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Australian Cameron Wurf was one of a small number of pro triathletes racing Unbound Gravel this weekend, along with Heather Jackson, Angela Naeth, and Rach McBride. But Wurf, who also races as a pro cyclist for Team Ineos Grenadiers, is not convinced that being successful on the road automatically translates to being a force on gravel.
“I’ve said all along that guys from the WorldTour won’t be able come here and dominate,” Wurf told reporters after Unbound, “because these gravel riders, the guys that specialize in it as the sport becomes more professional, will become very good at it and you won’t be able to just drop in.”
Wurf is no stranger to juggling multiple disciplines. He first made a name for himself as a rower, even competing at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, and his road cycling career was interrupted by a few years devoted 100% to triathlon. His fifth-place finish at the 2019 Ironman World Championship was buoyed in large part by his strong cycling skills. The now-38-year-old signed with Ineos in 2020, and he continues to compete across multiple disciplines. Most recently, Wurf raced the cycling world’s toughest one-day race, Paris-Roubaix, and the 2021 Ironman World Championship in the span of only three weeks.
His foray into gravel racing is now the latest in his multi-hyphenate athletic career. But he cautions it’s not always smooth sailing.
“You’ve seen [road] cyclists go to [Ironman] and they’ve struggled,” he said, “they’re not doing the sport now. They didn’t last long because it’s very competitive. Ironman – it’s very similar to this, it’s a mass participation sport with an elite category and guys making a very good living. And where there’s money involved, there’s a lot of professionalism.”
It’s not just the terrain that sets gravel racing apart from road racing. With very few exceptions, gravel is an individual pursuit, which makes the distance and terrain, not to mention the race tactics, a whole different kettle of fish.
“If it was more like a Gran Fondo, more like the fun element they try to proclaim, it might be a bit different but it’s not,” said Wurf. “These guys are very competitive and if European [road-racing] guys come, they’re going to have a big target on their back.”
The individual nature of triathlon may be an advantage for athletes crossing over to the dirt. McBride, for example, has been successful in the transition from triathlon to gravel racing. At this year’s Unbound, McBride won the the non-binary category with a time of 11:56:07. Naeth and Jackson earned 15th and 26th place, respectively, in the pro women’s race.
Wurf’s own Unbound Gravel story was littered with bad luck and mechanical issues, eventually culminating in 86th place. But he wasn’t there to win. In fact, it’s being seen as something of a recon mission. He came away with 200 miles of fatigue, a face full of mud, and a renewed respect for the gravel discipline and those who have made it their life. People who, he believes, have a depth of skill not shared by the road peloton.
“Guys with incredible skills and who know how to fix a flat tire, basically, they seem to be the two prerequisites,” he explained.
Gravel racing has ballooned in mainstream popularity in recent years, and with that, the level of the field – and the money being invested – is increasing fast.
“I think what you’re seeing the depth is increasing,” he said. “Probably before, maybe a couple years ago, you could do some accelerations early on and it would probably split up quite quickly. Whereas now 40-50 guys are still there…It’s much easier racing a road bike because it’s just hard, not this start-stop stuff.”
With a burgeoning gravel triathlon series from USA Triathlon, the popularity of fellow pro triathlete Jan Frodeno’s SGRAIL 100 gravel race, a UCI-sanctioned Gravel World Series already in progress and the first World Championships on the horizon, gravel is going to keep getting bigger and bigger. You can bet that more road riders will be tempted to bridge the disciplines. But it’s not going to be easy.
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