“SBT GRVL will be remembered for the beauty, challenge and for being the best overall racing experience in the United States for both racers and their families” – sbtgrvl.com
That is a bold claim to make, but after making the trip to Steamboat Springs in August of 2018 for a media pre-ride and seeing the passion of the team behind SBT GRVL, I was confident the race would live up to expectations… more on that further down.
A Trip to Steamboat Springs from Gainesville, Florida
One thing is for certain, we don’t have a ton of altitude at Gravel Cyclist HQ. But we do have plenty of good mixed-surface roads to bluff our way into fitness, and that includes yours truly toting my drone camera around on my back for extra training brownie points, and riding solo in Georgia or with my good mates at a super fun gravel camp in Upstate South Carolina.
With the necessary accoutrement – aka stuff, things, bollocks and paraphernalia, I loaded myself into an American Airlines flight out of Gainesville with a stopover in Dallas, Texas, bound for Denver, Colorado. My good friends at Moots Cycles, headquartered in the same town as SBT GRVL, Steamboat Springs, graciously loaned a gorgeous Routt 45 to me for the race, which I will be reviewing long-term beginning a week or two after this report goes live.
Landing in Denver, sometime around 10:30pm mountain time on Thursday, August 15, I collected my rental car and made haste for my accommodations for the evening… a two-star hotel close to Wheatridge, Colorado. This was an important night of sleep, and despite the dodgy hotel rating, I woke well-rested for the early morning drive to Steamboat Springs.
Friday, August 16, 2019
Driving west out of Denver, you’ll follow Interstate 70 which meanders towards Idaho Springs and eventually, beneath the Continental Divide courtesy of the Eisenhower Tunnel. Driving to the tunnel can be a crapshoot. I’ve driven in bumper to bumper traffic all the way to the tunnel, and once spent 35 minutes sitting at the traffic light waiting for the tunnel to open. At least the views are nice… on this day, the stars were aligned, no delays.
Once through the tunnel, the I70 drops away rapidly (don’t ride your brakes!) to Silverthorne, Colorado, where the GPS recommends one takes US9 north towards Kremmling, Colorado and ultimately, US40 into Steamboat Springs. The scenery from Silverthorne to Steamboat is stunning. I lost track of the number of times I parked the car to snap a photo or two, or to launch the drone (but not inside a national park… that’s a no-no).
The first port of call was Moots HQ to collect the Routt 45 bike. Even if you don’t own a Moots, visiting the facility for a factory tour is a must-do in person. If you’ve no plans to attend anytime soon, I suggest you take a gander at my Moots tour video filmed in 2018.
My teammates from Gravel Cyclist, the duo of Mr and Mrs K-Dogg were also in town for the race, although my mad schedule meant I wouldn’t be seeing much of them, less our paths cross on race day or afterward. Next on the schedule was a short drive to a dirt, gravel and chunky rocks road known as Routt 45 / Cow Creek. How clever am I? Ride the Moots Routt 45 on Routt 45, the very road after which this bike was named and film it. Brilliant! It’s also handy the bike has 45mm of tyre clearance, but I’ll save those facts and more for the review.
Normally, I’m alone on quiet gravel roads when shooting scenes of review bikes, but Routt 45 saw a steady stream of racers gathering tribal knowledge of the road, which happened to be the final gravel sector for all three courses of SBT GRVL.
Naming a few riders, I ran into Kae Takeshita of the Panaracer gravel team in the company of Judah Sencenbaugh, and none other than Yuri Hauswald in the company of about 30 gravel cyclists!
My drone camera is clever and all that, but he/she/it got a bit confused following me, and decided to latch onto a rider in Yuri’s group, which made for a wee bit of a heart-stopping moment. Naturally, after this close call, I crashed the drone a few minutes later, but thankfully, it lives!
I wrapped up the rest of the day unloading my rental car, settling into the accommodations in the company of Brian Co, the gent behind the VeloWorthy podcast, and in the evening, attending the SBT GRVL VIP shindig. The latter was the who’s who of gravel, fun times except that I forgot to take a single photo… d’oh!
Saturday, August 17, 2019
Saturday began in the company of Matt Stensland, a local to Steamboat Springs and my capable camera-operator and audio expert for the day. The team behind SBT GRVL invited me to work as their “Man on the Street” the day before the race. To say I was flattered is an understatement.
