SBT GRVL – The Best Bike Race in North America

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By Peter Abraham — Recently I rode in the SBT GRVL event for the third time. I keep coming back because the event is so good. But what does that mean exactly? What’s the draw of a “good” race? Which series of factors add up to make an event special rather than just “fine?” I’ve spent my entire life participating in outdoor sports all over the world, and I would put SBT GRVL into the “magical” category, along with experiences like skiing in Chamonix, surfing in Bali and climbing in the Grand Tetons. When you are practicing your passion in these places, the combination of conditions, culture and community just make you smile. Started in 2019, SBT has steadily grown in size and importance to become one of the world’s largest and most important gravel events.

Here’s how I’d explain the magic of SBT GRVL:

SBT GRVL has champagne gravel and beautiful scenery. Photo by Natalie Starr

The course and the terrain: The route and environment are the foundations of a great outdoor sports experience. Whether that’s great surf in Hawaii or running through Central Park in the New York City Marathon, you can’t have a great experience without great conditions. In Steamboat this means smooth “champagne gravel,” which allows you to travel faster and see more with a less jarring ride. And the chances of flat tires and crashes go down significantly compared with some other events on extremely chunky gravel roads. (In full disclosure, I broke a spoke at mile 15 of this year’s race. Although this happened on a smooth uphill and the mishap was unrelated to the route, my day was over in less than an hour.) The terrain surrounding Steamboat does not fit into the popular perception of “Rocky Mountains.” The mountains are rounded, the valleys wide and filled with cattle ranches, and the climbs not too severe. The terrain is far more rolling and generally enjoyable than you’d expect from a race in Colorado. This makes the courses at SBT accessible for all abilities and the challenge of racing here is how fast you can go.

SBT GRVL weaves through cattle ranches. Photo by Thomas Braun

The diversity: This is what separates SBT from every other bike race in the country, or maybe the world. I first rode the race during its inaugural year in 2019. That weekend I saw a total of two riders of color out of 1,500 participants. There may have been a couple more, but I didn’t see them. I called the founders, whom I knew, after the race and offered to help get more diverse communities out to the race the following year. I credit SBT co-founder and owner Amy Charity for fully committing to creating a diverse event. Inclusiveness is one of the core values of the race. This year there were, anecdotally, more riders of color present than at any bike race I’ve been to in my 40 years in the sport. It was astonishing; SBT looks and feels different from every other cycling event in the country. And it’s not only riders of color. Marley Blonsky had many of her All Bodies on Bikes athletes there, trans and non-binary athletes participated, a diverse group of young riders from Los Angeles were there with the Bahati Foundation. What I’ve learned by participating in and working at hundreds of endurance events is that a race is much more fun for everyone if it feels like “the whole world” is there. Bike racing has been historically dominated by white males, and it’s great to see that SBT is leading the charge to change that.

Participants can soak in the river after the race. Photo by Linda Guerrette

The town: Steamboat Springs, Colorado checks all the right boxes for a host community: It’s small but not too small, there’s an abundance of Airbnb housing (empty ski season condos) within an easy bike ride of town and Steamboat is full of tourist amenities. Importantly, the high quality cycling routes and beautiful gravel roads start right from the center of town. SBT fits into the “small town takeover” category of gravel races. What makes this so fun is you see everyone from the event all the time throughout the weekend. The casual collisions with old and new friends make for a spectacular community experience that exists alongside of the bike race.

Keegan Swenson on his way to the win at SBT GRVL 2023. Photo by Dane Cronin

The competition: SBT has become, along with Life Time Grand Prix event Unbound Gravel, one of the two most important bike races in America. So pros like Petr Vakoc, from the Czech Republic, fly in from around the world. Australian Olympian and Tour de France Femmes veteran Tiffany Cromwell was 2nd in the women’s race. She’s traveling around the US with her partner, Formula One star Valtteri Bottas, riding in gravel events. While the competition is fierce, everyone is here to enjoy the experience. Even the pros. One of the hallmarks of gravel events is the spirit of community and fun. And generally participants don’t take things too seriously in spite of the real challenge present from riding up to 140 miles on gravel roads.

SBT GRVL has an inviting expo. Photo by Linda Guerette.

The expo and industry presence: Cycling is a big ecosystem composed of businesses small and large, events, media and athletes. The best sports events have all of these things, and they create a flywheel effect; the sum is greater than the parts. At SBT there is a growing list of bicycle-related businesses who set up activations to show their wares to participants and media. The more athletes at the event, the more desirable it is for brands to come to Steamboat for the weekend. With 3,000 participants, SBT has become a marketing hot spot for brands. The industry presence brings a circus atmosphere and activity to what would already be a fun weekend. The scale and impact of any gravel race grows substantially with a large expo full of tents & activities.

 

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