LAST UPDATED: 1 June 2023
Spotlight: SBT GRVL
From scratch to getting sold out in its second year, SBT GRVL has been a gravel racing sensation - we go behind the scenes with race owner Amy Charity.
Gravel racing has been one of the fastest growing sectors in mass-participation sports over the last decade or so, particularly in the US, where high-profile races like UNBOUND Gravel, Rebecca’s Private Idaho and Belgian Waffle Ride have grown massively in popularity, attracting a broad range of both veteran and newcomer cyclists to the sport.
It’s against this backdrop that in 2019 professional road racer Amy Charity launched her own gravel race around the ski resort town of Steamboat Springs, CO, where she then lived. As Forbes magazine put it, SBT GRVL went on to become a remarkable overnight success, selling out in just 9 minutes in its second year and becoming one of the best gravel racing experiences in the world.
So what has been the secret to the race’s massive success? That’s what we’re here to find out with Amy’s help - and in the process learn a thing or two about the unstoppable sensation that is gravel racing.
In this episode:
- An "overnight success": planning and launching SBT GRVL
- The importance of local infrastructure in supporting a world-class race
- Building community relations and being a respectful "guest" in the local community
- The appeal and insane growth of US gravel racing
- Road racing vs gravel racing vs mountain biking
- How inclusivity helped propel gravel racing's growth
- The cost advantages/disadvantages of organizing a gravel race vs a road race
- Making SBT GRVL a more welcoming event for female athletes and newcomers
- Including a non-competitive e-bike category into the event
- Activating sponsorships year-round through grassroots and team-building events
- Offering a VIP package/experience option
- Bringing the SBT GRVL brand to Europe with FNLD GRVL
Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 26,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Amy, welcome to the podcast!
Thank you for having me!
Well, thank you very much for coming on. I'm so excited to have you on the podcast today. Thank you very much for taking the time from what must be a very busy schedule. You have a couple of races planned that we're going to be talking about. First things first. Am I correct in assuming you're currently logging in from Steamboat Springs, Colorado?
That is correct. Yes, it is a snowy April morning here in Steamboat Springs.
Still, in April, you get snow?
Yeah, it's funny how it happens here. But April is the time when the skiers are still excited to get in their last-minute runs and then the cyclists are ready to dust off their bikes. So it's kind of back and forth between which sport you can do. But I think the cyclists are sitting out for a while on this one. There's still a tonne of snow here.
Well, that's Colorado for you - like, active people everywhere, right?
Exactly. Yes. And Steamboat is the epicentre for just all different sports. So yeah, it's a very active community.
So are you a native Colorado? Were you born in Colorado?
Yes. Even my dad and grandmother were both born in Colorado. I was born in Colorado - my sister as well. So we take a lot of pride in being native to the state. So yes, I was born in a town called Fort Collins. It's on the front range of the state.
When you were growing up in Colorado, was there the same kind of, like, fitness outdoorsy kind of culture that we identify Colorado with today? Was that how it used to be back in the day as well?
Yeah. I would say it was definitely a part of my upbringing and what I was familiar with. Walking or riding my bike to school or to swim practice was very normal. My parents got my sister and I out on some hikes. I remember that we were at a younger age and we didn't quite get it. We didn't appreciate the whole walking up the hill and then walking back down it. I remember having those discussions with my parents and, now, they think it's so funny that I absolutely love and am passionate about everything outdoors. So I think that it is very common in an upbringing in Colorado to be outside and be very active.
Yeah. I mean, who would blame you for all the beautiful mountains and all that amazing nature you guys have up there? It's only natural to want to spend time outside.
You learned very young that you just dress for the condition so that, on a snowy day, you can still go on a run and you can still do a lot outside. You just dress for it. So I think that was part of the upbringing as well.
Awesome. Okay, listen, I want to jump straight into it because we have so many very exciting ground to cover today. And we have two stories to get into today - that of Steamboat Springs and Steamboat Gravel, of course - the amazing race you started a few years back. But before that, we have another amazing story to get into, which is you because I've been looking online about what you've been doing before Steamboat Gravel, and it's a very fascinating story. A late comer into professional cycling, moving back and forth between finance and professional cycling. I've got a couple of friends who are sort of facing the same conundrum at this moment. So tell our listeners everything about it. Like, how did you get into professional cycling and how did you end up starting Steamboat Gravel?
Yeah. My background in getting into professional racing is probably not the most common although there there are a lot of different ways to get into it. Straight out of college, I went into financial services. I got a job at Capital One and worked in credit card and banking industry for nine years. Cycling was just sort of a way to get to know the different places I lived. I lived all over the US and then, ultimately, in England for the last four years at Capital One. The bike was a great way to see the country, to go to different countries around Europe, and really just a way to stay fit. At the time, I was dabbling in triathlon. So, that was sort of how I was able to fulfil on that competitive side but, really, as an amateur. Work and career were my focus throughout my 20s. In 2008, I moved from England back to Steamboat Springs and worked in a handful of different industries and ultimately landed at a hedge fund in Steamboat, working in investor relations. I did a bike race at the age of 34 and it went really well. It was a hill climb. I was a complete newbie. I didn't know what I was doing. But luckily, the hillclimb is fairly straightforward and I somehow took the win in that race, and it really ignited a spark into bike racing. I spent the rest of the summer doing every single criterium road race time trial that I could and really rose through the ranks from a category four to a category two cyclist in Colorado. I sent my resume around and ended up getting a contract with a domestic elite team out of California. So at this point, I'm 34. I'm knee-deep in a great career. I work for a job. I love a company I love. I lived in Steamboat Springs, and went to my boss and said, "I have a pro contract. There are 70 races on race days on the calendar. I'd like to do this. Can I do both?" And it was really one of those. There's no way you can do both. This is a very demanding job. Cycling pro racing sounds very demanding and it's decision time for you. I think it's funny when I look back at how that decision was made. I think of my parents' reaction of just like, "You're leaving your well-established career to be a bike racer?" And at the time, my salary was literally bikes and kit - there was, like, no actual salary - but it was so worth it to me. It was actually a no-brainer. It was this thought of, "Where can I take a cycling career?" I never want to look back when I'm older and say, "Oh, I maybe could have been a great cyclist or I could have been professional, but I prioritise my sort of financial career." So I jumped off the cliff and became a professional cyclist and spent the next four years racing all over the US, South America, and Europe and was lucky enough to race on the US team - race for one of the top teams in the country - called Optum at the time. I never made it to the Olympics. I was fortunate enough to race in the world championships but really found my place as a domestique. So that was especially coming in later in the sport. That was a great role for me and I absolutely loved it.
Yeah, I'm sure when your boss sat you down and walked you through your choices, he wasn't expecting the answer that you went back to him with, right?
No. If you made a piece of paper, you're like, "Here are all the reasons to stay in your career" and that list would have been over 100 things long, and then all the reasons to become a professional cyclist would have been, like, three things. But the most compelling thing was I was really passionate about it and driven, and I had to know what it was all about. It really took the career for a dramatic term. I think that was probably - if you think of life turning points - like, the most dramatic shift in the path I was on to a very different path.
