Gravel’s big year: Inside the Dirty Kanza’s sale; prize cash in the Rockies; WorldTour participation
It was a cold Tuesday morning in late February 2018, and Kimo Seymour was in Emporia, Kansas, sipping coffee at a cafe. Seymour, the senior vice president at fitness chain giant Life Time Fitness, eavesdropped on four men at an adjacent table. Clad in cowboy hats and ranch wear, the men discussed the town’s cycling gravel race, Dirty Kanza 200.
“They were talking about how it was amazing how many businesses were now staying open all summer that used to shut down,” Seymour said. “Because with Dirty Kanza, [Emporia] has become a mecca for people to come and ride.”
The conversation reminded Seymour of the revitalization of Leadville, Colorado, the former mining town that was transformed by the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, which is owned by his company. The overheard conversation confirmed to Seymour that his trip to Emporia to meet with Dirty Kanza’s ownership was, indeed, a smart move.
Seymour’s trip was an integral part of a months-long negotiation that led to perhaps the biggest moment in gravel cycling’s nascent history. In September, Life Time Fitness purchased Dirty Kanza for an undisclosed sum; the acquisition placed gravel cycling’s marquee event alongside Leadville 100 and Ironman triathlon in the exclusive realm of mass-participant endurance events with mainstream corporate backing.
The news sent shockwaves throughout the gravel cycling community; some saw the acquisition as the end of gravel’s grassroots appeal, while others cheered Dirty Kanza’s step up.
“Obviously for Dirty Kanza, there’s demand from all over the world,” Seymour said about the event, “And we anticipate demand keeps growing.”
And Dirty Kanza’s acquisition was just one of several occurrences that point to 2019 as gravel’s biggest year ever. Gravel cycling will award its first major prize purse this year: Organizers in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, have put $28,000 up for grabs at the new SBT GRVL event. And a number of pro riders are slated to race gravel this year, with WorldTour squads EF Education First and Trek-Segafredo choosing to race Dirty Kanza, and even domestic road teams sending riders to dirt events.
These changes are the latest evolution of a cycling discipline that has grown rapidly thanks to a lack of strict rules or standards. Nothing holds back the imaginations of race organizers or the riders, and maybe that is why gravel racing is only just scratching the surface of its potential to drive cycling forward in North America and beyond.
Inside Dirty Kanza’s sale
The origins of Dirty Kanza’s sale go back to late 2017, when the event’s ownership group, Dirty Kanza Productions, hired Life Time to oversee the event’s timing and registration services. When registration opened in January of that year, all 2,200-plus spots for the 206-mile race sold out in minutes.
Seymour had watched the race’s rapid growth over the years. Only 34 riders participated in the inaugural edition; a decade later the race attracted riders from across the globe.
“[Dirty Kanza] had been on our radar because they have done a great job creating a great experience, a phenomenal brand,” Seymour said. “It might have been even more my personal interest than Life Time’s interest.”
An events management veteran, Seymour had joined Life Time in 2011 after the company purchased his own events company. Since then he had overseen Life Time’s portfolio of endurance events, such as Leadville Trail 100 and the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival. He also helped the company acquire more races; in 2013 he oversaw Life Time’s purchase of the New York City Triathlon.
Seymour believed that each acquired event succeeded when it kept the original owners in place. In Leadville, founder Ken Chlouber still starts the event with a blast from his shotgun. Seymour knew he wanted to keep the owners—Jim Cummins, LeLan Dains, and Kristi Mohn—on board.
“[Participants] don’t want to take a picture with me or someone from Life Time,” Seymour said. “Everybody wants to take a picture with [Leadville founders] Ken and Merilee.”
The first conversations between Seymour and the Dirty Kanza owners were informal. In media reports, Cummins was adamant that his team did not intend to sell the race, while behind the scenes, Seymour and the three owners built a relationship. Dains said he and his co-owners went to great lengths to assess the root of Life Time’s interest.
