About seven years ago, I started a healthy and lively group conversation with many elite racers and event directors in gravel. I was concerned with the cheating and bad karma that was oozing into the sport as more elite athletes came to the stage, and I felt compelled to protect what I had come to love. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to see gravel become a cookie-cutter template of traditional road racing. I’m not bagging on road racing, but that style of riding and racing already exists. If that’s your jam, then keep road racing.
Our gravel racing discussion included many emails and various opinions on things like drafting, prize money, and water bottle hand-ups. It was clear that each event was unique, and we all wanted to maintain the unstructured character. We didn’t want rules or sanctions, but we did want ethics. We wanted fair play, fun, and freedom. Based on these conversations, I took everyone’s input and wrote up the 10 Commandments of Gravel, also called The Rough Road Code. I didn't ultimately publish these, because “commandments” felt heavy handed, and who was I to say what the code of ethics should be for all gravel events? We all agreed we didn’t want standardized rules for this genre of riding. So I let the conversation drop.
A couple of years later, a first-grader friend of mine, Anna, provided the answer for RPI and for my own racing ethic on gravel. Anna told me about their SHARK rules at her school and what the letters stood for. How we should behave as athletes in gravel races is what we learned (and perhaps forgot) from first grade, and it's really quite simple. So here are my gravel SHARK ethics (adapted from Anna’s SHARK rules). This is how I operate myself for my event, and I share this with any rider entering this genre of riding. Feel free to apply these to your everyday life, too! They're kind of universal.
S: Safe. We race on open roads and sometimes in big groups. Be safe and live to ride another day. This includes staying in your lane, obeying the rules of the road, keeping your ears and eyes open, and maybe even slowing down if a cow happens to wander across the race course. It happens.
H: Honest. If you have to ask yourself “Is this okay?” then it’s not. This includes course cutting, taking aid on course, doping, and any other form of cheating.
A: Accountable. Your actions are a reflection of you and our community of cyclists. Own your behavior and behave as an honored guest, because you are.
R: Responsible. Take care of yourself. Bring a tool, tube, water, food, and a map. Courses are remote and rugged. Take responsibility for yourself. If you don’t end up needing that stuff, you can share it with someone who might.
K: Kind. We are all part of the same bike-riding tribe. Let’s treat each other -- the volunteers, the staff, the residents, everyone -- the same way we want to be treated.
Here’s the thing about these ethics. The community is the judge and jury. It's up to all racers, event directors, participants, and sponsors to shine a light on and enforce the ethics of gravel racing. Each event may have different rules for drafting, dropping bottles on course, or where you can take aid. No matter what the rules of the specific event are, SHARK still applies, and it’s up to us to uphold them.