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The SEVEN gravel race in Nannup is no stranger to trying something new, it was after all one of the early gravel events on the Australian scene when it started in 2018 and now the race is reaping the rewards of another leap into the unknown.
Last year when close to 1000 riders lined up to taste the gravel gold of the small Western Australian town in the midst of a vast forest and a labyrinth of unpaved roads, few knew what the introduction of a UCI Gravel World Series would mean – although judging by how quick the Western Australian event was to get on board they clearly had an inkling.
Now in 2023 the race is heading toward its biggest field ever, with the strength of the May 13 event being bolstered by the introduction of high profile participants such as Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) and Nicolas Roche. It can also boast a returning defending champion, Adam Blazevic, who is now a regular among the top rows of the results tables at Gravel World Series races.
The series itself has also got bigger, with seven new events, and instead of being the second round as it was in 2022, Nannup is now the fifth of 16 races that will act as qualifiers for the 2023 UCI Gravel World Championships, and there is also another round late in October, which will open up the list of 2024 qualifiers.
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The fields also seem to be growing across the series and the number of dedicated gravel teams are on the rise, with the Alejandro Valverde lead Movistar a key example.
“That’s going to continue to develop … and we feel like we’ve been part of that journey right from the start,” SEVEN race director Stephen Gallagher told Cyclingnews. “Being part of that new foray into gravel with the UCI series I hope that our growth continues along with the growth of the series.”
They seem to be on the right track to do just that, as not only has the event secured its place in the series for the coming years, but the news also came late last year that it is also locked in as the location of the UCI Gravel World Championships in 2026. That in itself is expected to draw more and more riders as the rainbow jersey gets close, but already the international spotlight is building intensity, with riders from across the globe set to line up in Nannup on Saturday and already four times as many international participants on the start list.
Readying for a gravel gold rush
Even well before race day, the gravel roads around Nannup have been teaming with hundreds of cyclists on the weekend, some training for SEVEN – or perhaps the shorter FIVE and THREE – and other’s just enjoying exploring the myriad of gravel choices on offer.
“The benefit that we have is that Nannup and Western Australia is so isolated and we have so many thousands of kilometres of pure gravel,” said Gallagher.
“We haven’t even touched on you know a fifth of what we could do. There’s so many options out there, it’s just mind boggling so I think there’s a lure of that for the adventure cyclist or adventure tourist.”
And of course, the gravel racer. With SEVEN having on hand a wide pallet it’s no surprise that there have been a few tweaks to the route this year. There also could be more in the editions ahead as the course is refined, for the benefit of spectators and riders alike, before the World Championships in 2026.
“The ethos and the general location of the course is still the same, along with the iconic climbs, but we do have quite subtle changes coming into the finish line,” said Gallagher of the 2023 route.
”We have got two climbs from about 15 kilometres to ten kilometres to go so I think they’re going to play a big part in the finale for the frontrunners.”
The route that emanates from and returns to Nannup, about 250km south of Perth, includes only the smallest whiff of paved road, just a handful of kilometres in a 125km race with 3,200m of vertical ascent.
Riders will mostly encounter well-formed roads with a mix of dirt, gravel, hard-packed clay, quartz grit and mica as the race winds through the seven sectors that gave it its name.
Those sectors include 12 categorised climbs. The ascents range in length from 1.2km to 4.5km long and gradients frequently touch, or even exceed, 20%. As well as the two climbs from ten to 15kms from the line, there is a more challenging final run in to Nannup – a name that stemmed from a word in the Noongar people’s language meaning stopping place.
“There is a little bit of uphill coming in to the finish, in through a wee bit of gravel, so that last 300/400m is definitely harder than last year,” said Gallagher.
The riders that could well be battling for supremacy on that finish line this year include Tiffany Cromwell, with the WorldTour rider who is no stranger to a gravel diversion making Nannup her opening Gravel World Series race of the season. Cromwell finished sixth in the UCI Gravel World Championships in Veneto, Italy last year and will be tough to beat, particularly with the winner of the last three editions, Maria Madigan, not on the start line.
In the men’s category it is hard to go past defending champion Adam Blazevic as the favourite, particularly given he has never done anything but stand on the top step at an Australian round of a Gravel World Series race as he also swept to victory in Beechworth last year. It’s the opening gravel race of the season for Blazevic, but this year he will certainly be a marked rider not easily allowed the leeway he was given in 2022.
Tasman Nankervis, who has signed up for Lifetime Grand Prix series this year, is one Australian rider who will likely be keen to challenge and set out on his very gravel focussed season with a UCI win under the belt, while last year’s third placed finisher Matthew Bird is also expected to be on the start line and chasing the podium again.
Former Irish professional Nicolas Roche will also be heading out with his NR Gravel team and is sure to be closely watched no matter where he is in the field, though if the jetlag and quick turnaround from the Blaavand Gravel World Series Race in Denmark the week before don’t weigh too heavily, that’s likely to be right up at the pointy end of the race.