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The 2019 gravel season saw a series of near misses for gravel racer and ambassador Ted King. Although King managed to stand on the podium in most of the races he entered, the top step seemed painfully out of reach. In August, just a week after a top-15 finish at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race, King finally found the win he was looking for at a brand new gravel event in Steamboat Springs, the SBT GRVL.
“Winning [SBT GRVL] really capped off the season, especially since it was such a massive event in its inaugural year,” King said. “I had it planted on my calendar all season long, so having that success late in the year was perfect.”
While King has a surfeit of gravel events to draw comparison from, former road cycling national champion Alison Powers showed up at SBT GRVL on the opposite end of the spectrum. The event was her first and only gravel race to date, and while she too came for the win, her motivation was based less on a season of near-misses and more on something cold, hard, and fast.
“I wanted money,” Powers says.
The race’s large cash prize purse made headlines when the event was announced last summer. All told, the race paid out $28,000 in prize money split evenly between men and women. For Powers, who had been toying with the idea of doing something competitive in 2019 after five years off, SBT GRVL ticked all the boxes.
“They opened registration in December and that’s when coaching income is a little down, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, $5,000, a chance to race my bike and get my body fit and strong’ – it was perfect.”
For Powers, who finished fourth and took home a check for $1,000, her experience at the event wasn’t enough to convince her to return to professional cycling, but it did teach her some important lessons, ones that she could apply in her coaching and training programs.
“To experience what it was like for my racers was invaluable,” Powers said.
Powers, who runs ALP Cycles Coaching and also manages the ALP Cycles Racing team said that she regularly gets inquiries from women who are interested in riding and racing gravel; in fact, she’s offering a gravel camp in Boulder in the spring due to the volume of inquiries she’s received. She plans to use her experience from SBT GRVL to cover topics like equipment and nutrition.
SBT GRVL may well be a good case study for a gravel camp because of its broad appeal and accessibility. King likened it to the fairy tail Goldilocks. “It’s long, but not ridiculously long; it’s at elevation, but not absurd elevation; it has challenging terrain, but never too hard and never too easy,” he said.
Payson McElveeen, the endurance mountain biker and gravel racer who finished second to King in Steamboat Springs, echoed his sentiment that it’s not SBT’s terrain or technicality that sets the tone for the race but rather the pack who dictates the dynamics.
“For that reason, there’s more of an emphasis on road style tactics as compared to some of the other big gravel events,” McElveen said. “I learned a lot last year the hard way. I spent most of the first four hours of the event trying to ‘make the race’ with Colin [Strickland], and it took a while to realize that the terrain was simply going to make for a much bigger group dynamic than expected.”
The nuances of the course meant that other pros, who might be in the later stages of their road or mountain bike race seasons, were able to show up without derailing other goals. Australian road rider Brodie Chapman was stateside for the Colorado Classic with her former team Tibco-SVB last August, and when her team manager mentioned the gravel race, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I was probably more excited about the gravel race because it was new and exciting!” Chapman said. “It appealed because I really like long races, and it was sort of a test to see what the gravel scene was about.”
Chapman was the top female on the podium, beating her teammate Lauren Stephens to the finish by three minutes. What’s also significant about her commanding performance on the gravel and at altitude was that she pulled off the win in a deep field of over 20 professional female cyclists.
“It’s tough,” Chapman said, “it’s a real race where, at the pointy end it’s hard to win. I think that really appeals to the elite crowd.”
From the organizational side of things, said co-promoter Amy Charity, the race directors had the same goal for everyone, whether pro or first timer: “to invest in the racers.”
According to Charity, the team fulfilled their original vision “to have a race that was really inclusive, had a broad spectrum of people and was something that was challenging. We created a race that all of us wanted to do,” she said.
If 2020’s sell-out registration was any indication, SBT GRVL is a race that a lot of us want to do, too.