Gravel World Champs Was Won… On A Road Bike?

Gianni Vermeersch won the inaugural Gravel World Championships on his road bike - albeit with wider, slightly knobblier tyres.

By Molly Hurford |

The Alpecin-Deceuninck team had a pretty solid weekend, between a win at Gravel World Championships for Gianni Vermeersch and a third place for Mathieu van der Poel; a win at the Memorial Rik Van Steenbergen road race; and a second place at the Waterloo World Cup in Wisconsin. But the real standout was the fact that Vermeersch won the first-ever UCI Gravel World Championships in Italy on his Canyon Ultimate CFR road bike. He’d kitted it out for gravel, of course, but it’s notable that the roadie and cyclocrosser opted for a road bike versus one of Canyon’s stellar gravel options.

SAFFA PRIDE: Toyota Specialized’s gravel specialist Matt Beers finished 17th, the first non-Grand-Tour rider and ahead of myriad World Tour pros. Team Honeycomb‘s Marc Pritzen finished 32nd, spending much of the 190km in the front group of favourites.

The Gravel World Championships were already marred by controversy: Many were annoyed to have the UCI involved in gravel at all, some were perturbed that Worlds wasn’t happening in the US—the home of gravel racing in its modern form, and plenty were pissed that the women’s championship race was 50 kilometers shorter than the men’s race.

But looking past those controversies, we can’t get over the use of a road bike for Vermeersch! The course was arguably well-suited for it, with minimal climbing and dry conditions, and plenty of road interspersed with gravel and cyclocross-y segments. Many riders opted for less knobby tires and more aggressive road gearing because of the course, and for a cyclocrosser and roadie like Vermeersch, who recently podiumed on Stage 19 at the Vuelta, a more roadie setup makes sense since his handling skills are stellar even when the going gets rough.

The Canyon Ultimate CFR might be designed for the road, but it can be equipped for gravel as well. This Canyon Ultimate is currently being put through the road and gravel paces by Bicycling’s gear testers. (Dan Chabanov)Van der Poel made the same choice, riding the Ultimate, which also makes sense for the multi-time cyclocross world champion. While cyclocrossers would be comfortable on a gravel-specific rig, they need less slack and beefy tires to navigate loose corners or awkward climbs.

Vermeersch ran a standard Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 double chainring, which does seem to be coming back in style for gravel racers but is certainly more road-oriented.

BikeRadar noted that Vermeersch really leaned into his cyclocross roots with narrow tires that would *almost* meet UCI specifications for ’cross: Vittoria Terreno Dry tubeless gravel tires that were 33mm in the front, 35mm at the rear. This isn’t a huge surprise: In recent years, as road bikes have shifted to using disc brakes, they’ve increased tire clearance. Even the bikes designed for pro racing have been getting more and more tire clearance: the previous generation of the Canyon Ultimate could clear up to a 36mm tire, while even the most aero Cervelo S5 can clear 34mm tires now. And for someone looking for a road/gravel ‘hybrid,’ the Trek Domane can is technically rated for 38mm but can fit 40mm tires.

Of course, just because the tires are wider doesn’t make the bikes ideal for gravel—but it can make rides much more comfortable, since wider tires equals more comfort.

So, what does this mean for the future of gravel? Will the pros shift back towards road bikes, while the more casual gravel racers embrace wider and wider tires and more suspension? Or does the UCI need to commit to more “US gravel-style” courses for the next World Championships to force the WorldTour pros on the start line onto bikes made for gravel grinding? Only time will tell—but remember, cyclocross started with road bikes utterly ill-equipped for riding around farm fields, so maybe this is the beginning of a beautiful evolution!

READ MORE ON: gravel racing marc pritzen MATT BEERS pro racing world champs world gravel champs

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