A few years back, I read Chrissie Wellington's autobiography, which is, like, super awesome Ironman triathlete, 6-7 times world winner kind of thing. She also started out fairly late and actually quite similar to you, kind of. Like, she had a regular job, but she was quite active. Then, she started doing a few races and started winning a couple of them or whatever. Then, she went on to dominate. Don't you find it amazing that a lay person - for lack of a better word - would just dabble in this and they would be so good that they start winning races because you'd think that the professionals, for all of us, I would say, amateur athletes, they look like completely out of reach and yet, some people like yourselves and others can just go out of the regular job, show up, obviously, with a bit of training and still good do quite well.
Yeah. I think there are a few factors in that one. I think women in particular can get better - and stay strong - in endurance later in their lives. So I think that's really something that we see again and again. There are some very strong women in triathlon, in cycling, and a lot of these in trail running, in these sports in their late 30s and early 40s, that are still competitive with those in their 20s. So I think some of that is just, like, physiologically advancing in those later years specifically for women. I also think that there are other components which you touched on, which is I've always done sports and I'm sure Chrissie had as well. So, it's kind of a lifetime of endurance and you combine that with a bit of, kind of-- you have a bit more mental maturity and some mental toughness. If you can take all of those things and apply them, I think the message is, "It's not too late and that there probably is a lot of undiscovered talent out there among people who are in their day jobs and doing sports on the side." I see it every day in Steamboat Springs just done among my peers that are not professional athletes, but have an incredible potential with sport. So I think that you combine all of that with passion and what you're interested in doing, and I think that you can really tap into talent that would have otherwise been undiscovered.
Okay, so you were then racing with Optum. You were all over the world with your cycling career, but that was all road racing stuff. How did the transition into gravel happen for you?
So I retired from road racing - it's a term used loosely, but essentially done with being on a racing team - and spent the year of 2017 still trying to determine like, "Oh, what will I do for sport?" And I just kind of went back to doing a variety of sports. In 2018, somebody reached out and said, "Hey, there's this race at the time called Dirty Kanza." It's now called Unbound Gravel. And they said, "Hey, maybe you should do this race. It'll get you back into training a lot and just see what it's about." In 2018, Unbound was just about to get on more and more people's radars. Now, it's a race that sells out. It's very popular for gravel events. I got an entry - Chamois Butt'r gave me an entry and so I raced for them. It was just one of those experiences that-- it's a 200-mile race for those of you that don't know. It's in the Flint Hills of Kansas and you are out there 200 miles no matter how fit you are, no matter what your background is. It's a long day on a bike. It is a day where you go through the highest highs, the lowest lows. My husband and I both did it and we were driving home from Emporia on this absolute racing high, just like, "That was incredible. What just happened?" We were relaying stories from each one of our days, and we said, "Gosh, we have such good gravel around Routt County - the county where Steamboat Springs is. We should think about doing something." We looked at the gravel calendar ready to sign up for our next race and they were in places like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Beaver, Utah, and a handful on the East Coast. There really wasn't a well-established race in the Rocky Mountains. So we kind of got it in our mindset, "Wow, this could be something that we do." I bumped into a friend of mine who was formerly the CEO of SmartWool. He had moved to California. He was coming back to Steamboat or essentially retired. And he said, "I was thinking we should do a gravel race in Steamboat." And I'd like, "Me too! That's literally what I've been thinking about as well." So he and I went out to dinner and we literally, on a napkin, kind of wrote down the plan. I remember the conversation so well. We said, "Should we do kind of a regional race or something that appeals to Colorado? Or why don't we go a little bigger? Should we make this a national-scale race?" And then we said, "You know what? I think steamboat is probably the best place in the world to ride a gravel bike. We can handle this. We have the infrastructure. Why don't we make this an international-- like, biggest in the world, best in the world gravel event?" So we both went in with a lot of ambition and, literally, at that dinner in July of 2018, put the fundamental pieces in place to launch SBT Gravel in 2019.
So 2019 was indeed the first year for Steamboat Gravel. By now, you wouldn't believe this race only started a few years ago. Like, it's already sold out for 2023. It's being mentioned alongside, as you said, Unbound and other huge gravel races as sort of, like, one of the best gravel races in the world, and it does look amazing. I stumbled into a Forbes article about Steamboat, which called the race, and I quote, "An overnight success." Is this sort of how it feels to you - an overnight success?
Yeah, you could say that from the outside. There's a lot that happens in the background to make something an overnight success. I think we had a lot in our favour. Steamboat is an amazing place to host a race. So we were very fortunate that we live here. We're very well connected in the community of Steamboat. So, for me to call the city manager, the chamber, the different local businesses, all of the key stakeholders in Steamboat was-- I could walk out my door and call a friend, text a friend, and make a lot happen here. My former business partner had a lot of connections based on his career path and being kind of the C-suite level and in outdoor brands, and that was helpful to bring in some sponsors. And then, I had just left pro racing, so I had those connections among kind of race directors and cycling clubs, and was really well integrated into the cycling community, definitely in the US, but even extended into Europe. So I think that was kind of the perfect mix to launch something and, at least, get the word out in a really impactful way that hadn't been done in cycling. So, that was the big piece of it - the marketing side of it and the branding side of what we were creating. The overnight success was the trickier part. So we proved that we could put a race out there, but where you really have to come through is, "Can you execute? And can you make it this incredible race?" And that was behind the scenes, literally, every single day. We would sit in each other's living rooms, go through the plan, and work through every single detail of execution. So while I think the outside impression was, "Wow, they pulled it off. That was an overnight success," which is just incredible to hear. There was a lot that happened in the background to get it to that point.
As is the case with all overnight successes.
I mean, Bob Bickel of RunSignup has this saying where he says for RunSignup that, "We're an overnight success, sort of, like, 20 years in the making or something." Right? I mean, people see the endpoint. They don't see everything that comes before that. Another point you were making to me, actually, last time we spoke that I think is really important here is the infrastructure in terms of-- I'm thinking accommodation and other kinds of stuff because there's so many beautiful places in the world to put on races and lots of people start out with an ambition of, "Oh, what a magical place. It's perfect for this type of event we're setting up. Let's do a race here." But then, to really grow into a world-class event, you need to be able to take care of the people who fly out - I mean, if it is to become an international kind of event, and you guys were quite fortunate to have that aspect as well.
Yeah. Steamboat is unique in that way that it is a ski destination and Steamboat is used to accommodating tens of thousands of people in the winter as one of the, kind of, world-class ski resorts. So, to have the lodging-- we have an airport locally. All of the infrastructure and restaurants here in Steamboat is very unique to have that world-class resort right next to a ranching community. That is not the case with other mountain towns across Colorado and from what I've seen in other states as well. So for us to have to be able to accommodate people in literally any level of lodging they would like to have and any kind of restaurant they'd like to come to, Steamboat is a destination and we happen to have these incredible gravel roads - literally 600 miles, in our county, of gravel roads that are right here next to a resort.
Yeah, we'll get into that a bit later in the podcast. The cycling crowds do enjoy a Michelin-star restaurant and a five-star hotel before race day.
With good food and coffee, you can usually make every cyclist happy. Absolutely.
So just to give people, like, an idea of where Steamboat is today, can you tell us a little bit about the distances you offer, why you chose to offer those distances, and their capacity that you have on those distances? I already mentioned that, for 2023, at least, it seems that you're totally sold out. So give us a little bit of an idea of where the event is right now in terms of the volume of people.