“This was truly our baby,” Dains said. “We were very protective of it, we were probably guarded in the early conversations.”
After months of discussion, Dains and his co-owners began to feel positive about Life Time’s intentions. The positive sentiment, Dains said, was fueled by interest the trio received from another potential suitor, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), owner of the popular Ironman triathlon events. The three owners felt that the triathlon company’s focus on a robust growth was not aligned with their interests.
“We’ve been very calculated about our growth over the years,” Dains said. “We aren’t interested in a one-year cash grab at a detriment to that experience.”
Seymour was aware that WTC had expressed interest in Dirty Kanza. Although Life Time made an official offer in the spring of 2018, he then stepped back and allowed the team to run its event without pressure from its suitor.
“I heard rumors of other potential [buyers] so I thought, ‘If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be,’” Seymour said. “It needed to feel good for us and to feel good for them.”
Seymour attended the 2018 edition of Dirty Kanza to see the race in person, and he came away impressed. Similarly, Dains, Mohn, and Cummins went to see Life Time’s events in person. A trip to the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 MTB helped convince them to sell. For Cummins, cash donations made by Life Time and the Leadville Trail Foundation to local charities was the deciding factor.
“I was quite impressed by the event, but I was even more impressed with the way the event supports the community,” Cummins said. “Man, if they could just do a fraction of that for Emporia, what a wonderful thing that’d be.”
Dains said the trip dispelled the rumors he had heard that corporate ownership ruins grassroots events like Dirty Kanza.
“We didn’t see any evidence that Life Time had ruined [Leadville],” Dains said. “We got to meet with Ken [Chlouber] and he reiterated time and time again that it was the best thing he could do for his event and the community.”
The sale was finalized in September, and the news broke during the Interbike trade show. Both parties declined to divulge the final price, however sources familiar with the event pegged it in the low seven figures.
Under Life Time’s ownership Dains, Cummins, and Mohn retain directional control, while Life Time takes over the event’s nuts-and-bolts operations, like accounting and registration. The event slots into Life Time’s portfolio of events, making it one of the world’s premier endurance brands, with running, triathlon, and cycling races.
News of the sale quickly spread throughout the gravel community. Dirty Kanza is the biggest event in a growing collection of participant-driven gravel races across the country. Many gravel organizers take pride in the format’s grassroots scene. Yet organizers told VeloNews that they understood Dirty Kanza Productions’s decision to sell, even if they had some misgivings about the decision.
Bobby Wintle, promoter of the Land Run 100 gravel race in Oklahoma, said he was initially turned off by the sale.
“There’s a little bit of a punk rock, don’t die, DIY feel that I want to stay inside this world of gravel that we all together have created,” Wintle said. “I wasn’t excited about that mere fact that the direction and the movement of gravel itself could potentially be in the hands of a corporation now and not someone who lived and breathed it and was in the mix of it.”
Wintle said he called the Dirty Kanza owners to congratulate them on the sale. The more he spoke to the race directors about the sale, Wintle said, his opinion shifted.
“They’ve been in business twice as long as my event,” Wintle said. “I’ve never had an offer on the table like that. I respect their decision, and I’m very, very proud of them.”
Prize cash in the Rockies
While Wintle and the Dirty Kanza team diverge on the question of ownership, their events have one major thing in common: Neither race awards prize money to top finishers. For years, gravel events have rarely awarded cash, a byproduct of the grassroots culture.
“Each time we have looked at the topic of prize money, we have come away with the same conclusion,” Cummins said. “That is not what we feel that our riders are looking for.”
That iconoclastic attitude was turned on its head this past fall when organizers in the Colorado ski town of Steamboat Springs launched an event, called SBT GRVL, for 2019. One of the race’s big selling points was a $28,000 prize purse for top finishers in the 140-mile race. The race sold out its 1,000 spots in a matter of days in December.
