Sophie de Boer recently retired from a 15-year career in pro road and cyclo-cross and has found a new love of gravel racing while enjoying the discipline’s relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
Gravel racing could become more, in the future, as she contemplates making a second career out of the popular off-road discipline that is growing, changing and creating new opportunities for athletes.
De Boer reflects on similarities between the growth of cyclo-cross and gravel, and how the two disciplines have flourished over the years. In an interview with Cycling News, she says she believes that gravel racing is experiencing some of the same growing pains that cyclo-cross did 15 years ago.
Despite the frequent hot-topic discussions on gravel’s ability to hold onto its roots and spirit as it becomes more professional, De Boer says she understands the concern that some traditional aspects of the sport could be lost but says that “not all change is bad.”
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Sophie de Boer: Basically, I live the life of an 80-year-old. I spend a lot of time in my garden. I do some gravel races, but when I stopped cyclo-cross racing last winter, I gathered the team around me, and my sponsors asked if I would be competing in the gravel events. I decided I needed a break from cyclo-cross and announced it as my retirement. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do the gravel races, but I spoke with the people around me who supported the idea of doing gravel racing, even just for fun.
I made a small programme, and I didn’t want to do it professionally because I had never done gravel before and still had problems with my back, so I decided to stop earlier than expected. My back problems are gone, and I’ve done my first gravel race.
I like the experiment of doing new things on the bike and exploring new disciplines and places. I see myself doing this more professionally in the future.
I had been in professional cycling for 15 years and always loved it, but I also found it quite hard. I’m enjoying some time off my bike to see my friends.
SdB: The first race I did was called the Traka [in Spain -ed.]. I didn’t know what to expect. At the start line, I decided that I wanted to have fun with no stress or pressure. It was 200 kilometres, the first time I’d ridden that far. I never did 200 kilometres on gravel, and I had no idea what average I would ride and how many hours it would be on the bike.
When we started, it was a race, and I thought, ‘are we going to race 200k?’ We did. It was insane, and I died 10 times on the bike; it was so hard. It was also a lot of fun, and I managed to get in the front group, and after 120 kilometres, I was the leading woman. I was riding in a group with men, and we were pushing. At 185 kilometres, we descended, and I went too hard and broke my wheel on a rock, and that was the end of the race for me.
I was in the middle of nowhere, and the battery on my phone was almost dead. Luckily, we had two friends, and one had a Jeep. I texted him my location to track me with my GPS device. I waited for an hour and finally saw his car. I was happy that he found me. It’s not entirely in the middle of nowhere, but it was on the road far from a village.
SdB: No, the first thought was that I would never do this again. I did 185 kilometres and seven hours in the end, so I didn’t get to finish. It was so hard, and I didn’t expect it. I have already registered for the other events, which are already on the plan. After a week, I decided it was cool, and I wanted to continue with it.
SdB: I’ll be doing Migration Gravel Race, The Rift and Basajaun.
I’m very excited to go to Kenya. It will be quite extreme, with four days of 150 to 170 kilometres of gravel and 2,000 metres of altitude each day. I’m very excited, although I don’t know what to expect. I was used to doing 45-minute competitions, and now these riders are between six to nine hours a day on the bike. It’s entirely new for me.
It will be a race, and The Rift will also be a race with a bigger field.
SdB: One of my sponsors, Pas Normal Studios, also sponsors the Basajaun event. I’ve dived into learning more about it. It’s more like a bike-packing event, and we start on July 30 early in the morning, with 250 people, and we ride through the Basque Country. You have to complete 750 kilometres on gravel and 15,000 metres of altitude. You have to be back before August 4.
They give you the route, and you can do it as a race. Some people race this event and sleep for like three or four hours, but I’m not planning on doing that because I need my sleep.
SdB: I was hoping to do Unbound because I wanted to do a race with that many riders. I couldn’t go because I had COVID-19. These are the biggest races in gravel and on the biggest stage, and so I hope to be able to experience them. That way, I can decide better if I want to continue doing this. Right now, I’m just discovering gravel and enjoying a normal life.
I have some support, and I think I can call myself semi-pro. This year is perfect for me, and I’m only thinking about giving myself time to discover and explore whether I want to continue with this and make it professional again.
SdB: No, it’s different from the US events. It’s much smaller. However, Ivar Slik won the Traka and Unbound, so I think some good riders are doing these races in Europe, too.
The new UCI gravel races are mainly in Europe, and these races will be different from the US gravel races. The UCI events are only on 40 kilometres of gravel and seem more similar to road cycling. It’s getting bigger in Europe, and there are some high-level road racers competing in the bigger events.
