P/B Cannondale. He was a reluctant pro but the gravel scene might suit him. The significance is he may have been brought to that team because Jonathan Vaughters has expressed the plan of doing gravel events. A first for a world tour team. He’s proven himself on the world stage and on paper should be able to handle any gravel event even though he’s a bit of a question mark. The reality may be if you are at the start line with Lachlan at any event, eye’s will be on him.
#4 Amanda Nauman
Amanda Nauman - Another SoCal resident who can win anywhere, she has won or podiumed in just about every gravel event she enters. A former swimmer turned engineer, turned pro she excels at cyclocross events with a 5th place at CX nationals. “Amanda Panda” is a rare athlete who can excel in short sub one hour cyclocross races, she also has the ability to shine at the six plus hour distance events as well. Look for her to be in the thick of it for 2019 and a win at either discipline.
#3 Mat Stephens
Mat Stephens - I first saw the Texan on a local group ride in SoCal. He was wearing a skin suit, had a 1x gravel bike with slicks and aero bars. I thought to myself, “man this guy must be sure of himself.” Sure enough when the ride turned uphill, he took off and not many could stay on his wheel. Mat is also another ex-road pro turned gravel pro. He won Dirty Kanza in 2017 and even beat the Lance Armstrong at the Texas Chainring Massacre . Coming into 2019 he will always be a threat and you can see him either arms raised at the finish or in the aero position.
#2 Larissa Connors
Larissa Connors - One of the few that doesn’t actively train on the road, she’s an adventurer that likes a challenge. She’s undefeated at 100 mile endurance events which is no small feat. Two time winner of leadville and BWR, she wins so much she has time to shoot selfies mid race. Offensive to some, but others think it’s all part of her panache. She’s is dominating gravel and currently recovering from illness but the big question is, “who can challenge her in 2019?”
#1 Ted King
Ted King - Yes. King of most gravel events including winning Dirty Kanza and placing 2nd at BWR, he is the most high profile athlete for gravel events. He travels to most of the big one’s and while there is standard practice to get a call up to the line. That is usually backed with his winning or at least podium results in just about anything he signs up for. He has a World Tour background at one point being teammates with Peter Sagan but now he’s fully committed to gravel. 2019 she be another impressive year.
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