Many beloved North American gravel races share a similar origin story: a handful of participants follow a poorly-marked course, have the adventure of a lifetime, and come back the next year with friends in tow. Year after year, participation numbers climb, the event becomes more organized, and sponsors sign on.
For 2020, SBT GRVL is a Monument of Gravel.
In 2019, the SBT GRVL race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado bucked this trend and sold out its inaugural edition in under a week. For 2020, the event sold out 2,500 spots in 25 minutes. What was the event’s secret sauce?
Payout and parity.
It’s no surprise that SBT GRVL became one of the country’s top gravel events in its first year; the founders of the Colorado race were armed with a wealth of experience in both bike racing and the outdoor industry. According to co-founder and former professional road racer Amy Charity, this collective wisdom gave them a leg up.
“We created a race that all of us wanted to do,” Charity told VeloNews. “We cherry picked what was awesome about the Dirty Kanza and other races, and then asked ourselves what else we wanted.”
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Unlike the Dirty Kanza, which is fully self-supported, the SBT GRVL organizers decided they did want support on course, in the form of well-stocked aid stations and clear signage. To encourage people of all backgrounds and abilities to participate, they offered three race courses of varying lengths. There was free coffee at the start, and beer was plentiful at the finish.
What else could the team do to make this their dream race?
“We looked at each other and said, ‘let’s pay out a ton of money,’” Charity said.
The inaugural edition awarded $5,000 each to the the fastest man and woman, as well as additional prize money for the top-five finishers. All told, SBT GRVL will pay out $22,000 this year, as well as issuing prize packs to the top three male and female finishers in each age group.
Few gravel races offer prize money, and the general culture of the sport has embraced experience over rankings and prizes. Nevertheless, for the new breed of gravel privateers who rely on support from brands to make a living, the temptation of having a gravel experience coupled with cash has a magnetic pull.
With equal payout for males and females covered, SBT GRVL ensured parity in prize money. Yet organizers weren’t prepared for the dearth of female participation after the race sold out in 2019. Rather than let the numbers stand, the team decided that they wanted to attract more female participants.
“We felt as race directors that it was our responsibility to influence change,” Charity said. “Our idea was to talk to female participants already registered to share their story about why they were coming to SBT. We were hopeful that these women and their stories would inspire other women to join us.”
They released an additional 200 spots to women, and sold them out in four days. The strategy helped boost the race’s female participation for 2020. This year, women’s registration is at 30 percent, another highly unlikely statistic for the second edition of a race.
Although the 144-mile SBT GRVL Black Course seems straightforward, the route packs some punches. Riders climb 9,400 feet along the journey, and the race unfolds on open ranching roads. Punctures are a real possibility, as are large swatches of washboarded sections. The sun burns brightly at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the elevation puts an extra burden on riders’ lungs and legs.
In 2019, a bout of leg cramps forced Payson McElveen to lose a minute off of winner Ted King, and a puncture separated Lauren Stephens from her Tibco-SVB teammate Brodie Chapman, who took the win.
In any race, bad weather or a mechanical can spoil the fun, but at SBT GRVL, not much else is left up to chance. When the organizers made their list of what constituted their dream gravel race, they made sure that they could check off every single box.
These two qualities helped riders nominate the event to our VeloNews Monuments of Gravel list: Payout and parity.
Ted King and Brodie Chapman