STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The sport of racing bicycles on gravel roads has become so big so quickly that race organizers were able to start with a clean sheet of paper ... and they've prioritized diversity and inclusion.

Marley Blonsky is the energetic co-founder of a body-positivity advocacy group called All Bodies on Bikes.

On Saturday morning Blonsky — who describes herself as "a short, fat woman" — paused as she was about to climb on her bike to lead a warm-up ride here for some of the more than 3,000 riders who would line up the next day for SBT GRVL — one of the biggest gravel races in the world.

"We're all about inclusion in the cycling world, so, making sure that people have clothing and gear and equipment and feel empowered to ride regardless of what their body looks like," she said.

'What we started with was a blank canvas'

Major gravel races often have several warmup rides like Blonsky's, called shakeouts.

Among those at SBT, one celebrated women, trans, femme, and non-binary riders, and another promoted racial justice.

"What we started with was a blank canvas," said Amy Charity, the race's co-founder and owner. "It allowed us to start from scratch with looking at things that we really valued and things that we potentially thought had gone wrong with road racing and made road racing feel very exclusive."

And so starting from scratch, they wanted to build something much more inclusive.

"We we really talked a lot about 'what does inclusivity mean,'" she said. "It means that when you come to Steamboat Springs, whoever you are, you feel welcome here, you feel like you belong here, and it doesn't matter if you are at the absolute front end of the peloton, you're a World Tour pro, or you're somebody doing your very first bike event or you're a seven-year-old kid or an 82-year-old, we want you to feel welcome and like you belong."

She said in conversations among the organizers of various major gravel races it's been clear they're basically on the same page about the importance of diversity and inclusion, though everyone handles their approach a little differently.

This is just the third year for SBT. This time it added classes for non-binary riders and paracyclists.

Emphasizing diversity and inclusion

From its beginning, Charity said, the organizers reached out to women, and about a thousand signed up this time.

And they emphasized parity with an unusually large purse split equally among men and women pros.

Other major gravel races also emphasize diversity and inclusion.

Molly Cameron is a top transgender racer, both a sponsored pro and a consultant to bike industry companies.

"So in terms of inclusion, specifically in transgender, non-binary inclusion, every gravel promoter I've spoken to and worked with, has just said yes to anything I've suggested, or been like, 'Hey, let's consider this. Let's do a non-binary category." And it's really easy for them to do it.

Easy in part because there hasn't been a governing body over gravel racing with a thick rule book. So the promoters say:

"We can do what we want to do and we're gonna do the right thing," Cameron said. "And the right thing here is to, like, bring more people into our events. So let's do it. And then let's engage with the communities that we're not engaging with."

The results are plain to see

"If you're a two- or three hundred pound fat cyclist and you go to, like, a skinny bike race or criterium you can feel like this isn't the place for you, because you don't see anyone who looks like you out there on the race course racing," Cameron said. "You come to a gravel event and you look around and you're like, there's 40 other fat cyclists and men and women and queers and non-binary folk and like, here at SBT there's a Ride for Racial Justice."

Black riders have long been rare in bike racing. But more cyclists are finding a place in the gravel community.

At an outdoor roundtable, racer Lissa Muhammad, a Black single mother of five, triggered tears and clapping with her story about what gravel racing meant to her after her husband's recent death.

She's an amateur state masters champion racing on pavement, but says gravel is about things that matter more than race results.

"I'm like a hippy when I start to speak about gravel. Because it's really transformative. For me," she said.

"With gravel, I can just kind of stop time. Just really soak it in, soak in the sound of the wind blowing, the birds chirping, the sun beating down on my face, and time just stopping for a moment."

And the people in the sport make her feel welcome.

"I think it's taken awhile for road (racing) to really accept athletes of color," Muhammad said. "Where gravel is, come as you are. And we're gonna have fun. We're not going to take ourselves so seriously and we're going to enjoy the ride."

Muhammad was among 25 riders from the advocacy group Ride for Racial Justice who SBT helped with costs and planning. It also has worked closely with a group of paracyclists and a team of riders from All Bodies on Bikes to make sure they could come, Charity said.

Discovering the magic of gravel bike racing

Men's pro Ian Boswell once rode top pro squad Team Sky at the Tour de France. Last year he won what many regard as the unofficial world championship of gravel racing, the 200-mile Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas.

He says gravel can be about pros going all out, and also about anyone getting a chance to discover the magic of just getting out on a bike.

"I think traditionally, in sport, we've defined it by who's the best, who's the fastest" he said. "We have this opportunity now to define that in a different way."

So Sunday he tried something besides being the fastest.

With the blessing of his sponsors and the race officials, he started at the very back on an electric bike with cargo bags stuffed with food and drink and tire repair gear. Then just roamed the course making sure more people had fun on their bikes.

"I've won races before, you know, and I was second here last year, so is winning gonna bring anything to my life that makes me feel more proud or confident in myself?" He said. "No, but going out and helping someone who's doing their first 100 mile ride, that's gonna bring me a lot more joy than trying to try to win the race.

"Which is a different take, but I think that kind of embodies what this discipline of cycling is," he said. "There's so much more to it than just winning."

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

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