Mark Satkiewicz, who started the race with Amy Charity and Ken Benesh, believes the prize purse helped promote the event to elite riders.
“It brings some more dialogue about who might show up,” Satkiewicz said. “We’ve already got a long list of riders who might come.”
Indeed, the prize purse is a sizable payout. By contrast, the total prize purse at the Redlands Bicycle Classic professional road race—for the overall, stage winners, and even jersey winners—is just over $20,000.
The big purse, however, has spurred a debate in the gravel community about the role of prize money. Purists say big paydays shift an event’s focus to potential winners, rather than on the mid-pack finishers. Others believe the prize money is simply the latest evolution and a way to reinvest in riders who are dedicated to racing.
Mark Stevenson started one of the original gravel races, Trans-Iowa, in 2005. The 330-plus-mile event didn’t charge an entry fee, required riders to navigate using cue sheets, and certainly didn’t offer a prize purse. He is wary of the pitfalls of a big prize purse at a race like SBT GRVL.
“Anytime you start putting a big carrot out there you start running into people who will cheat to get it,” he said, noting that even Trans-Iowa saw riders cheating to finish an event that awarded nothing but bragging rights.
But prize cash helps some elite racers choose their events. Mat Stephens, winner of the 2017 Dirty Kanza, said prize cash helps him offset the cost of racing.
“It’s a huge draw when you’re trying to figure out how to pay for your trip,” he said. “When you go to 10 or 20 events a year, you’re picking events based on a sponsor calendar and how you’re going to pay for your trip.”
Stephens said the majority of gravel events do not offer cash prizes; he estimated only 30 percent or so do. Bigger races such as Dirty Kanza carry enough prestige to make money irrelevant. Smaller races that are looking for attention lack the budget for cash. Mid-level races, however, pay out to draw a bigger, more competitive crowd—and riders like Stephens.
Stephens said cash prizes often shift the dynamics within a race.
“If you’re at a race that doesn’t pay out, guys are more willing to pull through, share equal work, and let the race play out,” Stephens said. “If you’re at a money race, guys will do whatever they can, however they want to sneak by, sit at the back, or do nothing.”
Whether other gravel events adopt prize cash is yet to be seen. SBT GRVL has already attracted an impressive lineup for its first edition: cyclocrosser Jamey Driscoll, pro mountain bikers Payson McElveen and Rose Grant, as well as two-time Dirty Kanza winner Ted King will all attend. These riders chose the event despite its calendar conflict with another marquee gravel event, the unofficial “Gravel World Championships” race in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Gravel Worlds organizer Corey Godfrey said he was not upset by SBT GRVL’s conflicting date. He thinks his race’s lower entry fee and grassroots feel will still attract a healthy field. Elite riders, however, may have to choose.
“We had a few people contact us, and they were pretty bummed,” Godfrey said. “It creates a tough decision for them, especially at the pointy end of the race.”
Not all riders see prize cash as a major draw, however. Alison Tetrick, the 2017 Dirty Kanza champion, said she still chooses races based on experience rather than money. Tetrick said she raced the 2018 Crusher in the Tushar race not knowing that it awarded prize money.
“I just wanted to ride [Crusher in the Tushar], and when I got a check I was like ‘Huh,’” Tetrick said. “I don’t really notice a difference [with prize money].”
Tetrick won the gravel world championships race in 2017 and repeated her victory in 2018. In 2019, however, Tetrick has decided to race in Colorado.
WorldTour goes gravel
SBT GRVL’s announcement came just weeks after the gravel world saw another major development for the coming season. In October, WorldTour team EF Education First announced a partnership with apparel company Rapha that would see its riders ride in mass-participant “alternative” races in 2019. In January, the team said that Dirty Kanza was on their list, along with Leadville Trail 100 MTB, Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross in England, and the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
According to team CEO Jonathan Vaughters, the team had wanted to send its riders to more participant-driven events for years. In 2016 rider Joe Dombrowski raced the Leadville Trail 100 and finished second overall. The partnership with Rapha simply gave EF the motivation to send more riders to these events.
