Property of a Life Time: Is gravel racing monopolized?

You don’t want to play Monopoly with my son.

Marcus will talk to you about your straits in the most empathetic tones. He knows what it’s like to be stretched thin. And he sees the same threats on the board you do.

There’s your daughter across the coffee table, gleefully scooping up railroads. And your wife’s right there, sharpening her knives as your sorry little boot scoots into her high-class neighborhood.

So, to see yourself through, you cut a little deal with good old Marcus.

You play with Uncle Pennybags, you get the cane. (Monopoly, Hasbro, Photo, Alex Wong)

It’s a few more laps before Marcus’s holdings come together and his strategy for dominion swings itself around you—with your discarded yellow property serving as his dark lynchpin.

Soon, you’re swept off to jail, broken by the changed board, but grateful at least for the familiarity of your quiet little cell.

To hell with you. (Huskeropoly, Late for the Sky Productions)

I thought of my Monopoly-mogul son last week when Life Time unveiled its shiny new $250,000 cash-purse racing series. (After watching them buy up a bunch of major races, there was a similar, “Ah, I see what you’ve been up to…” recognition of their purchase-happy purpose.)

The Life Time Grand Prix links six of the company’s recently acquired mountain bike and gravel races into a single points series for 40 top athletes. And some formerly no-cash-stakes races, like UNBOUND Gravel and the Leadville 100, will now be raced with thousands on the line—at least for those few speedy folks who agree to Life Time’s terms.

The introduction of prize money does change the nature of these races. And the gravel community responded (as we often do) with more hand wringing about the “death of the spirit of gravel.”

Can you believe gravel died … again? (“Woman in Mourning,” Bertha Wegman, 1890)

I share the frustration over the growing professionalization and corporatization of our sport. But getting worked up about Life Time’s (less-than-surprising) move here feels like getting pissed at my son for chasing monopolies in Monopoly.

What did you think I was doing?

In unveiling an effort to bring more attention to the events it owns, Life Time didn’t suddenly become any more or less gravel than it was a month ago. Life Time remains what Life Time is: a multi-billion dollar company of luxury resorts, gyms, spas, work spaces and apartments. They’re a fitness brand with a few popular races adorned like feathers in its corporate cap.

Life Time: Serving the gravel community with luxury living options in down-home Coral Gables, Fla. (Image: lifetime.life)

“We want to grow this to a point where non-endemic sponsors want to get involved,” Life Time’s president of media and events Kimo Seymour told VeloNews. “That’s when you’ll know cycling is getting somewhere in North America. That’s the only way it’ll ever get to a point where people can make a living doing it.”

His Twitter mantra speaks for itself.

For those fortunate folks who don’t speak marketing, “non-endemic sponsors” in this case are those outside the cycling industry. It’s one thing to attract Chamois Butt’r to sponsor your bike race. It’s quite another to land Walmart.

The Life Time Grand Prix wraps up with a mandatory stop in Bentonville, Ark. So it’s reasonable to guess that Seymour and Life Time have eyes on that Walmart cash. And why not? Walmart has already invested handsomely in bike trail development near its Bentonville headquarters. It’s also the title sponsor for the 2022 UCI cyclocross world championships to be held in Fayetteville, Ark., in January.

Walton family investments have turned the Bentonville area into a mountain biking Mecca. (Photo, arkansasoutside.com)

But if Life Time’s goal truly is, as Seymour suggests, to create a reality where elite cyclists can make an easier living racing gravel in America, they’ve got more investing to do.

Now, a quarter million bucks sounds like a mighty haul. Cyclingtips.com called it “a massive prize purse.” But don’t go and lease that Coral Gables apartment just yet. A closer look makes even the fattest slices of the Grand Prix pie look pretty paltry.

To compete for this cash, athletes must first commit to race at least five of the six Life Time events. That means they’ll have to pony up for five or six trips to Monterey, Calif.; Emporia, Kan.; Beaver, Utah; Leadville, Colo.; Cable, Wis.; and Bentonville, Ark. Even modest estimates can easily put athletes’ travel expenses alone into the five figures. Races this rugged are sure to cost athletes a few high-end parts. And selected racers must also agree to pay Life Time nearly $1,300 in registrations.

Even if you don’t taste victory at Life Time’s Crusher in the Tushar in Beaver, Utah, at least you’ll taste some high-quality H2O. (Photo, uen.org)

Now look closer at those cash awards. Twenty women and 20 men compete for their share of their half of $250,000. The bottom 10 of both groups get nothing. And sixth through 10th won’t recoup even their travel expenses. If they’re both frugal and lucky, maybe third place ($16,000) marks the break-even point in the six-month ordeal. Second winds up breathing a bit above water ($20,000). And your men’s and women’s champions ($25,000) can stop at Red Lobster on the way home.

Travel expenses represent another hill to climb for elite racers like Amanda Nauman.

“It’s a tough gamble,” two-time UNBOUND champion Amanda Nauman admitted on Twitter, with travel expenses being her first consideration.

For Geoff Kabush, the kicker was agreeing “to be a good ambassador and not criticize anything about” Life Time. He submitted a “brutally honest application” and wondered aloud via Twitter whether his responses to the ambassador criteria might disqualify him.

Life Time’s chosen racers will be expected to smile and play nice, Kabush said. (Photo, yeticycles.com)

The life of a North American professional cyclist is typically both piecemeal and hand to mouth. Most folks considering a series like this would likely see any prize purse as one piece in a much larger puzzle of their sponsored subsistence. Race winnings + Niner + GU + Shimano + Red Bull + Smart Wool + Grandma’s kindness + plasma + substitute teaching = heat all winter, baby!

And every time I catch myself wishing I was fast enough to follow the pros down that winding road, I hit the brakes and remind myself what it takes. Likewise, whenever I hear an IT guy grumble that the pros are ruining the spirit of gravel, I look at everything these gifted young men and women sacrifice, how hard they’ll scrap, just for a chance to stitch a patchwork dream together.

First you work yourself (and your jeans) to shreds. Then you pick up the pieces and try to make something beautiful out of it. (“Bricklayer,” by Loretta Pettway, 1970)

In the end, Life Time is just playing Monopoly the only way it knows how. And the pros themselves—they’re usually no more deserving of our resentment than the little plastic pieces spread across someone else’s board.

If this whole game of sponsorships, prize money and rules strikes you as less fun by the lap, you’re not alone. Let’s just quit inflating our narrow disappointments into proof of gravel cycling’s untimely death.

Who killed gravel? Was it the UCI, with a chain whip, in Kansas? (Clue, Hasbro, 1949)

We’d all have more fun if we hunted at least as hard for gravel cycling’s proofs of life.

Maybe Life Time’s events aren’t where you find that life anymore. They now own a total of 13 races across the country. And it’s perfectly OK to leave them all behind. (Life Time will be all right.)

That leaves us with a mere bajillion other colorful events to choose from: great races of every size and distance, each of them teeming with proof of gravel’s spirited, varied and ongoing life. (Endurance sports endure.) Everywhere you look, I promise you: It’s still game on.


One thought on “Property of a Life Time: Is gravel racing monopolized?

  1. One race on my 2022 calendar…Bohemian Sto Mil. Free to enter, no corporate sponsors. The best people. The best course. The best food. The best day.

    Like

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