The granddaddy of gravel, Unbound Gravel, claims Nicola Cranmer, founder and general manager for Virginia’s Blue Ridge program TWENTY24 Professional Cycling. So, when the team arrived in Emporia, Kansas in early June and you have to adjust to an unfurnished house, “you just roll with it”, and maybe lower expectations. But that is not what the team did.
Melisa Rollins, the only pro rider to make the trip, crossed the finish line in Emporia, Kansas in just over 11 hours to take fifth place at Unbound Gravel 200 for elite women. What grabbed a lot of attention were the junior riders, who hours earlier swept the junior 9th-10th grade women’s podium – winner Alexis Jaramillo, Lauren Weigel second and Ragan Weigel third. Alexis Jaramillo also won the overall women’s junior title, with sister Makala third. And 16-year-old Charlotte Lehmann finished top 30 in the 100-mile event.
“When there was no crit racing, or really no racing for the juniors during COVID, they all wanted to gravel bike, because our pro team was doing some gravel riding. And it was just kind of a nice break, ”Cranmer told Cyclingnews about the team’s first appearance at Unbound Gravel in 2021.
“So the couple of girls that went to Unbound, they loved it and the local families took them in and they made a little mini vacation of it. Last year we had three pros and three juniors. The juniors got second, third and fifth. But then when we said ‘Hey, girls, you know who wants to go this year?’ Originally, we actually had nine going. Wow. ”
Minnesota sisters Ragan Weigel and Lauren Weigel, 14 years old last year, were second and third in the 2021 junior race, respectively, while then-15-year-old Addie Slutz of Ohio took fifth.
A year on, even with all the pre-race logistical challenges, the training was paying dividends. A large team that focuses on development, Cranmer said gravel is not just an alternative event for fun, but one that is key to building skills.
“What is it that you are going to do very well and nobody does the finish, right? So these gravel races, they’re more – in my opinion – where they are with the boys. If they’re not a separate junior race. And it really brings out the best in these girls, ”Cranmer explained to Cyclingnews.
“There’s so many gravel races all over the country now, I think it’s a unique and really good opportunity for these girls to get out there. And, you know, it’s hard, hard, hard racing. These girls love it. Not that they want to become professional gravel racers, but they can do a lot of disciplines anyway. ”
Gravel builds bike skills
The team conducted two spring camps in the Roanoke, Virginia area, one in March and one in April, with Kaitie Keough, the recently completed Cyclo-cross rider who has recently retired from competition, as junior team manager. Gravel rides were part of the program.
“They were on road bikes, and then we would just deviate on gravel roads. And they loved it. They were great. Around Roanoke, it’s wild. It’s very, very, very hilly. There’s nothing flat. In mean, it’s at least like 1000 feet every 10 miles, ”added Cranmer.
“First of all, they have to develop gravel skills. If they’re just roadies, and they have to develop bike skills, most of the time. I mean, it’s very empowering for them, because they get a flat, they’re fixing that flat. If their chain breaks, you know, you fix it. So we’ve got all these sessions on the road to these kids and making sure they’re prepared but it’s just really empowering. ”
Lehmann in the Unbound Gravel 100, against adult men and women. She finished 28th in the female division, but an impressive seventh in the female 29 and under category.
“I felt very strong starting out but was caught in two miles 18 and 25. Around mile 55 though, I was separated from the group after another crash and was lone for most of the race after that. The hardest part mentally was around mile 70, right after the checkpoint, when it started pouring rain and the mud became thick, requiring lots of energy, ”the junior wrote in a team race report.
“I keep reminding myself to just stay positive and focused. I got to the finish extremely exhausted and scraped up, but also proud of myself for remaining calm through all the difficulties faced. ”
The team has five sets of sisters among the 27 junior riders, including one set of twins, which can bring the team a cool vibe.
“They laugh about it. You know, they’re just super competitive. The Weigel twins, I mean, they finish each other’s translations, and they’re very similar. The Jaramillo are sisters [Makala and Alexis], again, they are really friendly with each other, and they are different age groups. And then the sisters in Southern California, the Chen sisters [Eire and Aine]yeah, they’re great.
“The Chen sisters were eligible for the Belgian Waffle Ride in California, and one of them was up there with the pro women, who actually blew my mind. And Samantha Scott raced day two at Belgian Waffle Ride and she finished on the podium! ”
The director’s reaction to a junior finishing the 100-mile ride with the adults? “So all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s really impressive’.”
“It takes a lot of power and courage and skill to be able to do these gravel races. And I think it’s just a lot faster than riding around in a circle and just sprinting at the finish. ”