Gravel cycling is sweeping across the endurance sport world for many reasons (safer, more fun, more adventurous, better views, and fewer pecking orders), but the reason many people love it is the fact that it still feels like the informal races we rolled up to in the 1990s, where you knew most of the organizers, riders, and supporters. At the moment, gravel racing sits at that precious verge between mysterious and mainstream, and races such as SBT GRVL show us that we can have both grassroots feeling with big time amenities. All throughout race weekend everyone I talked to expressed some kind of “Can you believe this is a first-year event?” sentiment.
Pre-race rides left on schedule, with GPS links distributed clearly and effectively; expo events ran smoothly, despite Colorado’s explosive (and punctual) 2pm thunderstorms; and most importantly, probably, racers of all levels were supported and helped throughout their days, whether they raced the Green (37 miles), Blue (100 miles), or Black (141 miles) route.
With a few minutes remaining to go to 6:30, Jim snuck back through the crowd, which had grown denser in his absence, as elite riders joined the front line and the rest of us pressed forward nervously. “I’m sorry,” Jim began, the whole story encapsulated in those two words, “but I couldn’t find them. I really wish I could have helped. OK, I have to go and start the race!” Despite my dismay, I couldn’t help but be warmed a little by the fact that he took the time to come and tell me the outcome of his search, a tiny detail in a morning warming with other things more important than me and my carelessness.
So SBT GRVL nails the customer experience side of things, how was the actual race? Each gravel event I’ve completed this year has its own unique character. Belgian Waffle Ride is dirt, rocks, beer, and irony; the Cascade Gravel Omnium is gritty, tough racing in a splendid stage race setting; Dirty Kanza is a moonshot at the center of the gravel world, the sheer distance turning the day into a “will I even get there?” question that one answers over a long, solitary ride; SBT GRVL feels like all of those things put together: competitive racing un-blunted by enormous distance (although 141 miles is plenty far!), in a setting that only the Cascade Omnium could rival for beauty, with gravel’s tongue-in-cheek attitude firmly in place. A guy lined up in front of me at the start wearing a white cotton t-shirt and a fanny pack. One hour later, I noticed he was calmly climbing the day’s first KOM, apparently breathing through his nose, while a glance at my heart rate monitor put me well beyond my second aerobic threshold (side note—the altitude is no joke; if you have any ambitions of really doing well here, you should spend some time getting acclimated before attempting the race).
The big reason so many people love gravel racing, I believe? You meet it on your own terms, and it accommodates you. Want to try your luck against the best in the sport? Simply ride at the front for as long as you can. It’s a true meritocracy, where water finds its level. If you can hang, you’re welcome to the front. Want to spend a beautiful day challenging your endurance and your mental toughness? That is welcome, too, without judgment. Gravel is participatory, in the best tradition of the word. World Tour riders show up, as do domestic professionals, and people’s grandmothers. To gravel, it’s all the same.