Yeah. So when we launched in 2019, we wanted 1,500 people. That was a number we came up with that we thought we can make a great experience for this number of people. We think that there'll be spread out enough on course and that this is something we can accommodate. At some point, we think that the experience-- there's a bit of a demise in the experience when you have too many people and we tried to find what that number is, and 1500 felt like a good starting point. That first year, we also started with three race distances. The trend in gravel was something really long and challenging. So I mentioned Unbound was 200. We came up with 144 miles with 9,000 feet of climbing, and it's a big day. It's a hard day. We're at elevation. We're in the mountains. It's a very demanding course. So the logic behind that distance was really-- the course is essentially a figure eight. We didn't want to get too far from Steamboat just for safety reasons and just to be able to support the race from the infrastructure perspective, and still have something very long. We came up with a middle distance of a 100-mile race, and that was kind of for the person who wants to go far but 144 is a bit much. And then we came up with our green course, which is really the intro to gravel racing. 37 miles. It's a great loop. It's close to town and it's really a way for someone who is just getting into gravel or maybe older or juniors or somebody who hasn't had the training that they would have liked so they can do this race and something that they can complete in under three hours or somewhere less than that. So the three distances, we thought, made sense to make sure that we can accommodate that ultra athlete who wants to go far and then the very beginner. We have and we've grown very strategically and intentionally to what is now 3000 people - that's the same number we had last year. We do a lottery and the reason for the lottery is in-- before we knew 2020 would be cancelled, we opened up registration and it filled up in nine minutes, and that nine minutes was really what the system could accommodate. And we heard from people later that day, like, "Hey, I'm a doctor. I was in surgery when you open registration." Or "I'm a teacher. I was teaching a class." So it felt unfair and we had a really hard time with those. Like, you're out saving lives and you missed our race. That seems unfair. Or someone said, "My internet was really slow. I live in a rural town and I didn't get in." So that was really what drove our decision to move to a lottery. It's just an algorithm. We're not favouring people who have flexible schedules and fast internet to get into our race. So we move in that direction and now we're at 3000. We think that's really the distance that we know that we can serve and we can create a great experience of, "Our roads aren't too overcrowded. There's plenty of lodging and accommodation for those people." So we did our lottery in December. We're full. We're absolutely full for August, which is a great place to be. I think if I sort of look at your long-term planning, I think we will keep it in that range for the size. We think we found the right size for a good gravel event. And we've since added one more distance. We had some feedback that people wanted that kind of 100K distance, Aad that's actually becoming one of our more popular distances. We're seeing some interesting trends that fewer people are doing the longest ride and the most popular is the 100-mile and the 100K is a close second. And then the third most popular is our longest. So we're watching that trend to see kind of what that's about. But we are seeing people go into those shorter, more moderate distances in the race.
Yeah, I actually had the chance to watch some videos online of people taking on your black course - your 144 miles. Couple of folks from GCN - they look terribly exhausted by the end of it. To me, as a next road cyclist, I wouldn't necessarily think that 144 miles is too much of a challenge. I mean, it's a long distance, but it's not prohibitively long. But then, I guess, gravel and the elevation and everything makes everything so much harder, right?
Yeah. I love both Manon and Si did the SBT Black course - our long one - and their recounts are so hilarious because they both had kind of roadie backgrounds, and you just don't even know, in the middle of the documentary, if they're gonna finish and they're like trying pickle juice for the first time. It's hilarious to watch. You're absolutely right. Altitude is demanding. Gravel is slower. The roads feel heavier. Even though we have really smooth gravel here relative to other locations, it's still very demanding. You just see people after the finish of that Black course and you know they've had a really big day.
So you mentioned that 2019 was the first year the race was put on. Then, the next year after that - which I think was 2021 after COVID - the race sells out inside of nine minutes, which is amazing. It's an amazing achievement, if you think of it. Now, I wonder, with a race like Steamboat Gravel, which takes place over hundreds of miles, how warmly was the race received by the local community? Because I see, particularly, with road races and some races that require road closures lately, perhaps some races getting more pushback from local communities because of the inconvenience they sometimes cause to local residents due to road closures and all that. How have been your relations with the local community in bringing this concept to Steamboat?
Yeah. When I think through kind of where we put our effort, I think this is something that has been the most critical piece of all and that is maintaining a really strong relationship with the community of Steamboat. Our race doesn't happen without this community getting behind us. So we look at a bunch of different factors. But most importantly, we look at how do we minimise any sort of negative impact. Negative impact being, like, disruption, road closures, and that type of thing. We shut down our downtown for the entire weekend, but it's an off-street that isn't too heavily-trafficked and there's another way around. So those are literally the only roads we close in our downtown. Then, out on the county roads, the gravel roads are all open. So what we really work to is how do we make sure that the ranching community knows that we're coming to bringing this many riders to Steamboat and that will be out there, and we educate the riders as well. So we've done safety videos on, "Here's what you do when you encounter livestock. Here is here are the points of interest. There's bison that you'll be riding by here. Here's where you're going to see the herons that are out." We talk about sort of what is out there and we work closely with our local agriculture community to make sure that ag and rec that historically didn't go together are very much aligned. I work with the Community Ag Alliance on not only financial donations. We attend all of their board meetings. They know exactly what to expect and when to expect that. So a really critical piece is making sure that we minimise that negative impact. And then, the flip side of that is what are all the tremendous positive impacts that we can have. Financial is just one piece of it, and that's important, but I'd say that, more importantly, it's working with local nonprofits. So we have year-round relationships with a lot of nonprofits in the area that are getting kids on bikes that are underprivileged youth in Steamboat. There is a lot that we work with on a regular basis. So, just absolutely integral in our entire planning of SBT was, "How do we make sure we are good stewards of our community? How do we make sure that our community wants us to be here?" We see other events that don't have the same reception as we do, and I think a lot of it is our absolute year-round dedication to making sure that Steamboat-- we communicate well, they know we're coming, they know what to expect, and that we're contributing to our community in a really positive way. We have somebody on staff who is-- her full-time job is community relations and advocacy. So it's year-round for her to work on programmes that will benefit SBT and make sure people know about what we're doing here in our community. I think that is this ongoing. It's not a given forever that they will always welcome us. I think the trend that you're seeing is out there and it's something that we work on every single day to make sure that our committee wants us here.
Yes. I think we need to remind ourselves-- I don't remember who it was that said - maybe it was Brian from Around the Crowd - that, essentially, all race directors really, at the end of the day, were all guests in the community. Right? I mean, we shouldn't feel entitled that it's our right to put on races. It's a privilege and we need to act like it, and people need to be-- as you say, whatever concerns there might be in the community, even if, in some cases, we may consider some of those to be a little over the top or perhaps a little annoying or whatever, it's our responsibility to work with local communities and it's our responsibility to address those concerns because that's where people live, that's their homes, and we need to respect that.
Yeah, it was really embedded in our very initial conversations. We are all passionate about Steamboat. That's a key piece of this when I think of the that our team is a part of. Steamboat is a cycling community. It's a gravel community, it's a business community, it's the Steamboat community, and we are all passionate about living here. We love this place. We want Steamboat to have a good experience. We welcome locals. Locals get early registration access. We work with a lot of local businesses. So it's imperative that our town continues to want us to be here and that we are making a very strong impact on our town.
