The wild-west freewheeling world of gravel racing is changing, soon amateurs will not have the opportunity to rub elbows with pro/elite riders on the start line or out on the course. Just like road cycling, the sport is becoming more elitist and moving away from its grassroots beginnings.

The 17th Unbound Gravel race on 3 June 2023, one of the world’s largest gravel events, is leading the way and changing its mass-start format, while also adding rules to a sport that traditionally has scant few.

Pro/elite and amateur fields at the start line of the 200-mile race will now be separated. This year, pro/elite men will start first, followed by pro/elite women in two minutes and then the remaining 3800 amateur participants will start the traditional chaotic rollout eight minutes later.

Organizer Kimo Seymour of Life Time Events told Velonews that the changes were made for “safety reasons.”

“We figured we need to do some things to start making it safer. We don’t want more rules, but we’re open to rules that will help make things safer.”

Those new rules for 2023 also ban aero bars, but just for the elite men’s and women’s fields – i.e. riders with the best bike handling skills. The other 3800 amateur riders with a wide variety of experience and skills are free to use aero bars, often viewed as much more dangerous for group riding on any surface, let alone on bumpy loose gravel.

But from a business perspective allowing mass start amateur riders to continue using aero bars will likely help attract and retain participants, while generating more profit for the organizer – which is the goal of every organizer.

As Life Time adds more rules and tinkers with the traditional grassroots gravel race format, expect other organizers to follow suite and add unique rules to their individual events.

Plus, the gravel world is eagerly waiting for the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for competitive cycling, to rollout a rulebook specifically for gravel events in 2023 that will try to set a standard format and platform for worldwide gravel competitions.

Hang on, the battle for corporate control of the gravel world is just beginning. Unfortunately, the heart and soul of the sport, grassroots gravel events, may end up being crushed or swallowed by large bureaucratic corporations intent on controlling the sport and its revenue potential.

Photos: D. Leiker