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Gravel bike racing focuses on diversity and inclusion and its popularity soars


Gravel racing has exploded in popularity. The bike race organizers have prioritized diversity and inclusion in ways other sports have not. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Steamboat Springs, Colo.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Marley Blonsky co-founded an advocacy group called All Bodies on Bikes.

MARLEY BLONSKY: I'm a fat, short woman.

PRICE: She was about to climb on her bike to lead a warm-up ride here Saturday for some of the more than 3,000 riders who lined up the next day for SBT GRVL, one of the biggest gravel races in the world.

BLONSKY: 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.

PRICE: SBT has four courses - the longest, 142 miles. Riders roll cross-country, past ranches, through cow pastures and along streams. Here, as in most gravel races, competitors from pros to beginners start together. Major gravel races often have warm-up rides like Blonsky's called shakeouts. Among those at SBT, one celebrated women, trans, femme and nonbinary riders, and another promoted racial justice. Amy Charity is the race's co-founder and owner and says everyone's welcome.

AMY CHARITY: 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. We want you to feel welcome and like you belong.

PRICE: This is just the third year for SBT. This time, it's added classes for nonbinary riders and paracyclists. From its beginning, the organizers reached out to women, and about a thousand signed up this time. Other major gravel races also emphasize diversity and inclusion. Molly Cameron is a top transgender racer, a sponsored pro and a consultant to bike industry companies.

MOLLY CAMERON: If you're 2- or 300-pound fat cyclist and you go do, like, a skinny bike race or criterium, you can feel like this isn't the place for you because you don't see anyone that looks like you out there on the racecourse racing. You come do a gravel event and you look around, and you're like, there's 40 other fat cyclists and men and women and queers and nonbinary folk. And like, here at SBT is a ride for racial justice.

PRICE: Black riders have long been rare in bike racing, but more 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 after her husband's recent death. She's an amateur state champion racing on pavement but says gravel is about things that matter more than race results.

LISSA MUHAMMAD: With gravel, I can just kind of stop time and just really soak it in, soak in the sound of the wind blowing, the birds chirping, the sun beating down on my face.

PRICE: And the people in the sport make her feel welcome.

MUHAMMAD: I think it's taken a while for road to really accept athletes of color, where gravel is come as you are, and we're going to have fun. We're not going to take ourselves so seriously, and we're going to enjoy the ride.

PRICE: Top men's pro Ian Boswell says when it comes to gravel, inclusion should mean pretty much everyone.

IAN BOSWELL: Traditionally, in sport we've defined it by who's the best, who's the fastest. And we have this opportunity now to define that in a different way.

PRICE: So Sunday, he tried something besides being the fastest. With the blessing of his sponsors, 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.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.