I want to talk a little bit about gravel. I think it's a great opportunity for people listening in - most of them are probably running race directors or even, like, triathlon multisport race directors - to get to know a little bit about gravel racing, the industry, and how the whole sport looks at the moment because it's been through a crazy growth phase to such an extent that, over a few years, you were telling me the other day, it's close to coming up to saturation points in the US. It grew really that fast out of, sort of, nowhere. So I want to understand, first of all, just sort of on the technical side of things, what is the definition of gravel? Because for trail races - the various governing bodies - they have rules have requirements. Like, a trail race needs to be that much, at least, unpaved or something to classify it as a trail race. Is there something similar to that - something equivalent in gravel racing - or is it a little bit more I guess loose in terms of interpreting what gravel means?
Yeah. Gravel is in such an interesting stage right now in its lifecycle because I would say that there is no formal definition. What I think most people say is anything unpaved. That said, all of our gravel races have some pavement on them. And if you look across at the other, kind of, major, well-established gravel events, something like a Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego has a lot of roads and they have a lot of single track and there were referred to as a gravel event. So it's very loosely defined, and part of that is because we don't have a governing body. We're not governed by the UCI or USA Cycling or any sort of governing body that would put standards on what it is. So it's really up to the interpretation of the race director to define it as a gravel event. But really, anything unpaved. In our case, it's mostly dirt roads. Then, we have a little bit of double track and we go through a field. We have one tiny section of single track on a private property on our Black course only but, for the most part, it is dirt roads. And yet, if you look at the hundreds of different gravel events in the US, you will see a lot of different interpretations of what gravel is.
On that point of gravel racing lacking an official governing body, I think I read in one of your interviews somewhere and I find it really interesting that you find this to be a good thing. Is that the case? I think your argument there in that article I read was that basically not having a governing body left more room for you and other race directors to sort of do your own thing, mark your own way of doing things without having too much sort of regulations over your heads.
Yeah. I attribute a lot of the success and growth of gravel to being unsanctioned. I think that the race directors have a blank slate to come up with what we want to do in terms of distance, in terms of terrain, and what rules we want to have or not have in the event. And when I look at some of the demises of road racing in the US, I think it's how rule-based and structured it got to the point where it lost some of the element of fun. And I think that we've been able to strike a balance where we can still have a very safe race and we come up with our own rules and regulations. And then, the riders choose. You choose by registering. If you don't like racing with single track or if you don't like a race that has some pavement, you can pick and choose the races that suit you and I think it really helps overall in bringing more people into the sport. I think the more that we define what it has to be and not be, it becomes a bit more sterile, standardise and you lose the personality that we're now able to all put into our race for what we think is going to work and each race director has the freedom to do that. And I think a lot of what is so appealing about gravel is that you can find something very different with each one of these events and you sign up for what is of interest to you.
And in terms of the history of the sport, is it something that sprang as an extension of road racing? Is it more, like, tame mountain biking? How does it all sit? Because I remember-- again, it was some time ago when I was into cycling briefly, and I remember this thing at least back in the day when cyclo-cross was very popular, for instance. You sort of ride a bike that looks like a road bike, but it has sort of, like, dirtier tires, and then sometimes you also pick it up and you walk with it kind of thing. Like, where does it sit within all those different disciplines?
Yeah, if I just say what it's the most closely tied to, I would say road, but it really sits there in the middle of all of those. A gravel bike is very similar to a cross bike. So I think that cross was certainly-- they had that idea of the curly bar bike with a little bit knobbier tires. So gravel fits into all of those. In some events, you do a lot of single tracks, so it looks like mountain biking. But where gravel really allowed itself to open up very differently than crossroad or mountain, any of those have this barrier to entry and they're all different. I think cross is very intimidating. If you don't get on your bike fast or slow, you're not a good runner. There are a lot of sort of barriers that make cross intimidating even though they've mastered that sort of fun and spectator-friendly side of things. I think mountain biking barrier is-- if you don't know how to ride over roots or rocks in most races, you need to know how to ride technical stuff and that's something that you aren't going to take your everyday person-- my mom is not going to sign up for a mountain bike race. Yeah, my mom might sign up for a gravel race. And road racing is a category. So you have to-- am I on category four and how do I sign up? Where do I fit in? I need that one-day race licence. And gravel is, you can be on a mountain bike, you can be on a cross bike, you can be on a road bike if you have pretty solid tires. Ideally, you're on a gravel bike, but really bring any bike. There's no standard of if you're dressing like a roadie or a mountain biker. And if you can ride a bike on dirt which these bikes are made to do, then you can do the event. It's typically a mass start, so you can start with your mom, your dad, your kid, your aunt, your husband, your wife, or whoever you want to start with. We really took that page out of the book from running, which is like, "Let's all go do this. Let's ride together and let's have a fun day." And that's one really welcoming thing that you can do in gravel events, and I think that has shifted the entire paradigm of cycling and brought it back at least in the US to something that the everyday journey person can do, and it's not just for your world tour licence pros to do.
And the gravel racer-- is it also fair to say that he's sort of closest to maybe, like, a road cyclist who also doubles into gravel? What kind of people went into gravel racing from other similar types of cycling events?
It's been amazing to watch that evolution as well. So the bottom line is they come from all disciplines. You have your famous privateers like a Pete Stetina and he was World Tour Pro, and now he's one of the most prolific gravel racers. You have Payson McElveen and he was a mountain biker. Keegan Swenson. He's great at everything, but I think his background was mountain biking. Isabel King was a triathlete. Amity Rockwell was a runner. So you get these really vast-- and then Alison Tetrick was a road cyclist. You really have these different backgrounds that lend way to coming into gravel. So I think, five years ago, it was your retired top-level cyclist or triathlete coming into gravel. And now, what we're seeing is cyclists are choosing gravel and coming in as gravel racers, and it's been fascinating to watch. There's room to make a career as a gravel racer. Brands are behind it. Sponsors are behind it, you can be a privateer and make a living as a gravel cyclist. And so, we're seeing some younger people who actually didn't race on the World Tour Pro team come up through the ranks and choose gravel as their race discipline. That is one sign to me that gravel is going to have some staying power - the brands are behind it, the athletes are making a living, and the races are starting to show some longevity as well.
And yet, besides the elites that you mentioned for whom it's been a very healthy change and has attracted lots of different people into gravel racing at the elite level, you alluded to earlier to the fact that it's also a very accessible sport for ordinary people or ordinary athletes to go into. I was reading yet another article on this in the New York Times, that said, "More accessible than mountain biking. More welcoming than road cycling." I would have thought road cycling is fairly welcoming, I guess - maybe not as much as gravel racing.
That is the most exciting part of gravel racing for me. I think that as everyone in this industry has the ability to increase the size of the pie, basically, we can get more people on bikes because of gravel and that, to me, is so exciting. I think that we don't need to talk about all the benefits of riding a bike from mental health and physical health and every wonderful thing that it does for our society but I think gravel is that inclusive. The youngest person, for example, in our race is seven years old, and the oldest is 82. These are people coming from all walks of life. So gravel is opening that door and becoming very inclusive. I think, from my experience in road racing, I think it's incredibly intimidating. Group rides are scary for a bunch of reasons. I think if you go to a group-riding event across the world but you go to one in Colorado, and it is young, skinny, white, and everyone is wearing the same-looking lycra. I have a pro-racing background and I think they can be scary for me, and I think they're probably scary for a lot of people. That's not the case in gravel. People will show up in buttoned-down floral shirts. There's no kind of the same set standard rule that there is in road racing. And as you mentioned with your mountain biking, you need to have that skill set. With gravel riding, you need to know how to ride a bike, but it doesn't have that same barrier. So gravel is incredibly inclusive and welcoming. And if you come to Steamboat and watch the finish line, you will see literally every body size and every background-- the diversity is more than you would ever see at any other cycling event than I've ever seen in my lifetime at cycling events. And to me, the most exciting thing is the future of what we're able to do for the sport of cycling because of how inclusive gravel is.