Matt and I had a full schedule of vendor/athlete interviews, I believe we knocked out 32 in all. In between interviews, Matt hurriedly uploaded the minute-long interviews for distribution to social media. You can see some of them by visiting the SBT GRVL Instagram presence (please follow SBT GRVL whilst you’re at it).
The experience was a total blast, I had nothing but fun, met some amazing people and ignored the advice of 60-something year old teammate K-Dogg… stay off your feet as much as possible. I’d worry about that business on race day, what could go wrong, right?!
During a morning interview break, I joined the Chamois Butter crew and a ton of gravel cyclists for a ride to Routt 45 and the summit of Cow Creek Road. Let’s just say more fun was had.
Thanks to everyone who said G’day during the ride and between interviews. I will upload some of the more interesting interviews soon, to be part of the article associated with the race video.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Before I get into the substance of this race report, I need to clear the air about some serious misconceptions related to SBT GRVL. Following is an excerpt from a comment left on the Gravel Cyclist Facebook page recently in response to a press release I posted on behalf of SBT GRVL. “I feel that it is a shame that we have to choose between grassroots gravel racing and corporate gravel racing this weekend”. Comments are always welcome, but please, educate yourself first.
The founders of SBT GRVL, Mark Satkiewicz, Amy Charity and Ken Benesh are worlds apart from the word corporate. For starters, their families and friends have been involved in the long haul bringing this race to fruition. The trio is driven, passionate and have busted their arses making relationships and connections with sponsors, the town of Steamboat Springs and attendees alike. Their parity initiative alone needs serious applause (an eventual goal to see 50/50 participation of men and women at their race), but more than that, they are well organized. Communication with their audience before and after registration opened has been unlike anything I’ve seen. Racers were kept well-informed of virtually every detail, and always with a sense of gratitude to the riders signed up for their race… which sold out in about just a few days.
What is the SBT GRVL team guilty of? Having their $hit together, and showing everyone how to run a world-class gravel event on their first attempt. SBT GRVL is family-friendly, inclusive, positive and challenging to anyone who lines up to race. If the definition of grassroots nowadays is pissing and moaning that an event you like clashes with another, you need to get a serious grip on reality. Gravel is here to stay and growing. There are clashes everywhere, just take a look at the Gravel Cyclist calendar!
Pro riders are changing how some gravel races play out, but guess what? None of what the pro riders get up to is of concern to me. I’m sure that sentiment is shared by 95% of us who ride on gravel roads. Sure, I love chatting to the pro’s, interviewing them, reading their race reports and seeing images of the front group battling it out. With that said, my experience with just about every pro rider who races on gravel has been positive, sans negative attitudes and elitist behavior. That means all of us can ride together in harmony and choose whatever event we like to ride or race, sans judgment. I enjoy making friends, producing videos, taking in the scenery, camaraderie, beer hand-ups at rest stops, and once in a while, challenging myself. Moving on…
Black, Blue, and Green
For the three race distances, Black (140 miles), Blue (100 miles) and Green (37 miles), all began at 6:30am, staggered at five-minute intervals, from beautiful downtown Steamboat Springs. Due to media obligations (this is the best excuse ever) and reminding myself I don’t breathe too well at altitude, I would be partaking in the 100-mile distance.
An hour before the race, the streets were almost empty. SBT GRVL was set up and ready to go; fences in place, an announcer on the P.A. but no gravel cyclists. Had the world ended? My theory is everyone held out until the last possible moment, because walking around in low 40’s Fahrenheit temperatures isn’t always fun, particularly if you’re dressing light in line with the warmer temperatures forecast for later in the day.
Yours truly was adorned with a summer-weight jersey and bib shorts, lightweight arm warmers, lightweight long-finger gloves, and a vest/gillet. The vest comes in handy for cool descents and in the event of an errant rainstorm. My Moots Routt 45 review bike was adorned with a saddlebag, two x one-litre Zefal magnum bottles, two x GoPro Hero7 Black cameras (thank you GoPro for your support!) and accompanying remotes for the cameras. The chores of navigation were handled by the very capable Garmin 830. If you’re looking for a cycling computer with superb navigation capabilities, crystal clear colour touch-screen and features such as ClimbPro, I cannot recommend this device enough. Do yourself a favor and check out my Part One review of the Garmin 830 here.
