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The stars aligned quickly for Morgan Murri and his concept for Co2uT, an epic gravel race near the Colorado/Utah border. Murri’s background in event production, his own experiences bike racing, and a backyard full of hundreds of miles of untapped, gritty roads were only the tip of the iceberg. In under a year of route scouting and race planning, he found a small community begging him to bring the masses.
“I made a presentation, and in a week I had the parks and recreation director, the sheriff’s department, the police department, the BLM, search and rescue, and emergency management services in a room together asking, ‘what do we need to do?'” Murri said.
Once he had the rural community of Fruita, Colorado on board, as well as a partnership with Team Evergreen, the Colorado non-profit behind the wildly popular Triple Bypass and Beti Bike Bash events, Murri was off to the race – the one he’d long envisioned.
“After doing DKXL last year, I was like ‘I want a badass, serious, legit gravel race.'”
Nevertheless, the best-laid plans often go awry, and in March, Murri found himself where we all did — in the midst of a rapidly escalating global crisis. In terms of his own timeline, Murri says that things couldn’t have been better: he had just gotten permits for the race and overcome other logistical hurdles. He was in the negotiation process with Team Evergreen and was feeling comfortable to begin pitching to sponsors. He was all set to attend The Mid South gravel race.
“The only reason I didn’t go to Mid South was weather,” he said. “I was gonna talk to sponsors, put cards on everyone’s window. The next day it was a whole different world.”
It took a few weeks for the depth and breadth of the crisis to sink in, and Murri says that once it did, he tasked himself with reframing exactly how he would build the gravel race that had, until this point, been riding an impressive wave of momentum.
“It allowed us to do two things: one, really focus and say ‘what are we going to do and how,’ and two, ask ‘how are we going to position ourselves?’ We get to be different because we’re coming out of the gate in a totally different event world.”
There were certain goals for this event that Murri had committed to pre-COVID-19, and one was women’s parity. A father of two girls and grandfather of one, Murri says that watching his oldest daughter come home transformed after a NOLS trip inspired much of his professional course. He founded a 501(c)(3) called GECKO — Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors — which provided scholarships for kids to attend programs like NOLS and Outward Bound. Having lived in Colorado recreation towns like Vail and Pagosa Springs, he also raced bikes alongside elite female athletes. Gravel, he says, offers the amazing opportunity for men and women to race together.
“This is way more than just a cool marketing thing,” Murri said.
“I was blasted a little bit over the women’s thing, but I expected that,” Murri said. “A bit of ‘this isn’t fair, blah blah blah.'”
Co2uT is now over 60 percent full, and 42 percent are female.
Criticism for offering race entries to women may ring out from a few solo artists, but the judgment for launching a new event in the ongoing uncertainty that is a pandemic comes from a chorus. Murri says that while he’s mostly received positive feedback for how he’s handling moving forward with Co2uT, he’s certainly not immune to other types of commentary.
“I’ve gotten a bit of ‘what the hell are you thinking?’ and another race promoter called and read me the riot act,” he said. “So I went and firmed up language around our COVID policy. It’s pretty in your face. I state clearly in the video, in the registration — this may not happen.”
Meanwhile, Murri is doing everything he can so that the event does happen, and if it doesn’t, that participants will receive a fair deal. He’s crafted what he calls an industry leading refund policy that grants people a certain percentage of money back depending on the date that they, or the event, have to cancel. The policy is structured around Murri’s own last-minute dates.
“I asked people who need big cash commitments, like apparel people, to tell me last minute you need to hear from me,” Murri said. “Until we get to that point, we can give all the money back. So, it’s basically a sliding scale because it coincides with when we have to lock down money.”
While he completely understands the gravity of holding the event in 2020 and has already presented a first round of contingency plans to city and county planners, Murri is also trying not to lose sight of why he created Co2uT in the first place: to expose people to the incredible landscape of gravel riding on Colorado’s western slope. Before he moved to Grand Junction last July, he says, he had passed the Fruita highway exit thousands of times, never once wondering what lay to the north or south.
“I’d looked across the desert, seen the antelope, the oil wells, and now I’ve ridden thousands of miles around here, and there’s not a single Strava segment. The terrain is mind-blowing.”
So mind-blowing, in fact, that Murri was able to create five unique courses for Co2uT. Riders can choose from 30, 70, 100, 125, or 190-mile distances, and pay the equivalent amount in registration fees. In addition to the incentives to get more women to the start line, having such a wide reach of routes is another way Murri hopes to get people to take a chance on a first-year event, especially one that might be among a handful that actually happen in 2020.
Regarding other events, Murri is quick to admit that although he’s entering the scene at a bizarre time in history, he’s also doing so with the benefit of having learned from so many who have gone before him. He’s been able to cherry-pick the best elements of other races and avoid the mistakes. Although other organizers might not envy the compromises he will likely have to make in order to comply with COVID-19 precautions, Murri says that the terrain will be what people remember, not the potentially forgettable aid stations.
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh we’ve gotta cancel because we can’t do this and that the way we want,’ but what is great about Co2uT is the riding and the views and the scenery,” he said. “I’m only gonna ask a few things of participants at the start, and one is that they promise me that they’ll lift their heads up and look around at some point during the day.”
If indeed there is a start line come October 10, Murri will likely have to ask much more of participants — everything from respecting an aid station format that may include alphabetized and spread apart feed zones to a gridded start line. Not only does he think it can be done, he believes that it’s important that he try. Safety first, of course, but given the current sociopolitical climate in the U.S. right now, offering hope is a close second.
“What I keep at forefront of my mind every day is that we have to keep our community safe, and we have to keep our participants safe,” Murri said. “That’s the mantra that we pin ourselves to. From there, what I say to the people that believe in us is that we want to have something for someone to look forward to.”