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…
And of course, you were making this other point to me the other day - just to take things a little bit back into sort of the race director perspective in all this and sort of the event organiser perspective in all this - that also gravel from a race director point of view is also a much simpler proposition because you don't have all the costs and all the complexities of closing down roads and all other kinds of stuff. I know that particularly policing and traffic management in the US-- the costs have gone through the roof, which have made some events prohibitive, which may be a contributing factor to why you see also trail running doing so well, not that it's easy to obtain permits for trail races as I'm sure it's not that straightforward than it should be for gravel racing, but at least you don't have the cost, right? You don't have all the traffic management and the policing stuff.
Yeah. The operational costs have gone up. In our short five years, they've gone up substantially. We do not shut down roads. We still have Colorado State Patrol. We still have sheriffs who are out there and a bunch of both volunteers and paid course marshals that are making sure that crossing intersections are safe. So that is still an expense and something that you'll put a lot of resources towards. However, we don't shut down roads fully for the day like a road race would need to do. So the cost of that, if you look at your Tour of California or pro challenge that happened 5-10 years ago, those races are probably five or tenfold more expensive from that perspective of making sure that each road is shut down. We're really lucky on these gravel roads that there is minimal traffic. It's ranching traffic and very few people live out in the areas where we ride, and that safety component is what is drawing people to gravel and it does help reduce some of our overall operations expenses and pick more strategic locations where we might need to add some reinforcement for safety, but not an entire road closure. So I think for race directors out there, that is one of the appeals to having a gravel event. You're not disrupting as many people when you find those quieter roads and you can just isolate those spots that might have some impact and make sure someone's there.
And Steamboat-- is that held specifically just on public roads or do you need to obtain permission from private landowners?
We have one section-- it's just a five-mile section that we have a great relationship with a rancher who has lived in Steamboat and his parents lived in Steamboat. We do ride on his course. It helps get us off of a paved road for a short section. He reached out to us and said, "Hey, if you would like to ride on our property, I have this cool thing that not many people get to see." So we are so fortunate. It's this spectacular property with wildflowers and it's up by Steamboat Lake with this amazing mountain view of a local mountain called Hahns peak. So it's just this unique special experience that we have for our riders that, on this one day, they can ride on private property and it's a little bit less miles on a road, so a little safer. That's our only section that's on private and that is due to a long-standing relationship with our friend who is a rancher and owns private property. The rest of our roads are all public.
Well, you've nailed your community relations when you have private landowners handing their land over for use for your event. I think that's quite an exception.
It's an amazing relationship and it really just draws together exactly what we're hoping to do. He is well integrated into the agriculture community and he's really been an amazing bridge for all of us and a great friend of all of us personally and environment.
And in terms of other aspects of gravel racing, again, at the race operational level, is there anything else that might make things easier or tougher or more expensive for you to put on the event - or cheaper, as we saw with traffic management?
Just being out on the county roads-- that is a cost of elimination. I think the distance of a race is something to consider. So we station ambulances. Like, the whole safety plan that we put together and the communication plan are very extensive. We're in a place where we don't have cell service, so that's been a unique challenge. Steamboat has cell service, but as soon as you get out on our course, we have very limited service. One example is we tried to do a live stream a couple of years ago and that was a huge challenge to try to figure out how do you report back what's happening in an accurate way with not having much service out there. So I think that, being in a remote area, that's one of the bigger challenges that we have and it's not as easy to get race results back to the live audience because of just how far we are in the middle of nowhere in the northwest corner of Colorado. I think that's one of our biggest challenges that adds some expense and communication. We have to get really creative with radios and different ways of communicating for both safety and race reporting.
I want to change gears a little bit and talk about over great stuff you guys have been doing on inclusion. Inclusion, generally, I think, culturally, is a bit of a hot potato these days. It's something that has found itself into our industry and races. And for a long time, I have to admit that I didn't quite get the importance of it. But having spoken to a couple of people and Brian Mister who I had on another spotlight episode talking about Around the Crown really sort of brought this home to me - how important inclusion is ultimately for the growth of the sport. Right? We need to be attracting more people. Races need to be friendlier and more inviting for people of all kinds of abilities and backgrounds, simply to be able to grow the sport, which, at least, in running, has plateaued for a few years. And the first thing I want to talk about is the work you guys do in attracting women participants to the race. I read that 30% of your race participants are women, which, for cycling and for the kind of event you guys put on, I think it's quite impressive. Has this been a deliberate thing? Or did it just happen to be attractive to women? Or did you take actual steps to make it more sort of inviting for women cyclists?
Yeah, inclusivity has been-- that was a value. When we put together what our race would be about, we came up with what are the things that are going to be absolutely integrated into the fabric of everything we do, and inclusivity was one of those. I think part of that stemmed from women specifically. From my racing background, road racing still has a lot of areas where women are not treated equally, paid equally, and have the same race distances as men. And I think racing can be very intimidating showing up for group rides to this day. I'm usually one of five women on a group ride. So when we put together SBT, we thought of how do we make sure that women feel welcomed. So we opened up our registration that first year - it was in 2018 or 2019. We looked at our numbers and we had 22% women, and I thought, "I am a female race owner here. I have a racing background. What is happening? This is not good enough. This is probably better than most bike events, but this is not good enough." So that very first year of 2019, we reached out to a bunch of women across the boards and asked them questions like, "Why did you sign up? Do you have friends who didn't sign up for any reason? What are some of your barriers? What are you excited to do in the race? What are you looking forward to the most?" We did these interviews and stories, and we actually reached out to 20 women and got their stories. We put them all out on our website and out on social media. Then, we opened the door to an additional 200 women. So we increased our number our first year. We got to 30% and it was with that concerted effort. We do a race meeting and we had the first 15 minutes where it was a women-specific meeting. Men could come but it was, "Come here we want to really welcome you. We're happy you're here." So I gave a welcome intro at that meeting just letting everyone know how happy we were to get to that 30%. And we worked all year on talking to women's groups. What is the barrier? Are you on bikes but you're looking after kids? Is it work" And really trying to understand that and come up with solutions for any of those. Since then, we've always opened early registration for women's groups. So, before we go to the lottery, we are opening up additional spots for women. I think, until we get to the point where we don't have to do anything, until we get to the point where we can open up a race and it's somewhere near 50-50 that we need to keep making these efforts to do that, and to drive that change. And we're still at the point that it has to be a concerted effort. There's no diversity that happens naturally in a cycling event and signing up for it. Every single thing that we do is a concerted effort to really increase the population of who's coming here and women will continue to be a priority for us until we get to that point where it's done, and it's not quite there yet.
