Aiming For The Rainbow Jersey At Gravel Worlds

By Neil Shirley

What started out as an underground event six years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Gravel Worlds name was more tongue in cheek than it was trying to establish itself as a championship event. But lo and behold in the six years since its inception, gravel racing has become more than just a Midwest-centric off-shoot of road racing, and the event has lived up to its billing and become known as the unofficial Gravel World Championships, just as Singlespeed Cyclocross Worlds has done. Having a course befitting of such an event means it’s going to be one long day for the winners, and a much longer day for the many riders that are looking for nothing more than to undertake a huge challenge. At 150 miles, and 11,000 feet of climbing, no one could feel that Gravel Worlds over-promised and under-delivered in the challenge department. 

As a very early-feeling 6:00 rolled around on Saturday morning, it was time to embark on our race, adventure, journey, pilgrimage or whatever else Gravel Worlds meant to each of the 300 riders toeing the start line. Photo: Lisa Jannsen
We hadn’t gone more than 20 miles before the climbs that are all of 50-100 feet in elevation gain, but relentlessly come one after another after another, cut the group apart like a butcher and his cleaver. Photo: Andrew White
And they say it’s flat in the Midwest… Photo: Andrew White
Because of the high quality of these gravel roads, racing on them is not so different than a typical road event where drafting and tactics come into play. Of course, when racing, or just riding 150 miles, most tactics other than pacing and managing your nutrition intake are moot points. Photo: Lisa Jannsen
Gravel Worlds-Neil
Just shy of 30 miles in, former pro roadie and Dirty Kanza winner Brian Jensen (left) decided that he was done with social hour and attacked our group, which left me with no choice but to follow rather than see my chance at the win ride off into the sunrise. Photo: McColgan Photography
Gravel Worlds Oasis
Three checkpoints along the route offered the opportunity to refill our bottles and grab a snack, if one was so inclined. The final checkpoint was graciously hosted at a house along the course. Photo: McColgan Photography
No, the roads were not closed to traffic for Gravel Worlds; but fortunately the traffic was light. Photo: Lisa Jannsen
Megan Hottman, aka The Cyclist Lawyer, won the women’s singlespeed division. Photo: Lisa Jannsen
Whether racing or just riding the event, it’s hard not to have a good time. Photo: Lisa Jannsen
It was looking likely that after 150 miles of racing it was going to come down to a two-man sprint between Jensen and myself since neither one of us were showing any chinks in the armor, but with just 10 miles to go, the heat and humidity finally took a toll and I was able to get away in the closing miles and ride across the line solo to claim the Gravel Worlds with a time of 7 hours, 54 minutes.
Rebecca Rusch went on to claim the Open Women’s title, with a time of 9 hours, eight minutes. In all, 142 of the 300 registered riders finished the entire route.


For my setup, I started with a stock Foundry Overland that includes a SRAM Force 22 build and costs $4695, then made a couple of changes that would make it better suited to the gravel-filled 150 miles. The first alteration I made was to run a set of 50/34 chainrings in place of the stock 46/36 rings that are more favorable to cyclocross racing than all-around riding. The biggest change wasn’t really one that was entirely essential, but because we had a pair of Zipp’s new 30 Course wheels that needed testing it just made sense to include them; after all, they were designed for the very terrain I would be racing on.
The Zipp 30 Course wheels are tubeless compatible–a must-have for a gravel event–and use a rim profile that mirrors that of the 202 Firecrest wheel, just in a more robust and less expensive aluminum construction. As for tires, I went with IRC’s 32mm file-tread Serac XC, and after a dose of Orange Seal sealant in each tire they were good to go.
Rebecca Rusch’s Niner is decked with everything you might need for a massive day on the bike. A storage box on the top tube holds her GUs, while the seatpack is stuffed with tubes and tools to handle nearly any situation out on the road. Rusch was using SRAM’s 1x drivetrain with a 10-42 cassette on Zipp 303 Firecrest carbon wheels.
The third place finisher in the Men’s Open category, Bob Cummings, rode Felt’s road bike that was designed for Paris-Roubaix. Like a number of other riders he opted to use aero bars.
The Panaracer tires on American Classic wheels are a tight squeeze in the Felt road frame.
Both Yuri Hauswald (2015 DK200 winner) and Dan Hughes (four-time Dirty Kanza 200 winner and 2014 Gravel Worlds Champion) both had custom paint jobs done up in time for Gravel Worlds. Yuri’s Marin Cortina had a Godzilla theme going, while Dan’s Specialized Cruz had the adversarial Mothra motif.
Yuri Hauswald’s Marin Cortina features a similar setup he used to win this year’s Dirty Kanza 200. A recent power meter convert, Hauswald runs a Quarq in the races to help with pacing and to collect data to help with his future training strategy.
Hauswald raced on a pair of prototype tubeless Clement X’Plor MSO tires. Clement has been the most popular tires used in gravel events, but up until now haven’t been available in tubeless versions. It seems that the wait is nearly over.
If there were such things as rock stars of gravel racing, Dan Hughes would be the Ozzy Osbourne of the bunch. Not only did he help Specialized develop some gravel-worthy accoutrements into the Crux, such as a SWAT box storage system and third water bottle cage mount, he even gets a one-off paint job that’s emblazoned with his gravel conquests on the top tube and seat tube.
The SWAT box design is similar to what Specialized uses on some of their mountain bikes, and ends up being a rather handy storage solution.

Look for the complete Gravel Worlds story in an upcoming issue of Road Bike Action. For more information on Gravel Worlds go to


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