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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s regular column on graveling and traveling. In 2021, he won 15 gravel races — more than any other rider.
The biggest news in gravel this month has been the roster announcement for the inaugural Life Time Grand Prix. I was lucky enough to be chosen among 30 men and 30 women to compete for the biggest prize purse American Cycling has seen in years. I did fancy my chances of selection, but I still put some serious effort into that application like all my peers. I’ve been in cycling long enough to know that any selection is never official until it is, so I was ecstatic when the organizers called me with the good news.
The Grand Prix consists of three gravel races (Unbound Gravel, Crusher in the Tushar, Big Sugar Gravel) and three mountain bike races (Sea Otter Classic, Leadville Trail 100 MTB, Chequamegon MTB). Each race individually will have thousands of contestants, but the Grand Prix is a best-of series for a handpicked selection of 60 riders.
The online complaints about exclusion predictably came and Life Time has made their reasoning crystal clear. It was about striking a balance: How can they elevate American professional racing while not losing what has made these events successful in the first place? These 60 reserved spots among a few thousand at races like Leadville won’t detract from what makes them so special. In all likelihood, most of these 60 riders would have registered anyway via the lottery or leveraging a sponsor’s expo-allocated slots.
The hard work and dedication it takes to be a pro cyclist has long been underpaid and this is an honest attempt to change that. Until the recent boom of gravel, riders had to go to Europe to have any hope of earning a living wage. Not that this purse alone will define a career, but it can be a catalyst to garner the attention of many, leading to bigger things to come.
It was hard to see some elite riders not get selected; I have a few friends in that group. While it’s easy for me to sit and analyze from the comfort of the selection pool, I do think that having a dedicated and somewhat curated cast of characters will make it easier for fans to follow along all season, much like F1.
I do wonder if any non-selected riders will organically do their own Grand Prix by entering all six, and how Life Time will react if said rider places well. Maybe by performing in the races this season a rider can step up for the Grand Prix next year.
While these six races will form a foundation of my season, I still plan on attending and prioritizing others such as the BWR Quadruple Crown, and iconic independent races such as The Mid South and SBT GRVL. And, I will always make time for local events. The grassroots races are often the most fun and are the true backbone of gravel.
The power of gravel lies in the mass participation format, and all these Grand Prix events are prestigious in their own right. It may very well be that the riders who win Unbound, for example, aren’t part of the series. Each race will garner the attention it deserves and the storylines by folks both fast and casual will be as inspiring as ever. With the series addition though, there will be this intriguing subplot to follow all season long.
The points will run in reverse from our Grand Prix placings, wherever we finish in the overall field. The best placed Grand Prix rider at each event will receive 30 points, second best will get 29, and so on all the way to 30th with 1 point. If Colin Strickland wins Unbound and I place fifth, but the riders second through fourth are not racing the GP series, I would only be one point behind him heading into Crusher in the Tushar. It will also keep racers pushing to the line despite setbacks.
To further keep announcers busy and the anticipation high; riders get to drop their worst score. Whether it’s a scratch, a no-show, or just a plain old bad day, only five of our six races will count, and all are weighted evenly. I plan to attend all six. For riders hunting the overall, you cannot afford to miss one and then have bad luck at a subsequent race without any fallback.
The balance of events selected will see an all-rounder win. Events range from two to 11 hours with all varieties of terrain. Sea Otter is a proper MTB marathon race with singletrack aplenty. Unbound favors the power riders and the folks who can grind away all day. Crusher in the Tushar is middle distance and the only moutaintop finish in gravel. Leadville has long climbs and altitude, but on flat bars. Chequamegon is a fast 40 miles at sea level, and Big Sugar is a classic century gravel grinder. The men and women on the final podium next October will be those who can climb and navigate singletrack, with massive endurance, some explosive pop, and a lot of luck.
Rating the threats
As soon as the announcement was made I started pouring over the list and evaluating my chances. The list was even deeper than I imagined. The rider I fear the most is Keegan Swenson. He and I go toe to toe on big climbs but his MTB skills are far superior.
The EF duo of Alex Howes and Lachy Morton are also very dangerous as both have WorldTour engines but throw their mountain bikes around quicker than most. Should Howard Grotts decide to focus full time on racing again, he could be the best of us all.
All of us will have to play our strengths and cover our weaknesses all season long: Ted King, Colin Strickland, and Ashton Lambie will suffer in the mountains but more than make up for it on the flats. Laurens ten Dam and Adam Roberge might struggle on the MTB but excel with the drop bars. Rest assured I’ve got my eye on everyone on that list!
The women’s field is very open. Seemingly a different woman won almost every race this season. I don’t think there is an outright favorite. It will be interesting to see how “retired” Ruth Winder actually is. Sarah Sturm will be a legit contender as she can thrive in any discipline. Rose Grant usually dominates wherever she shows up. Moriah Wilson was likely the breakout rider of 2021 and is just beginning to discover her talents. The former Clif Bar duo of Katerina Nash and Sofia Gomez Villafane have the speed and technical ability, but, like Keegan, are newbies when it comes to Unbound, a race where experience matters.
One thing is sure; there will be some surprises, some entertaining personalities revealed to a bigger audience, and some amazing racing. I’m personally very motivated for it and it’s given me the oomph I needed to work on my MTB descending. I’ll see you 59 others at Sea Otter in April!