So I'm curious, actually. You mentioned that you actually went out and did some research on this. What were the most common reasons that were highlighted to you about why women don't feel as perhaps welcomed to race? Because, actually, again, going back to trail racing, there were some stories and some articles I've been reading over the past couple of years that there's actual harassment sometimes, at least, in some trail races. Like, women feel actively uncomfortable taking part in some of them. Is that kind of like the same level of intimidation we're looking at?
Yeah. I think it comes down to-- we saw a lot of trends, but one of them is representation. So when you look around and you're the only female doing the Black course at SBT or on a group ride, you're like, "Do I belong here? Am I welcomed here?" Representation is so important. So that was something that others talked about - I want to ride with a group of friends or I want to have a couple of friends here. I don't think that's because women are more dependent. I think it is because it can be scary to be the only something in a situation, whether that's a woman or the colour of your skin or whatever it may be. It can be intimidating when you feel like you're the only one. You question if you belong somewhere. And that's that was the theme that kept emerging and that's when we thought, "Why don't bring a friend? Bring a friend. Help us with this show-up and be there. We're going to do everything we can to make sure that you feel welcome." It seems like absolute no brainers but we do everything equally. So your prize purse is equal. The number one number plate goes to a female - the last year's winner. We always put females first when we're doing-- whether it's prizes or whatever it may be we, we put women first, and all of those are just tiny little efforts that make a bit of a difference - even more porta potties. There's just, like, silly little things like that that matter, and they're the little things that make an experience not as good as it might be otherwise. So I think seeing women leaders out there, seeing women on our panels, putting women first in a lot of situations, allowing them to come with a friend, they can ride with a friend, podiums first for women - all of these things are small efforts. And then, our race coverage. We have a dedicated person to cover women's racing. That's something that, again, just seems so archaic that we even talk about it, but it's something that is critical. It can be hard. Like, I get the challenges with cycling. A female might be in a pack of 20 men. So that was the case last year. Our winning female was in a group of men, so we needed to make sure someone knows who she is and can pick her out and to report on her being in that race. And I think where some other races have missed because there's more sponsor attention on some of the male athletes that they don't cover the women as extensively. So those are all the things that we do to make sure that women get the equal coverage or more coverage or the first coverage, and that we just don't miss any of those things. They're important. Every one of those details really matters.
Absolutely. And I think you mentioned sort of laughingly there about, kind of, like, the porta potties thing. I think it's a great example of how these improvements are incremental, small, and practical. It's not a philosophical thing, right? I mean, you want to make an event more inviting to women as you would a bar, to be honest. You put more facilities for women. Women and men take different times to do different stuff. So you need more porta potties for women. It's obvious, right? And it also demonstrates how, again, these things are solvable through concrete, practical, small steps. It's not something completely abstract. You can actually make your event more inviting.
That's exactly right. It's small things. I think having a background in cycling is helpful. We all go to events. We all race events and we see, "Here's how I felt. Here are the good things. Here are the things that I want to see." Even when we put together SBT gravel, that was what the whole concept is like. What's a perfect race day for us? And it was like, "I want coffee on the start." because I usually had my coffee too early, I get down there early, and then I don't know where to get any and I want coffee on the start. I want a porta-potty close. I want signs everywhere because I usually mess up something on my computer. Like, I want to know where I'm going. I just want to worry about riding my bike. I don't want to carry too much food in my pocket. So all these little things. I want food on the finish line. I want to eat right away. Literally, we went through and said, "Here's the perfect race in our minds." And it turns out that was very different than other gravel races. They have different sort of thoughts on, "It's more adventure. You're kind of out there. You're self-sufficient." And that's not what we wanted. So we think through how do we make a perfect day on a bike from our perspective and that's what we created with SBT, and I think it's resonating with people, luckily, and it turns out that there are a lot of people who have similar interests with these types of things that we're putting in place. But you're absolutely right. They're little things, but they all matter. All of these details matter.
Yeah. And support, of course, is another big aspect of all this. I know that you've been a very keen racer at Unbound as well. And I was reading an interview of yours where you were sort of contrasting the approach they've taken. Events are different. They make different decisions on these things on signage and support and all kinds of things. But you can also, I guess, see the flip side of why Unbound or one of the, like, 200-mile unsupported type events may not be as welcoming to first-timers or, like, people who want to try and get into the sport, or they're, I guess, for lack of a better word, a little bit more macho in their approach to some things.
Yeah. It all boils down to the values of a specific race and it's no judgement on the others. I love Unbound. You just know what you're getting into. It's a completely different animal. But you know that going in and we didn't want SBT to be that way. Challenge is one of our values, but we didn't want it to be absurd or we didn't want it to be the hardest day on a bike. There were lots of options. We could have said people up these crazy climbs or technical climbs, and we thought, "No, we want people to have a really good challenge, but not something where it's the most extreme experience you've ever seen." Like, that wasn't our value. That wasn't what we wanted to put in place. This is a very different look and feel. We have great smooth gravel. It's champagne gravel. We wanted to create the best race experience that anyone can have. That was integral to us. And you know what you're getting with these different events and that's what we want with ours. This is a race that you can show up to and you just worry about riding your bike. We're going to help you out with aid stations. We're gonna help you out with a lot of those other things to not worry about, and we want you to come here and just have a great experience in Steamboat, and I do think that helps with inclusivity. I do think that helps. That's one less barrier to worry about when we've taken care of some of those details.
Yeah, and I don't think at the end of the day that anyone can fault you for lack of challenge with your 144 miles. If they want challenge, they can go into the black course.
And ride fast. I promise you'll feel challenged.
And again, I've seen in the video, that breaks even the best cyclists out there. It's a pretty good challenge. Now on the sort of, like, other spectrum of the 144 miles, which probably also contributes in kind of an indirect way to inclusivity as well, is that you guys also offer a new bike category. I haven't actually looked into this more broadly. Is this a trend? Is this something that only you guys do? Or is it done more broadly? Because it sounds like an interesting-- like, e-bikes are growing very fast as well. It might be a great crowd to attract as well into races like that.
We started doing it two years ago in 2021. We do rider surveys after the event and it came back that somebody wanted their spouse to participate. They said something along the lines of, "You're very inclusive, but my spouse has just purchased an E-bike, just getting into it, and would love to do one of your courses at some point. Is this something you would consider?" And we looked into sort of all of the pros and the cons and it made sense. We think that this is expanding. This is part of our mission - to get more people on bikes and that's really who we were targeting. I always say, "It's just my mom." But what if I talk her into doing SBT? She would do our short green course on an E-bike and that's really getting somebody who is not a cyclist, who commutes around into this sport and is able to have this incredible experience. So that was the reason behind it. It's not a race. We don't time that course. We don't do prizes for the e-bike, but it gives new people an opportunity to give this event a try. So we do allow them for that course. And we did see some growth from 21 to 22. In other gravel events, I have seen one or two that are now allowing e-bikes on certain courses. So I would anticipate that it does pick up. There are a lot of regulations around it. You can get really in the weeds with what's allowed and not allowed, the types of bikes, batteries breaking down, and how do you support that. There's a lot that kind of opens up different challenges for race, but we have found it to work great for our short-course distance. We have definitely fulfilled some gaps and we think opened up the door even more to new cyclists. So it's something that we'll continue to do, going forward, at least on our shorter distance course.
Do you have an award category for e-bikes like this? Do you give first or second place?
We don't. We think it's more of the experience rather than the competition side of things. So we don't do any sort of timing or awards for that category.
