Culture

How one team kept racing alive by using Strava, Slack, and gift cards

Scott Olsen and James Armstead of the Phoenix Syndicate team in Des Moines, Iowa found a creative way to bring back racing during the coronavirus shutdown.

For bicycle racers in greater Des Moines, Iowa, the first weekend in April presents an early opportunity to test one’s legs and lungs at the Gents Race, a 65-mile (or so) gravel team time trial that starts and finishes at the Nite Hawk Bar and Grille in Slater, just west of the city.

As April’s opening weekend approached this year, local rider Scott Olsen lamented the loss of the Gents Race and the other cycling events on Iowa’s racing calendar due to the coronavirus shutdown. Olsen missed the race and the physical challenge it presented — what he missed most, however, was the camaraderie at the post-race party.

“It starts and ends at this bar, and there are 500 people sitting around drinking beer and eating pizza and talking about the race and having a great time,” Olsen told VeloNews. “I thought about it and was like, ‘This sucks — I’m ready to have beers and hang out and have fun like that again.'”

What made the event special was the community, the challenge, and the way it provided a much-needed business boost to the bar. Could these elements of the Gents Race be recreated during the coronavirus shutdown? Olsen posed the question to James Armstead, his brother-in-law and teammate on the local Phoenix Syndicate racing team.

One of the Syndicate Segments from the team’s Facebook page. Photo: Phoenix Syndicate

“There are quite a few bike races that depend on the sponsorship from local small businesses, and they won’t have that revenue coming back in, so what are they going to do now?”Armstead said. “With all of the races canceled we realized there was no opportunity to give back to these businesses.”

Both men had organized and promoted cyclocross races to the local community, and they wondered if they could recreate the event and still adhere to the rules around social distancing.

The two came up with an innovative plan involving Strava, a Slack channel, and gift cards. Cyclists across the country have used Strava routes to reimagine popular group rides and races as individual time trials. The Speed Merchant team in Grand Rapids, Michigan went so far as to build weekly rankings on the team’s Facebook page as a way to recreate the local Leg Wrecker group ride.

Olsen and Armstead took things one step further. They create a route for the Gents Race course and then built a Strava API to automatically update rider rankings on the course to a website they created. Then, they purchased several $50 gift cards from Nite Hawk Bar and Grille and promoted an individual time trial to friends and teammates.

Riders had a week to tackle the segment and try to post the fastest time. The top male and female riders on the Strava segment won the gift cards; one rider drawn at random also received a card.

Armstead (left) and Olsen reveal the winners of the gift cards on a live Facebook chat. Photo: Phoenix Syndicate

“We got feedback was that people were excited to have something to go race and they were happy that we’re trying to help local businesses,” Olsen said.

The two called the project “Syndicate Segments,” and went to work building more challenges on more local routes.

Since early April the duo has staged multiple events on road, gravel, and even on Zwift. They have given away gift cards from local bars, bike shops, sushi restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, and even a chiropractic clinic to their participants; some gift cards they have purchased outright, while others have been purchased and then donated by team members.

The team’s Facebook page, as well a Slack channel for the greater Iowa racing community serves as the camaraderie portion of the project.

“Whenever someone finishes a segment it posts automatically to the Slack channel and says if your KOM or QOM got beat, so that has added a lot of banter back and forth,” Olsen said. “It’s just a way to stay engaged.”

Another segment from the team’s website. Photo: Phoenix Syndicate

Whether or not the Syndicate Segments project lives on beyond the coronavirus shutdown is yet to be seen. Armstead and Olsen both prefer their group races and rides to solo time trials out in the Iowa cornfields, and both admit that it’s difficult to recreate the social scene of a finish line over Facebook live or Slack.

There is one way in which the Syndicate Segments project does have an advantage on IRL race organization, however. Building a website is far easier than staging a real race.

“Building the software was pretty easy — it was a lot less complex compared to putting on a cyclocross race,” Armstead said. “You don’t need caution tape.”

Do you have a story of a cycling community finding a creative way to ride during the shutdown? Email us at webletters@velonews.com.