I have in mind to race a few UCI gravel events that are easy for me to attend. However, I want to focus on the Migration Gravel Race, The Rift and Basajaun. It takes some time to prepare for this and get some financial support for these events. My calendar is small now, but I am willing to add some of the UCI events.
SdB: It’s hard to answer. I’m in a weird period in my career, unsure of what I want to do next. I haven’t been thinking about this a lot, but I’m just experiencing gravel and giving myself some time to figure it out. It does cross my mind that I believe there is a big potential for gravel racing.
The initial idea of gravel racing was to be in a relaxed environment and not too professional. However, when you start thinking about going to a World Championship with qualifiers and UCI races, you are automatically making the sport more professional. Then there is more money involved, which changes the feeling a little bit. So, I don’t know.
What attracted me to gravel was that it was a bunch of people who wanted to have fun and ride their bikes together. However, I’ve always been competitive and like big races. I also like to have big goals in mind, so it is nice to have bigger races, even in Europe. I don’t see myself going to the USA for long periods. I would love to do some races in the US, but not to live there for six or seven months.
SdB: It is a bit strange that we all race together. However, I liked racing together at the Traka. I started at the front and my boyfriend at the back, which was a lot of fun. However, it is a bit strange that at specific points, women could have a group around them [of men riders]. I can say that it makes a huge difference if you can sit in on wheels while the men ride 40 kilometres per hour versus riding alone; it makes a huge difference. That is not fair. However, is it then the idea that you need to create a new category for the 40 women that were racing? Gravel started as a way to go out and have fun, but I think that the sport’s regulations will become more defined in the coming years. I don’t have a clear opinion because, right now, I’m doing it for fun.
However, when I took into consideration all the hard work that I put into racing cyclo-cross professionally, I could not imagine that I would start a race based on luck. I would have felt that it was not fair. I understand that if the gravel races are professional and the racers are professional, and if you’ve trained hard, it would feel strange if other women lined up with the advantage of a professional team of men helping them.
If you want to do sports professionally and do them well, you need money, and when there is money involved, there are also expectations, and you want to meet these expectations, which creates pressure. You would like to get the most out of it and have the feeling that it’s fair.
SdB: In the future, gravel can be a huge success and grow into a really big discipline in cycling. I love doing it and would encourage all cyclists to do it, too. But it is going to change the sport enormously. It is already a discussion on its own, whether it is a nice thing that this sport changes. Some will say, ‘no,’ and others will think that it is cool that the sport is getting more professional and giving people a chance at a career.
I’ve seen this happen in cyclo-cross. Fifteen years ago, cyclo-cross was completely different than it is now. It’s what will happen when a sport gets more professional. All the discussion on rules; separating men and women’s fields, using aero bars, and distances of events. Also, if you are signing up for the Life Time series, the calendars don’t give you much space to travel to Europe to do the UCI series. If you want to do a proper World Championship, and you need to qualify through the UCI races, there needs to be an opportunity for people to travel to them.
SdB: I experienced this from professional cycling, and the less fun part of professional cycling is that the environment doesn’t always mean that it’s more friendly. When the level is so high, athletes are focused on themselves, and I was the same way too, so I don’t judge it. That was one of the things that attracted me to gravel – how nice was it that after the race, you could have a beer and a chat with the people you raced. It happens a little bit in cyclo-cross, but most of the time, you jump in and out of your camper to do the race, with little contact with competitors. The thought of everyone racing together and having fun is what I like about gravel.
However, the change to professional gravel has already started. In the coming years, it will only get more professional, and there will be more races, more money, and more rules. If it’s good or not, I don’t know, but it also creates a lot of opportunities for people to get a chance to do this professionally.
The advantage of gravel – and the difference between cyclo-cross and gravel – is that cyclo-cross bikes aren’t the kinds of bikes many people will want to buy. There is a huge consumer market behind gravel bikes and products, and that is exciting for brands to jump into this discipline.
Right now, we can all line up together, and it is so cool that you can line up with riders like Peter Sagan, Tiffany Cromwell and her boyfriend, Valtteri Bottas; how insane is that? It’s so cool.
However, my perspective is that this will all change. The change has already started, but perhaps there will still be some big US events that keep their [traditions] while the UCI events will become professional racing.
Not all change is bad. The professionalism of cyclo-cross improved the sport tremendously. It also created a place for women to get into pro cycling and opportunities – I’m a fan of that.