Nathan Haas blog – What to expect at the first Gravel World Championships

Nathan Haas' Unbound Castelli kit
Nathan Haas will be racing for Australia at the Gravel World Championships (Image credit: CXhairs)

The UCI Gravel World Championships are upon us in a number of days. It’s the first one – hopefully one of many to come – and it should throw up some seriously good racing. 

My editors (who are sometimes my friends) over here at Cyclingnews asked me to diverge from my standard blogging to write up a bit of a race preview. I'm no journalist, trust me – these lads and ladies behind the keyboard are incredibly talented, accomplished and of course far more experienced than me [this was legitimately written by Nathan - Ed.] – so all I can do is give you my best insider's take on what to expect on the weekend. 

Based in the gravel-rich region of Veneto in northern Italy, we should have a fitting setting for the inaugural World Champs. The elite courses – 140km for the women and 196km for the men – start in Vicenza, riding toward and around Padova before riding into the city of Cittadella to take on several laps of finishing a circuit. 

Similar to last year's Serenissima Gravel race, I'm told the gravel is not very technical and the parcours is almost completely flat, so we can expect a big bunch for most of the race, with very few major obstacles other than positioning and your standard challenges of racing on gravel without a support vehicle. 

Unlike road, though, the lack of major teams makes it less likely – albeit not totally unheard of – for a race to end in a bunch sprint. More likely, imagine a reduced field of key contenders in those final km's, playing a strong game of cat and mouse. 

But let's back up and talk about how we got here.

To qualify for the World Championships, one simply had to finish in the top 25% of their age group at any of the UCI World Series gravel events this year. From the Philippines to Iowa, Poland to Perth, the global series offered ample opportunities to make it to this final start line. To note, this qualification was only for age group categories. Coinciding with the age group categories – think Ironman or Gran Fondo champs – there is an elite level. 

The UCI held spots for elite athletes, male and female, mainly from the WorldTour ranks, via wildcard invitations. Every nation has 20 spots to give, which seems a lot for the Vatican, or not enough for the USA, but this is to allow for household names to be able to come and race, without having had to have done any gravel racing this season, or perhaps ever. 

In many ways, this is great for the sport of gravel, as big names will get big attention, and a rising tide lifts all boats, right? 

One simply had to get in touch with their national federation to request a spot. I actually ended up having to do this, too, otherwise I would be racing only for my age group. Luckily, Cycling Australia has been keeping an eye on things, and there was no problem for myself or Adam Blazevic – another non-WorldTour pro – to enter into the elite category. 

The major players

OOSTENDE BELGIUM JANUARY 31 Arrival Mathieu Van Der Poel of The Netherlands Celebration during the 72nd UCI CycloCross World Championships Oostende 2021 Men Elite UCICX CXWorldCup Ostend2021 CX on January 31 2021 in Oostende Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Cyclo-cross world champion Mathieu van der Poel is taking on the Gravel World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

So, who are the major players? And who are the major nations? 

Mathieu van der Poel and Peter Sagan are confirmed, as is Niki Terpstra, but I won't blow the lid yet on the other names coming. Watch this space. 

Safe to say, the level will be higher than anything else experienced in gravel to date. Sadly, the main-stage male riders from the USA don't seem to be making the trip over for the event, which is a huge loss as I was very interested to see how they would perform outside of their bubble and camper-vans. But it's a long way for them to come for a one-day race this late in the season, so I get it. 

For the women, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is confirmed for France, which adds a very serious contender with her off-road skills and her enormous engine. Australia's Tiffany Cromwell, who rides on the road for Canyon-Sram, joins the race with her epic off-road palmarès putting her into favourite territory. 

I'd be surprised if the USA didn't produce a serious charge at victory, with a squad that includes Lauren De Crescenzo, Holly Mathews and Sarah Sturm. From what I've seen, they are a very experienced group of gravel racers and know how to work as a team. 

But it's hard to know whether any nation will really end up working together or whether the riders, as those championing the 'spirit of gravel' would suggest, prefer to race for themselves.

The women's race will be separate to the men's, so this adds an extra layer of intrigue, as the tactics of racing against each other are completely different to normal gravel races where the winner is often the one who can last the longest with the men's front group. It's a very cool move by the UCI to make this a separate format and I think this could even be the most exciting race of the weekend.  

And everyone else? What about all those who qualified in the top 25% of their age groups this year via the World Series. Well, alongside the elite race, the mass start will occur at the same time. There will be a few thousand on the start line, and they will all be racing to win their category. It's awesome to know so many winners will be crowned on a single day. 

The key points

Following the race? Here are some key points to watch out for. 

The first 20km will see a front group form, almost from the gun.  Unlike a breakaway in a standard road race, it's unlikely a strong move will ever be reeled back in, even if a few different groups can ebb and flow back together and apart.

Then watch out as the circuits start. It's an attack point, for sure, as we test our legs over the repeated parcours. The yo-yo will likely continue into the last kilometres, and expect an exciting finale as the strongest battle all the way to the line. 

With all these wildcards and strong riders coming, there is a chance we get a winner from outside our world of gravel. Might be a little odd, but let's just see how it plays out. 

The UCI has recently awarded the host countries and towns for the Gravel World Championships until 2027, so the UCI's involvement in gravel, while the details seem to come to us as they're being decided/written, is here to stay. 

Veneto is an incredible region for gravel, and I've no doubt it will make for an epic stage for the first World Championships. Personally, I can't wait. I just hope it's everything I'd like it to be. 

But let's wait for my post-race debrief.

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Nathan Haas has turned his back on the WorldTour to dive into world of gravel. After a decade at the top echelon of professional road racing, the Australian is answering the off-road call in 2022, teaming up with Colnago to race and ride as a privateer on the burgeoning global gravel scene. He'll be documenting his experiences for Cyclingnews along the way, in his own inimitable style.