Why Haley Hunter Smith chose gravel

Three years ago, gravel racing became Haley Hunter Smith's mission and escape

Haley Hunter Smith first raced Unbound Gravel in 2022 as a contractual obligation to her former team. The race was a revelation. She discovered a side of the sport that she had never seen, one that was more communal. More spiritually fulfilling.

“I didn’t know it at the very beginning, but I quickly found out that gravel is pretty cool because you are friends with the people you’re racing with,” Smith said. “You’re not just competitors, because for events this big, you need each other to get through them. You won’t win, let alone finish, on your own. You need other people.”

With a fresh Trek bike and fresh MAAP kit, Haley is ready for Mid South.

The race set in motion the next chapter in Smith’s career. She finished sixth at that first-ever Unbound, and discovered a personal calling in gravel’s intrinsic challenge and exploration. 

To that point, Smith’s career had mostly centered on cross country mountain bike racing. Smith is a two-time Canadian national champion, most recently winning the 2023 XC marathon title, as well as taking second place at the XC Marathon World Cup event in Snowshoe. But gravel’s culture spoke to her on a deeper level, and the results have followed. In 2023, Smith’s first full year of gravel racing, she finished third overall on the Lifetime Grand Prix standings, with podiums at Sea Otter and Crusher in the Tushar, and a win at Belgian Waffle Ride British Columbia.

It's Checkpoint season.

When Trek approached her about riding for the Driftless program beginning in 2024, she said she couldn’t believe it. She means that literally. 

“I thought it was a catfishing email,” Smith laughed. “Like I went outside and I showed my partner and I was like, ‘There’s no way this is real. I’m sure someone is screwing with me here.'”

Trek’s offer was very real, but Smith wasn’t sure she wanted to accept at first. She had built up a strong relationship with her previous team, where her husband was a teammate. But Smith did extensive research on Trek, and was impressed by how seriously the company took its relationships with athletes.

"Everyone I talked to said that their relationships were really positive with everyone behind the Trek program. So that really sold me on it."

Another former teammate, Gwendalyn Gibson, had recently joined Trek Factory Racing-Pirelli XC, and reassured Smith that she would be well taken care of at The Bicycle Company. In fact, Gibson gave Smith’s contact information to Trek.

“I was like, ‘Do you know who this person is? Is this email real?’ And [Gwendalyn] was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I gave them your email,'” Smith said. “So I started to chat with her and I just wanted to know if she felt negative pressure, and if she was happy. And her answers were, ‘No, I feel supported. And I feel encouraged. And I love the team.’

“Everyone I talked to said that their relationships were really positive with everyone behind the Trek program. So that really sold me on it. And I mean, it’s kind of a once in a lifetime thing to be associated with Trek, with this brand.”

Haley's full race rig.

With Trek, Smith not only feels she has the support and resources to succeed, but she will also have a greater platform to highlight topics that are important to her. She has called cycling her “medicine” for how the sport has helped her improve her mental health. She wants to share her knowledge of those benefits as widely as she can.

“I think it’s a really powerful tool that can be used by people in the same circumstances, but also for people who don’t have a formal diagnosis, and don’t know how to cope, or could cope better,” Smith said. “That’s kind of what I’ve always tried to use the bike for, is to share how it can support wellness and mental health.”

Haley in action.

Outside of racing, Smith is completing a masters in science on how physical activity, including cycling, can aid child development. Through her research, she has found pervasive evidence for the positive aspects of cycling she has experienced firsthand. For example, her research suggests that cycling strengthens the bonds between children and their parents when they participate together. 

Smith conducts interviews as part of her research, and has consistently found gravel riding to be unique within the cycling ecosystem. In her view, it satisfies three basic needs for human happiness particularly well: 1) A sense of freedom and autonomy, 2) Connection to one’s community and environment, and 3) The need to challenge oneself and grow.

“Those three things really, really powerfully impact mental health,” Smith said. “And I think they’re present in gravel in a unique way that is not as naturally present in all other disciplines. And then on top of that, you have the aspect of the meditative nature of gravel. Solo experiences in the wilderness for long periods of time really teaches you how to be present and comfortable with yourself.”

Smith is good, and getting better, at appreciating the intrinsic aspects of her sport. One of her favorite races is Belgian Waffle Ride British Columbia, which takes place on Vancouver Island. The racing can be fierce there, yes, but the scenery and atmosphere make the event special.

Driftless' brand new riders -- Torbjørn Andre Røed (left), Haley (middle) and Russell Finsterwald (Right) -- getting ready for Mid South.

“It was my favorite drop bar race this past year,” Smith said. “The course is incredible. You go on legitimate mountain bike trails — like coastal BC mountain bike trails. The event is just so good.”

The debate over “The Spirit of Gravel” is notoriously never-ending, but in Smith’s mind the matter is settled. It’s exactly the path that Smith has followed since her first foray down the muddy roads of Kansas’ Flint Hills in 2022. Gravel is her mission, her escape, and everything in between. 

“I feel very clear in what the spirit of gravel is because I’ve spent almost a year thinking about this in an academic way. And what we’ve come up with is that gravel can be whatever it needs to be for anyone,” Smith said. “The spirit of gravel is that it’s different for every person.”