Pictured above is the Man on the Street scene filmed by Matt Stensland, pre-race. After a rendition of Stars and Stripes, the US National anthem, sung by a lad whose name I forget (sorry), the field headed out for 140 mega miles on some of the best gravel roads on the planet.
Much as I was hoping to start from the back of the 100-mile race, I found myself at the head of affairs in the company of Tiffany Cromwell and other bad arse riders. Yikes! 6:35am ticked over, and our massed throng of century-bound gravel cyclists rolled away from downtown Steamboat Springs, Colorado!
The pace was neutral and quite pleasant until the speed picked up once our dutiful police escort had departed the scene. I’d ignored my interview legs until now, when they reminded me they didn’t appreciate standing around on Saturday, and thus were grumpy poo poo pants about riding uphill.
They made this abundantly clear when the group scaled the steep paved climb just around the corner from Moots HQ. All too quickly, yours truly was out the back door of the group, dangling ahead of a huge group of riders just behind. I don’t know the exact count, but I understand over 1,200 riders were in attendance for the inaugural SBT GRVL.
The pavement of Elk River Road gave way to a left-hand turn onto the first gravel road of the day, County Road 44. Then the views began.
Look left and right, mountain scenery. Look behind, more of the same. Look ahead, riders strung out in the distance in the early light of the day, the moon hanging high above in the perfectly clear blue sky.
Each kilometer that rolled beneath my wheels leads to more and more stunning scenery. My legs may have been on a bad day during this early juncture, but my vision was in sensory overload. Effectively immediately, I was on the SBT GRVL Sightseeing Tour!
At kilometre #33 or a smidge over 20 miles into the course, the KOM / QOM came into sight. My Garmin 830 ably warned me of its imminent approach, made extra special by red highlights that indicate gradients of greater than eight percent… ruh roh!
Colorado typically features gentler, longer climbs, but this particular berg was about five kilometres in length, and I’m figuring some steep pitches of 12% or higher.
The KOM / QOM wasn’t overly difficult but I wondered about the teeth-gritting pace set by the front group on this climb.
I’d made the wise move of installing a smaller inner chainring on my Moots Routt 45 review bike. In stock form, the Shimano Ultegra 8000 series crankset is available with a 46/36 pairing, which is great for cyclocross, but extended gravel climbing, not so much. Thank you to my friends at Wickwerx, I nabbed the 33T small ring from their 41/33 CX/gravel pairing. I’ll be reviewing these chainrings over the long-haul, but suffice to say, a 33T x 34T low gear was nice to have at times. Why turn squares when you can turn a higher cadence and save your legs?
What goes up must come down. There was an abundance of descending along the course to test everyone’s mettle.
The descents were not overly technical, even from my recollection of the 140 miler. Check out my video tips for descending on gravel at this link.
Aid Station #1 of six came into view about 26 miles / 42 kilometres into the course. The aid station was laden with Gu Stroopwafel, Gu and Roctane hydration, all of which are among my hydration and event food of choice. There was plenty of other foodstuffs to choose from, hats off to the promoters for providing a huge variety for all, and many thanks to Gu Energy for their generous support of the event.
During the journey to Steamboat Lake which sat roughly plumb in the middle of Aid Station #1 / #2, I met the first of several characters that were real bright points of my day. Pictured above is Houndstooth kit lady, aka Yolanda. For obvious reasons, her kit drew a lot of attention. For the non-car enthusiast crowd reading this report, houndstooth was a popular interior seat inlay option among some of the Chevrolet Camaro’s for 1968 / 1969. Classy.
All SBT GRVL courses featured some pavement, but all of it was smooth and fast, and mostly free of vehicular traffic.
Paved descents were blazing fast, and only limited by your gearing or ability to tuck and get aero.
Designing a good course is a tricky proposition, but utilizing aid stations more than once is key to efficiency and less volunteers. Thus, once the big loop of Steamboat Lake was complete, the course took us almost due south towards Aid Station #1 / #2, which is when my legs finally started coming around.
I’ll attribute my overall feeling of betterment to the two or three cans of Peet’s coffee I chugged at Aid Station #2. Definitely not recommended, but if you enjoy a caffeine / sugar buzz as part of an almost all-liquid race diet, this is the way to go!
The aid stations were spaced generally no further than 25 miles / 40kms apart, and later in the race, at least on the 100-mile course, there were bonus vendor aid stations. SBT GRVL’s aid station situation was a pleasant experience; no death march suffer fests of riding 50 – 75 or greater miles between aid stations / water stops.
