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Monuments of Gravel

SBT GRVL course details — and bike and tire selections

The key climbs, the technical sections, the prize money, and the pros' choices on gear.

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SBT GRVL on Sunday is bringing out a wide mix of pro and amateur racers, from mountain bikers to roadies, who are in turn hauling along a wide mix of bikes and gear. While the course is decidedly on the faster, smoother end of gravel for the majority of the 144-mile Black course, there are some rougher sections. One course question many have is yet to be answered: What will the air quality be like, with all the forest fires in the west?

SBT GRVL is paying out $22,000 to the top five women and men. Each winner will net $5,000. Additionally, the race is doing KOM/QOM awards for the lowest cumulative times on three climbs: the long Steamboat Lake climb that comes early, the Trout Creek climb that could prove decisive around the 100-mile mark, and the shorter Corkscrew climb near the end.

While the course is largely the same as in its inaugural year in 2019, race director Amy Charity added a new 2-mile section at the top of the first big climb at mile 36.

The new section, called the Zipp Fetcher segment, will disrupt the rhythm of chase groups hoping to regroup after the climb,” race director Amy Charity said. “It is doubletrack, singletrack and grass, with a small water crossing. It will be ridden single-file. I imagine the leaders will put the hammer down through that section. It’s also one of the most scenic segments of the course with views of Hahns Peak and Steamboat Lake.”

SBT GRVL has ample feed stations throughout the Black course. But deciding when and where to stop can play into the race outcome.

SBT GRVL has four course options, named by color. Only the 140-mile Black and 100-mile Blue courses go through the new section. Cash awards are for the Black race.

Matt Lieto, who was 10th in the 2019 edition, will be cohosting the live coverage of the race with former pro Meredith Miller. (You can watch the race here on VeloNews and on Outside TV.)

Lieto thinks the race will likely come down to the big climb around mile 100.

“Last time we broke into a group of 20-30 every time we hit a solid climb, but Mat Stephens pulled a large group including [women’s winner] Brodie Chapman and his wife [Lauren Stephens] up to us pretty much all the way to mile 90. So, lots of hard short climbs and then road-race type attacks on the pavement when the group swelled.”

Lieto said there are five key sections of SBT GRVL:

Fly Gulch: “It’s early in the race and a climb that will test the legs early and cause separation.”

Steamboat Lake Climb (KOM/QOM#1) into Fetcher Ranch: “Those doing the one-day event would be smart to put pressure on those with tired legs from Leadville early, and this is a great place to do it. Followed by a pinch point in the ranch, I could see a big selection made that could force some folks to chase hard to catch back on.”

Trout Creek Climb (KOM/QOM#2): “This is where it’s gonna go down if the race isn’t already selected, and where the pain was ditched out in ’19. Hot, exposed, and late enough in the race where it’s obvious who has the legs and who doesn’t.”

Corkscrew Climb (KOM/QOM#3): “I think for the majority of the field this climb will just sting and be an insult to injury, but if there is a small group left fighting for the win, this is certainly where a final hard attack could go to go in solo for the remainder.”

Cow Creek: “Technical, and on a tired brain it could cause some problems.”

Defending men’s champion Ted King is curious to see the new section — but that may only be possible during the race.

“SBT is a fun course because it’s so expansive; it’s a long day no matter how you cut it, it has aspects that are like a road race and loads of gravel,” King said. “There’s the new singletrack section, which is going to spice things up a bit. I’m told we can’t pre-ride it so it’ll be new for nearly everyone. My wild guess is that section will shell a few people, but won’t be enormously decisive since it’s still relatively early in the day. There are a few other places like that on course that will diminish the front group, but that’s gravel racing in general: take a big group and forever make it smaller ’til there’s one across the line first!”

Which bike? Which tires? And what hydration solution?

While many who raced SBT GRVL in 2019 now say “you could do it on a road bike”… those who are returning are almost exclusively on gravel bikes. Geoff Kabush, for instance, who has been riding a prototype gravel suspension fork for some time, will be on a rigid gravel bike in Steamboat.

“I’m going to race my Open U.P.P.E.R. — still a fan of 2x — with 40mm Maxxis Velocitas,” Kabush said. “Last time I ran 32mm Refuse, but I’m running the Velocitas this time because of the nicer 120tpi EXO casing.”

“I’d classify SBT as a ‘light’ gravel event, groomed gravel, so I’m going for more road race set-up with rigid fork,” he said. “It’s tactical so I expect excitement, lots of moves like last time, but I expect the main selection will come on the major climb around 100 miles.”

Alex Howes is one of many riders doing LeadBoat — racing Leadville Trail 100 MTB on Saturday followed by SBT GRVL on Sunday. He’ll race his mountain bike for Leadville, but he might race his road bike — with fat tires — for Steamboat.

“I thiiiiiink I’m going to go against the will of the people & go with my @cannondaleroad #supersixevo with 35s crammed in there,” Howes wrote on Instagram. “Why? Honestly people, like real talk here, full transparency, from the heart, honestly, it’s because the paint on my road bike matches my kit.”

Howes and his EF Education-Nippo teammate Lachlan Morton raced their road bikes (and won) with a similar tire set-up for Old Man Winter’s socially distanced gravel race this past winter.

King will be racing a Cannondale gravel bike with 38mm Rene Herse Barlow Pass tires, SRAM’s new XPLR 10-44t cassette, a 46t chainring, and Zipp Firecrest 303 wheels.

For the most part, the common wisdom seems to be a gravel bike with a 35mm tire or slightly bigger. As to the amount of tread — that’s debatable. I asked FasCat Coaching founder Frank Overton, who raced it in 2019 and is coaching many riders doing it this year, if racing a straight-up slick would be dumb.

“Yes,” Overton said. “You need grip for some of the high-speed, loose descents.”

Lieto, on the other hand, said he raced Schwalbe’s G1 Speeds, which are basically a slick with only the faintest hint of a file tread.

“I was on the Allied All Road so that was the widest tire I could manage but I thought it worked,” Lieto said. “There are lots of fast sections and road where a 30-32mm would work, but some chunky bits that are very scarce, but gnarly enough you’d really not want to be on a smaller tire. Near the end of the race Cow Creek was gnarly and something you’d want some protection for.”

FasCat founder Frank Overton breaks down the SBT GRVL course by power output and race strategy

Lastly, hydration equipment is a question. As in, should riders wear a hydration pack or not? There are six fully stocked aid stations — but stopping can mean losing a group and its valuable draft.

“The aid stations were big points of contention [in 2019] and in the end it was the last aid before the big climb where the final move was made,” Lieto said. “I was not at my top fitness and had decided to not wear a CamelBak, and I had to stop or there would have been certain death. Most of the others that didn’t stop were quickly swept up and dispatched.”

“If I raced that event again I would likely ride with a CamelBak but not touch it at all till there was an aid station that I tactically needed to skip,” he said. “Lots of weight to carry, but well worth it.”

VeloNews will be documenting the set-ups of many racers this weekend, and watching the hydration strategies of the front riders in the livestream could be interesting.

Be sure to tune in for the two-hour SBT GRVL coverage this Sunday on VeloNews and Outside TV.