Okay, I want to talk a little bit about also the business of the race and sponsorship because you look to me like someone who's deep into the business stuff. And for the race to have been such a great success, there must be some kind of secret sauce in there somewhere. And because you've also been a road racer, I wonder, like, do you think - from what you know of road races and more kind of, like, sportives, Gran Fondos, that side of things - that gravel racing is perhaps a more profitable business, maybe for some of the cost differences we mentioned earlier around policing and all that kind of stuff?
I do, from the business perspective, think gravel has the potential to be a really solid business model. A few things with road. While you can get to the numbers, I don't think I've ever been to a road race with 3,000 people, but you can get a lot of people but it's in categories. I think the challenge that road racing faces was shutting down roads all day long. In fact, I remember a crit that would happen in Steamboat and it was, like, category four Men 45-plus at 6am and then, finally, the pro 1, 2 women were at 6pm. So that's just a crit that shuts down a handful of roads and you take that into a road race and your all day if you're getting the volume of people. I think that is just added expenses with that those road closures. So in gravel, where that's compelling is you have the numbers in registration and you can also create a really good experience. Gravel races are expensive. If you look across the board, the average price of - Belgium Waffle, Rebecca's, Unbound - any of these are in the $200 range. So that is a higher price point than road races have been historically. There's a reason for that. There's a lot more offered to the rider. So I think that's compelling from a business perspective. On the sponsorship side of things, I think gravel racing offers a lot for sponsors. Something that we've done is year-round marketing. So we literally do grassroots marketing 365 days. So the sponsors get a lot out of it because it's not just this one-day event. And it's an event that we have-- let's take a sponsor. Our title sponsor Wahoo. They bring over 20 people from Wahoo to Steamboat. So it's a team-building event. We get the head and the execs from Wahoo to come here. Some of the staff ride the course. It's this really fun weekend experience. So not only are they able to have sort of a marketing presence year-round, they get to activate in a huge way at our race. And they have a team building that's sort of a side product of coming out here. So, from a sponsor perspective, I think there are some really compelling reasons for them to get involved in these gravel events, and the opportunity is so expansive with the audience that they're able to speak to. And so going back to your business question, I think that - because the sponsors are seeing this huge opportunity with the audience plus you have the rider side of things - you can really create a very strong business with a gravel event when you're able to piece those things together with really strong sponsorship and a large repeat customer base of cyclists.
Yeah, and let's face it. I mean, cyclists do spend a lot more on their sport than runners do. You have the bike, which is usually in the thousands of dollars for some of these events. Helmets are in the hundreds. Gear equipment.
All kinds of paraphernalia, which I guess, in some, ways must make your audience and your event-- they must present lots more opportunities for you in terms of sponsorship and merchandise with brands and equipment and stuff, right?
You're absolutely right about the cyclist. There's so much equipment involved. Think of everything from Chamois Butt'r to bike wash to the bikes to the helmet. Like, there are every single category down the list of of what a cyclist might need and I think we're fortunate that we're considered a trusted source. We do partner with people that we love their stuff. So Castelli cycling kit is an excellent kit. We won't go with a low quality of anything because we wear it. All of our team, all of our staff, we ride in it. We are all over the world on these bikes, in these helmets, in these sunglasses, and in this kit, and we want to be on the best. Then, we speak to our audience about these products being the best product. So I think it's genuine and that helps. We are not event planners by trade. We are passionate cyclists and business people and I think that is so helpful in that credible message that we're putting out there of, "This is what we ride. This is what we use. This is what we love. And here's why." And we send that message to our audience in a very authentic way. And so that is appealing to our sponsors. And then, we are sending a great message to our riders as well.
I also noticed on your website - actually, I missed that before - that you also offer these, like, amazingly plush VIP packages for people with sort of, like, Michelin star type dining experiences, private picnics, and some like really amazing stuff. If I remember correctly, they run into, like, $5,000 or something plus the spouse?
Yeah, the $5,000 one does include high-end lodging. The background with this was a few things. So one, we have these great things that we can offer in Steamboat, and we're friends with a lot of our cyclists. I coach a handful of people and they'll say, "Oh, we stayed in this condo. It was okay." or "We didn't go to this restaurant. What would you recommend?" And we thought, "Can we curate this great experience for people in Steamboat?" And Matt Accarrino, who is a very strong cyclist, a good friend, and a Michelin-star chef approached us and said, "Can I do something for a handful of your VIPs?" And that's really where this idea came from. What if we just create this incredible experience that people can have when they come to Steamboat? Another piece of it-- we have a very good friend who races every year. He lives at this beautiful ranch 20 miles outside of town and, every year, he hosts all of our staff. Right before things get crazy, we all go to his house and have this amazing party. And he said, "Why don't I host some of your VIPs? We'll just have a great picnic here at my ranch." And then our lodging partners have some-- there are some beautiful homes around Steamboat. So our thought was, "Why don't we piece together this great experience and see if there's interest?" And there's been a tonne of interest. So we're really excited about offering this. It's just a different way to experience SBT. It helps fund some of the advocacy that we're able to do. I think that's something that's really important to us. If we bring in revenue for this, how do we make sure that we're giving that back? I think, from our perspective, that goes back into our community. It's a great experience for some of these people who want to come to town and don't want to piece together all of the logistics and they want to have a great unique experience. We're really creating that for them. So we're excited about being able to offer this, and Matt Accarino will put on a phenomenal meal for everybody. And again, it's just taking out some of the logistical challenges and curating something very unique. We have everything. When I think of what people talk a lot about inclusivity with Steamboat, I think we have a lot of different audiences and this is one of those, those audiences that we know how to create a great experience for them. So it's a new addition this year and interest is there. So we need to execute it in a way that everyone is wowed by what that was all about. It also includes an entry, so SBT is sold out right now. So it is really the only way to get into the event right now.
Well, there's one that's not lodging and it's half that price. So $5,000 with lodging,
And I wonder, actually, because you've reached, with Steamboat, a level of, I guess, excellence and brand desirability that it's only reserved for a handful of events. And with stronger brands and the great roster of sponsors that you have, do you manage to generate revenue outside of race day, like, the other 360 whatever days of the year? Do you find ways that the brand can help you generate revenues outside of that?
It's a great question. Events are so interesting that the bulk of your revenue comes in at one point and then you spend the rest of the year spending all of that money. We do sell merchandise and we sell it year-round. That's a very small revenue stream that we have. We do something called travel and we find a location and it's a curated experience somewhere. Last year, it was in Steamboat. This year will be in Portugal. And so it's for a high touch small group four-day kind of cycling-- camp is not the right word, but four-day experience with people. We do generate a bit of revenue from those. But really, where our focus throughout the year is continuing to build the brand and build community. And it's more of putting our time, effort, and resources into that. We do on-the-road events and we don't monetize them at all. They are a cost, but I think they're really important to do and that is, from our perspective, going out to communities, giving back, and saying thank you. And so they're all tied to fundraising. Every penny goes directly to a nonprofit that's typically local in these different locations. And it's our way of going somewhere, whether it's San Antonio, Texas, or New York, or Bentonville or Calabasas, California, and going to these locations and riding with a group of 100 people and getting to know the community. So it is not revenue-generating. We don't monetize those. We think it's critical to keep our brand alive and growing, and really get into that community relationship level with individuals throughout the country. So that's where we put our priorities and we don't bring in revenue from that. So it's very little apart from our travel experience and merchandise outside of what comes in for race revenue and sponsorship revenue.