“We were historically dipping our toe in this a couple years ago,” Vaughters said. “Rapha decided we were maybe the correct team for them to sponsor because we were doing that.”
Yet unlike Dombrowski’s Leadville attempt, EF does not want its riders to race to win at these events, Vaughters said. Instead, the goal at Dirty Kanza is to “be there and be part of the cycling community.”
“After the race, they’ll have a couple beers with everyone else at the event,” Vaughters said. “Trying to win is not the point.”
EF plans to send Taylor Phinney, Alex Howes, and Lachlan Morton to Dirty Kanza. There will be no team busses or army of mechanics; instead the squad will send minimal resources to assist the riders.
“Paris-Roubaix is the event for [Taylor Phinney] to try and win, to be cutthroat, focused, and precise, but Dirty Kanza is an event for him to have fun and be relatable and get out and enjoy the scene,” Vaughters said.
Even if EF riders are not riding to win, their pure cycling talent should make them competitive. Two-time Dirty Kanza winner Ted King expects the EF riders to excel at the event due to its unique physiological requirements.
“I think it’ll be really fascinating because I think it is like bringing a gun to a knife fight from a physiological standpoint,” King said.
Despite EF’s modest performance goals at the Dirty Kanza, the team’s decision to race marks another turning point for gravel. While retired pro road riders have competed in the event—King, Tetrick, and Dirty Kanza’s recent runner-up Joshua Berry all had pro careers—UCI-registered pro teams have never sent riders to the race to compete.
And EF riders will not be alone at the 2019 edition. Trek-Segafredo will send Kiel Reijnen and Peter Stetina, and the Aevolo U23 road team is sending Gage Hecht, Lance Haidet, and Cade Bickmore. Floyd’s Pro Cycling will have Noah Granigan participate in the 200-mile race as well.
Stetina, Reijnen and EF’s Alex Howes all told VeloNews that they would race to win at Dirty Kanza 200—and soak in the fun atmosphere of the gravel event.
“My number one objective is to have a good time out there, but it’s not like we’re going to race with the brakes on the whole time,” Howes said. “I’d like to win.”
As pro teams opt to participate in gravel events, the North American professional road scene fights for survival. Vaughters and others wonder if mass-participant events like Dirty Kanza offer a better way for sponsors to reach American cycling fans. In years past, pro teams relied on media impressions from races to pay back sponsors. At participant-driven events, however, riders can interact one-on-one with fans.
“Events outside of Europe need to move toward this mass-start model where the pros mix with the amateurs,” Vaughters said. “It’s a big philosophical shift but I’ve had this feeling for a while.”
Mohn said she and her co-owners at Dirty Kanza were flattered by EF’s decision to race the 2019 event. The inclusion will bring more media to the race. Still, Mohn said the race’s age-group participants are the focal point of the event.
“The stories that we get from what people would say in the back or middle of the pack are always what inspire us so much more,” Mohn said. “Those are the stories that inspire us to keep doing what we’re doing, not some big pro coming to race the event.”
The 2019 gravel season will not look drastically different from seasons past; Dirty Kanza should generate more international media than in recent years, and SBT GRVL could become a must-do event on the North American calendar. Yet the changes of 2019 could point gravel onto a pathway toward a completely different future, one of regular professional participation, international media attention, and big payouts. Decades from now, could gravel become the dominant form of both professional and amateur cycling in the United States?
Whether or not that day comes, gravel purists believe the racing format will thrive—and retain its heart and soul—if organizers continue to focus their efforts on thousands of riders who show up each year to participate.
“Gravel has opened up the possibility of this huge window of participants, and also people making a lifestyle change into this realm of cycling that is absolutely, without a doubt, more accepting and less intimidating,” Wintle said. “We are potentially getting people on bikes that wouldn’t have otherwise.”