What happens when your biggest race of the season is called off?
To an amateur racer, the answer may involve a six-pack of beer or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. For the few pros who earn a living in the nascent gravel racing scene, the scenario is more complicated. And it’s one that all gravel pros must now navigate that gravel cycling’s proverbial Super Bowl, the DK (formerly called Dirty Kanza), has been canceled.
“As a privateer, I think the need and importance to stay diversified has become as important as ever,” said two-time DK champion Ted King. “Maybe you have a podcast, a video series, virtual events — you do stuff beyond racing your bike. You need to stay engaged because the concept of a pro gravel racer is still nebulous at this point.”
Privateer gravel pros like King inhabit an evolving professional space that combines the performance requirements of a professional athlete with the media obligations of an Instagram influencer or fashion model.
The concept of a ‘gravel pro’ has only existed for a season or two, and the few riders who are paid to race their bikes must in fact wear multiple hats. Companies pay them to attend events and win races, and also to produce photography projects and videos, and promote products on social media.
So, with DK canceled, and other gravel events likely to be called off, sponsors have asked — or demanded — gravel pros to focus more on media and less on competition. That has put pressure on gravel pros to create solo challenges, as well as creative media projects, to showcase their backers.
Amanda Nauman said one of her sponsors approached her soon after the DK postponed its original May 30 date and asked her to pivot her efforts into creating media and other events.
“With these events getting canceled, their budget was threatened to be cut from higher up, with the argument that with no athletes going to races, why are we paying them?” Nauman said. “It wasn’t a threat, but rather saying, ‘What can you do instead of racing?'”
Nauman pursued media projects throughout the spring to make up for the lost exposure after the racing shutdown. She held virtual rides on Zwift and did Facebook live events for Shimano.
In May she created the GravadeMayo challenge based on an 18-mile riding loop near her home in Orange County, California, that encompasses 1,800 feet of elevation gain. Nauman asked riders to ride similar routes in their own communities, and then submit Strava files of the loops.
Then, in late June, she produced a video project with her bike sponsor, Niner Bicycles, in Mammoth California to promote the bike and her own event, the Mammoth Tuff.
“As soon as those conversations happened it was like we need to get some media projects on the books — it’s been nice because the companies I work with have been supportive,” Nauman said. “The money I would have spent on travel to races, I’ve been spending on photo or video projects. Everything has changed.”
Like Nauman, King created a solo adventure program titled ‘DIY Gravel’ as a sweepstakes backed by his personal sponsors. King asks riders to log the same distance as popular gravel events that were canceled, and to submit their rides through his personal website for a chance to win sponsor gear.
When added to his podcast and semi-regular video series, King said the DIY gravel project has made his sponsors happy.
“I’ve had some candid conversations with my sponsors — I’ve had the benefit of years and years of working with them — to say, ‘Look, I hope the videos and podcast and DIY Gravel is bringing value to you,'” King said. “I’m being honest how vulnerable I was amid this pandemic, when nothing is happening, it was cool for them to vouch for me.”
Peter Stetina found himself in a similar situation as the spring rounded into summer. Stetina said he pitched sponsors on a racing program that focused heavily on performance goals at races. Rather than just show up and make videos, Stetina wanted to win the DK and other events.
As the gravel races began to shutter, Stetina also looked outside of racing to gain exposure. He hosted a weekly gravel race ride on Zwift and made a series of behind-the-scenes videos with Canyon and tire sponsor IRC.
Stetina, who raced on the road professionally for 12 seasons, said the dynamics created by the racing shutdown in gravel are worlds apart from what he sees in the WorldTour.
“On a WorldTour team, you are in the business of winning bike races,” Stetina said. “During the pandemic [winning] isn’t my overarching objective anymore. And my sponsors are happy so long as people are learning about their products. Right now, winning races doesn’t equate to that.”
His latest media project involves driving across the Western U.S. in a sprinter van and attempt Fastest Known Time efforts on several popular trails, and to film each attempt for a forthcoming media project.
Still, Stetina said he has continued to log long miles throughout the spring and summer in anticipation of the racing returning. While both King and Nauman said they eased off the focused training in anticipation of DK’s cancelation, Stetina said he continued to train, just in case DK and other races returned.
“I came to gravel saying ‘I’m here to win races,’ and if any events did get the go-ahead, I knew I would need to be ready,” Stetina said. “There’s no time to ease back in. Even if there’s one event I had better be ready, so that’s where I’m holding myself accountable to be ready whenever racing returns.”
Stetina, King, and Nauman told VeloNews that they agreed with the decision by Life Time to cancel the DK due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Yet all three wonder what, or if, the cancelation will impact the growing importance of the race, and the entire gravel scene, within the U.S. cycling.
The soaring popularity of the DK and gravel racing has given them paying jobs. Will the cancelation of the events for the foreseeable future stop gravel’s momentum, or send gravel riders pursuing other projects?
Perhaps, says King, but events like the DK will always play a big role in the U.S. cycling ecosystem.
“Perhaps the whole concept of exploration will supersede events — for a while,” King said. “I still feel like there’s a lot of anticipation for whenever gravel racing resumes. Riders are looking for news of positivity, and they are taking at face value that [races] are going to return. Whether it’s for big events or small ones, I think the excitement will be there.”