A Calendar Conflict

Forgive me, Mother, for I’m about to break one of the rules upon which you raised me: If you have nothing nice to say, then stuff it, son.

Well, I can’t stuff this anymore.

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Momma said there’d be days like this. The Shirelles, 1961

What’s snagged me like a cocklebur to the chamois was this line of marketing poppycock from a new gravel race’s website:

“SBT Gravel is ready to take on DK, BWR and Leadville. Can They Do It?” (Sarcastic italics mine. Gratuitous capitalization theirs.)

What this corporate-backed gravel race in Steamboat Springs, Colo., fails to mention in its self-aggrandizement is that, long before it got ready to “take on” Dirty Kanza, the Belgian Waffle Ride and the Leadville 100, its first act was to kick Gravel Worlds square in the balls.

In a match-up absolutely nobody asked for, it’s steamboat versus pirate ship.

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I should be clear: I don’t speak for Gravel Worlds or its directors. I only speak for me. And I’m a little cheesed off right now. (Photo, On the Virg Photography)

The marketing executives who launched this resort-town race looked at the Midwest’s top three gravel events: Dirty Kanza, Land Run 100, and Gravel Worlds. They spotted the one with the thinnest financial foundation, and they just happened to shoulder their event into the same weekend.

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Rubbing is racing, cupcakes!

Then they worked a lucrative network of corporate sponsors. And they went about selling rights to every last thing that could hold up a nametag. Local fish may need to print up new return address labels now that their home is officially “MAVIC Steamboat Lake.” And “Checkpoint 1” is so 2018. Welcome instead to the “Carmichael Training Systems Aid Station!”

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Can you imagine the Schmidty’s Uncle’s Farmhouse Checkpoint brought to you by Orange Seal? Me neither… (Photo, Rob Evans)

Monied AF, the new race produced a payout purse that by itself rivals Gravel Worlds’ entire budget. That coin helped draw the current and former pros that win eyeballs in our industry. Top athletes like Ted King, Neil Shirley, Phil Gaimon, and even GW’s two-time defending male champion, Colin Strickland, all opted for Steamboat over Lincoln.

Savvy race organizers then used those names to market their event even further. Their investments paid off. SBT Gravel sold out in six days, even at about triple the registration fee. And Gravel Worlds entries appear to be down by hundreds.

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Gravel Worlds doesn’t do cash payouts. Winners get champion jerseys—and swords. Yar! (Photo, cyclingtips.com)

In their defense, I’ve heard SBT’s folks claimed the Gravel Worlds conflict was unintentional, unfortunate and unavoidable. What I haven’t heard, however, is that they ever reached out to GW’s organizers, explained themselves, and allowed them the chance to adjust. Rather, it looks to me like Schmidty and Corey were left to lock down their traditional race date, unaware that this year, they’d be competing for entrants against a well-funded team of corporate marketing executives.

Excuse me while I barf a little…

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Now might be a good time to review GW’s Rule #1: Don’t be lame.

So now what?

I’m sure Gravel Worlds and the pirates will live to fight another year—maybe in a new spot on the calendar. I’m less sure that the grassroots ethos that sparked gravel’s rise will be its predominant value going forward. There’s simply too much money to be made by people with different principles.

Still, I don’t begrudge anyone who looked at both events and chose SBT. I’m sure it’ll be a whale of an adventure, and I hope everybody who shelled out truly does have a great experience in a beautiful place.

But it’s time we ask ourselves what kind of sport we want. And we should know that “gravel industry” and “gravel culture” are not interchangeable things anymore. One can thrive while the other erodes.

As you plan your season, I hope you’ll consider both industry and culture. If you got into one or more of the sport’s uber-events, congratulations! Have fun. And if you can afford that top-end bike, those new wheels, well, high-five, pal! The industry thanks you. New toys rock.

But if you also care about the culture that has made gravel cycling so explosively popular, I hope you’ll enter a crap ton of grassroots events, too. And I hope you’ll slow your roll once in a while to show your favorite roads to somebody new. Because we don’t have to throw elbows out here. So long as we know how to treat each other, there’s room enough for everybody.

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A previous version of this essay presumed that Panaracer’s sponsorship of SBT Gravel meant that members of Panaracer/Factor p/b Bicycle X-Change would be unable to race Gravel Worlds in 2019. I’m happy to report I was mistaken. Several members of this elite gravel racing team intend to race in Lincoln this year.


5 thoughts on “A Calendar Conflict

  1. Agree with your comments 100%. Classless move on their part (if article is correct) to move in on a well-established and loved event. There is plenty of room in the calendar for both events. I’m still coming to Gravel Worlds and I hope hundreds of likeminded gravel warriors do too.

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  2. Good post. I’m new to gravel. In fact, SBT was the first gravel event I ever registered for. Did road events previously…rides, not races…Seattle to Portland, Tour of the Moon and so it seemed kind of normal. Never mind that I could only justify doing one of those a year. It was an annual splurge, even if I rode them on an old bike with stock wheels…nothing fancy. Now that I know a little more about gravel culture and especially Nebraska, I doubt I’ll go back out west after SBT. Ever. I like what’s going on closer to home. Since registering for SBT, I’ve signed up for Almanzo, Bohemian Sto Mil and SWIGG. Looking forward to all three of those more than SBT. If it wasn’t for the opportunity to see some old friends, I’d sell my registration and go to Worlds instead. Thanks for the heads up. Like I said, still learning. Next year…

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  3. Thanks, Bob. I hope you have a ball in Steamboat. It’ll be a well-run race, and Colorado needs and deserves good gravel events.

    I’m not trying to make anyone regret signing up. But the people behind these events need to be aware of the community they’re serving. A weakened Gravel Worlds may make it easier for their event to climb some reputational ladder, but it doesn’t serve riders. Their own comments about “taking on” DK and others–before anyone has ridden an inch in their event’s history–just tells me there’s a hubris there that won’t serve the gravel community well. And I didn’t want that to pass without being remarked upon.

    As Dirty Kanza grew, Jim never said, “Take that, Trans-Iowa!” Instead, I’ve heard him repeatedly give Trans-Iowa credit for inspiring what they did. They’ve wanted other events like Gravel Worlds to grow with them. Because of that respect for community, DK’s growth in corporate sponsorships, and even now, its corporate ownership, hasn’t bothered me in the same way. It’s industry and culture winning together.

    I believe it can work like that. I really do. But only if we make it work like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While I am really looking forward to the three events I am riding this year (DK200, Solstice100, Gravel Worlds 150), your post helped me appreciate the way each is awesome, for different reasons. For me, DK will be about achieving a goal I never thought possible three years ago. Solstice will be so much fun riding fast with my fellow Abes in a field of only 100 riders. Gravel Worlds will be the awesome end of season ride where I can see how much I have improved from previous seasons, on the great gravel roads of my youth.

    I was very fortunate to be able to go to Steamboat for a destination gravel riding vacation last summer but I can’t imagine how high the lodging costs would be if there are thousands of other riders there at the same time.

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