Remco Evenepoel‘s criticism of a segment of off-road racing in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana on Friday have sparked further debate on the growing trend to introduce sterrato gravel roads into road racing.
After losing the race leader to Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-hansgrohe) on the uphill finish at Antenas del Maigmó on stage 3, Evenepoel was at pains to emphasise afterwards that Vlasov was a deserving winner and had taken the lead fair and square. But he was scathing in his criticisms of Valenciana’s unprecedented introduction of a sterrato section, saying it was “getting close to mountain biking” that the race was “hard enough already” and that the sterrato had not contributed anything to what he described as “a beautiful race.”
Evenepoel also insisted that the peloton generally had mixed feelings about the introduction of gravel sections
“Sometimes in the teams and in the bunch, there is frustration that we go on such small roads that are, I’m not going to say dangerous, but you cannot win something with it, but you can lose it. You can have a flat tyre so it’s always a risk,” he argued.
At the stage 4 start of La Valenciana in Orihuela, riders and management appeared divided on the wisdom of having sterrato during key stages, with some arguing that in multi-day events at least, the possible disadvantages outweighed the benefits.
“I am not keen to see gravel in a stage race,” Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), whose team-mate Juan Ayuso, a GC contender, had a mechanical on a corner of the gravel sector, told Cyclingnews. “I think we are going too far, to a spectacle we don’t need.”
“Strade Bianche is Strade Bianche, it’s a race that was born and developed that way. It’s also special because of the Tuscany roads which are not the same as all the other gravel roads you can find in Italy.
“Rather than try to replicate that, maybe it’s better to find something that is special to this race.”
As for the specific downsides of stage 4’s six-kilometre final climb, which included nearly two kilometres of rough gravel, Trentin argued that “it was steep enough already and the surface was not good enough. It wasn’t suitable for road racing. This is road cycling, it’s not gravel racing.”
As for Evenepoel’s comparison, Trentin said: “Maybe [yesterday] was not mountain-biking, but for sure it was gravel racing. If you want to find gravel racing there are circuits for that.”
Like Ayuso, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) also had mechanical problems, puncturing on the sterrato.
“I don’t think it added any value to the race, because the climb was super hard, the strongest guy won. The only thing you have is what happened to people like Ayuso. Okay a puncture and a technical incident can happen on any surface, but, like I said before, this is road-racing.”
Trentin extended his point to the inclusion of the cobbled sectors from Paris-Roubaix in the Tour de France, which the race is due to tackle again this summer.
“It’s hard enough as it is and we saw in the past that a lot of GC contenders lost a lot in the cobbled sections. But there is a reason why there are Grand Tour riders and there are Classics riders. You cannot mix the two things.”
The experienced Italian racer has worked a lot to help rider safety. He argued that stage racing and gravel should not mix for safety reasons.
“You are going to have crashes. We saw that a few years years ago in the Tour. There were more crashes than anything else. I don’t know if it really adds something or if it’s better just to make another one-day race.”
Trentin even argued that Paris-Tours, which has recently added off-road segments to its finale did not need to go through the fields and vineyards of central France to be a good race.
“It’s not a tradition in Paris-Tours, so why are you adding something that is kind of a fashion right now? What are you going to do when the next fashion comes?”
Former Flèche Wallonne winner and Israel Start-Up Nation director Rik Verbrugghe concurred with Evenepoel.
“It doesn’t change anything on the overall classification. The only risk is that you have a flat tyre. So sometimes it’s interesting but I think it’s better to keep it in Strade Bianche and not in the stage races,” he said.
“Firstly because of rider safety, then you can only lose the race because of a flat tyre or bad luck instead of a real sporting decision.”
“Ok, Remco lost the jersey, and with or without gravel it would be the same result. But Valverde had a flat. It adds extra pressure for nothing. So it’s okay to have gravel in races, but not in every race.”
For an allrounder like Chad Haga (Human Powered Health), the gravel sections in a stage race has both positive and negative sides.
“I’m not entirely opposed to it, I think it can be a fun element to add in sometimes,” the 33-year-old American said. “Especially if it’s a way to connect parts of the course that you couldn’t connect otherwise.”
That was the case, for example, in the 2019 Vuelta a España in the Pyrenees, which used an off-road section to connect between two climbs in the finale.
However “Friday felt un-necessary,” reasoned Haga. “We rode down a paved way to get to the team buses. So, there literally was a paved way we could have taken.
“It wasn’t necessary, but it wasn’t detrimental either. It was just another thorn in the side in an already very hard day. But in general I think it’s an interesting element to add into races at times.”
While mindful of the organisers enthusiasm to introduce new elements into their events, Haga – who described the Friday gravel sector as ‘a little gnarly at points’ – concurred with Trentin that the case for keeping gravel sections in one-day races, not stage races, was a strong one.
“One day races are already an all-or-nothing situation. In a stage race there’s definitely more to be lost. But there are arguments on both sides.”
He partly confirmed Evenepoel’s claim of dissatisfaction in the peloton over the sterrato segments.
“There’s some grumpiness among some riders, but it’s also to be expected that we’ll see more and more stuff this in racing, because every organiser wants to find the thing that makes race exciting and bring in the viewers. That’s what the sport is.”