Sure, I appreciate those challenges as well, but sometimes, I don’t want to carry a ton of crap onboard, and such preparation can be intimidating to a rider new to gravel racing. SBT GRVL has it absolutely spot on for the 100-mile distance. Next year, I may have to up the ante and knock out the 140… but some additional rest and oxygen may be needed first!
Once I finally got around to departing Aid Station #2, I felt A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. I’m not going to analyze whether it was the coffee I had induced (apparently caffeine helps reduce the effect of perceived effort?) or that my legs had finally awoken but I wasn’t going to argue.
The views, they continued to impress. To those racing at the pointy end, I hope you managed a sneak look at the scenery versus looking at wheels / cassettes all day, because when you’re riding tourist-style, you see a whole lot more!
Now it’s time to introduce the next set of characters I met during my SBT GRVL journey; the Moots groupie crew from Arkansas and Beat Box Lad.
If you ride a long enough event, you eventually find your crew for the day. You may yo-yo back and forth up the climbs and down the descents, but invariably, you’ll see a lot of the same people riding about the same pace as you.
The Moots groupie crew are from somewhere close to Little Rock, Arkansas – if I’ve gotten that wrong, forgive me. However, I understand all of these lads are good mates with the owner of Moots, Brent Whittington, who himself recently moved from Arkansas to make his home in Steamboat Springs.
Beat Box Lad was a young fellow toting around a Bluetooth speaker setup on his handlebars. Determined by his tireless riding on the front, I knew he had a mountain biking background. To enjoy a good experience riding with mountain bikers, gravel cyclists and anyone really, I highly recommend you check out this article (gravel racing tips for mega success… probably not).
Post-race, I learned that Beat Box Lad was just 16 years of age, but you wouldn’t have known it. Mature beyond his years, hats off to his parents for raising a good lad!
Above, cresting the summit of a steep climb, riders were rewarded with a vendor Aid Station hosted by my friends at Orange Seal. The company’s Endurance formula sealant is my go-to for anything tubeless. There was a fine selection of whiskey shots and more available at this stop, should you have chosen to imbibe.
Just a mile or two down the road was an official aid station, hosted by Alpine Bank.
The volunteers staffing this aid station were in party mode, but you’ll have to wait and see my race video which better visualizes this scene.
Around 81 miles / 131 kilometres, the final kick in the pants hit riders in the face on the 100-mile course. A tough, steep climb followed by a short flat section, and upward again with gradients in the low teens.
Because I was feeling so A-M-A-Z-I-N-G from my earlier coffee run, and further fueled by a couple of Gu gels and a Coke, these climbs didn’t give me too much trouble, although I wasn’t exactly setting any speed records. If you’re reading this report, don’t underestimate gearing. I highly recommend a double chainring with at least a 34 x 32T low gear… but a 1 to 1 ratio would be handy if you’re feeling the pinch.
Pictured above is the summit of Cow Creek Road / Routt 45, and the final dirt and gravel sector for the 2019 SBT GRVL.
The final sector may have been mostly downhill, but it was arguably the trickiest sector of the 100-mile course.
There were one or two loose, rocky sections along the way, but my Moots Routt 45 rolled over the loose stuff like a champ.
It was no coincidence the final vendor Aid Station along Routt 45 was hosted by Moots, because they’re clever like that.
I rode the final sector of pavement into town with the ladies pictured above and below.
We swapped turns all the way into town, to wrap up an amazing day of fun, followed by an excellent post-race meal with beer.
Would I race / ride SBT GRVL again? Yes! I’ve ridden and attended a lot of gravel races in my time and SBT GRVL makes my Top 3 BEST EVER events. It has it all:
- Scenery off-the-chart ✓
- Well-organized ✓
- Excellent courses ✓
- Plenty of aid stations ✓
- So much to do in the area ✓
- Excellent accommodation options ✓
- Food and restaurant options ✓
- Family-friendly atmosphere ✓
- NOT corporate ✓
Thank you to SBT GRVL and the huge team of volunteers!
If you happen to dig Strava (I seldom upload), you can check out my SBT GRVL 100-miler ride here.
The fun happens again on August 16, 2020, I hope to see you there!
Coming soon, my two-part 2019 SBT GRVL video experience!