Yeah, I saw the Beyond the Road initiative on your website, and it's very commendable. That's how sort of, like, you raise money for all the advocacy partners that you guys have and all the partnerships and all of that, which is super impressive. I mean, as you say, it goes back to the DNA of the race you guys built which is awesome. Speaking of DNA, I want to wrap up with a quick look at your future plans, which are very, very exciting, starting with 2023. Why are you organising a race in Finland of all places?
It's a great question. We have a great brand with SBT. We wanted to think of how do we grow. And from my perspective, I think the US gravel market is borderlining on saturation. If you look at a race calendar, it is any state in the country. Any time of year, there are quite a few gravel events. And so we've looked extensively across the US and thought, "We don't know if the experience is here." Europe is in an interesting perspective or interesting spot right now in that gravel is not where it is in the US. My perception is it's about where we were in 2018 and that it's this thing that some retired people or road cyclists are doing on the side. It's just now kind of getting some traction. I think the UCI is at least gotten it onto some people's radars, and the brands are seeing it. The brands are committed. They know what's coming and the sort of the big wave hasn't happened yet. So Europe has been on our radar, and Valtteri Bottas who is a Formula One racer from Finland has done SBT the past two years. His girlfriend Tiffany has done SBT since its inception. She's a legendary World Tour pro cyclist and she's the one who really brought Valtteri to the race. I met him when he was here - really nice. And he made a comment in an article and said, "Maybe someday I can bring a gravel event like SBT to my hometown or to Europe." So I reached out to him after SBT last year or two years ago and said, "Valtteri, would you ever want to go into business together? I'd love to help you bring gravel to Europe." And he said, "Let's do this." And we got on the phone and all the pieces kind of fell in place. He said actually, "My hometown of Lahti, Finland would be ideal. The roads remind me of Steamboat. It's very remote. They're smooth. We can go anywhere. Our country is, like, not densely populated. There are lakes. There's a forest. It's absolutely gorgeous. I think our town would love to host the race." And so we flew out there in August and met with the mayor and visit Lahti, which is the name of the town - Lahti is his town - and set local cycling clubs. We did a big ride. We rode the course and we got support from Finland to bring an event there. And Finland is it's a sporting country and they're ecstatic to bring both American and European racers to come there to ride gravel. So we think we're a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of gravel taking off. And so we have our event, Finland Gravel on June 10, and kind of putting all the plate pieces together. It's been fascinating from an international business perspective. We've hired an operations person in Finland to help us on the ground. We have a course manager and volunteer coordinator all in Finland. Then, our US team here from marketing, accounting, and operations are working day and night with that team in Finland to pull off this event in less than two months. It's been really a great experience. We have a lot of 6 AM calls with Finland to really understand how to put on a business there and it's a challenge. We are trying to take a sport that is just now starting to get traction. We are an American company that is going to a place in Scandinavia, which is off the beaten path, even in Europe. And so there's a lot of really fun and exciting challenges and we're figuring it out. And I think it's gonna be a great race.
And what are you aiming at in terms of participation? Like, how many people are you allowing into the event in the first year?
Yeah, we're hoping to get up to 1000. We're seeing a trend of-- well, right now we have 40% of Americans signed up. We were thinking that that number would be a little lower. So we're appealing to the SBT audience in the US - that's our number one. Finland is number two. And then, UK is number three. And we're just a couple of hundred shy of our goal of 1000. So we're already on the sort of radar for being one of, if not the biggest, gravel events in Europe, which is really exciting. And so we're back to that. We hope to get a quote again that we were an overnight success. We have our work cut out for us that we need to execute this in a great way. And so, that's really where we are right now -making sure we pull off an incredible event that really puts what we call kind of American-style gravel event, but it will feel like a Finnish race. We want to make sure that really comes through all of the fun cultural sides of Finland to create this great experience, but take some of what we've learned with our values and what we think a great race event looks like. All of those things that I spoke about what's a perfect event, we want that to come through in our Finland gravel race. And so, that's what we're working on, and hoping that we can open the door to European gravel racing with that event.
Well, hopefully, otherwise, we will have to travel all the way to the US to do some gravel race. And I'm just about getting started thinking about doing a gravel race after all of this. It has been so exciting watching all the videos, doing the research, and everything.
Maybe Finland, yeah.
Yeah, check it out on your list.
To be honest, Steamboat is now on my list, but maybe Finland as well. Last question. I have to ask - I'm sure other people have asked - "Why the spelling?" Like, what's with the vowels? What do you guys have against vowels?
SBT was just kind of an acronym for steamboat. It's used a little bit. You don't actually see it that often but we thought, "Let's do SBT." And then my husband's like, "Let's get rid of the vowels in gravel too." That was his idea and we just went with it. And it's been really fun. When we talk about parity is PRTY, and then it's like, "Oh, that's also a party." And it's been our thing. Our team likes to speak in no vowels. When we look at new countries we might bring races to, we're like, "Whoa, that's tough. Italy. Gosh, how are we going to do that?" So it's a fun challenge when you remove vowels from your vocabulary, but it's become our trademark thing. So yeah, we're going with it and it's taking off. Gravel, GRVL-- you see it everywhere. So yeah, GRVL is kind of become the thing for gravel racing.
I think it's brilliant for your brand. I should have said and I should have thought actually before Peter Abraham, a former guest of mine on the podcast who introduced us, I'm sure he would be of the opinion that it's a brilliant differentiator and kind of, like, brand-building thing to have GRVL being the gravel bit of your brand.
It has taken off.
Yeah, exactly. I think it's brilliant.
We get responses on social media where people write to us in all vowels and are like, "Oh, what is that saying? We're not totally fluent in no vowels.
Where can people learn more about the events? Where can they hit you up? Where's your website?
For SBT, It's sbtgrvl.com and that website is a good starting point. And Finland following this same is fnldgrvl.com. So that's for Finland. It's the same handle for-- we're on all social media platforms - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You'll find those all at SPT GRVL and FNLD GRVL. And I am available. I'd love your feedback or questions. I'm Amy Charity. My email is amy@sbtgrvl. And also, on Instagram, @amymcharity. So any of the above is a great way to get in touch.
Absolutely. But I was about to say, "Don't email Amy about 2023 event. It's all sold out." Right?
How early should people enter or think of entering for 2024?
We will open our lottery. It'll be open for the first two weeks of December. And then, we'll have all of the sort of announcements of who's in. It will be mid-December of 2023, and that's for the August 2024 event. So we'll do a lottery again. Start to think about marking your calendars for December 1 to put your name in the lottery.
But I guess podcast hosts and friends get ahead of the queue, do they?
And don't forget about the VIP packages.
Absolutely. I'm starting to save up as we speak. My little piggy banks-- already putting in $1 at a time. Hopefully, I'll get there.
It's been amazing fun. I was so fortunate again. Many thanks to Peter Abraham for introducing us. I thought this was a great opportunity to talk about gravel racing, one of the massive things happening in the industry right now with someone like yourself, but it was so great also to be introduced to Steamboat Gravel and the amazing race that you put together in such a short time. Very, very well done to you. You have so many more prestigious people like myself telling you that, and Forbes articles, New York Times articles. You're doing fantastic. So hopefully, everything's gonna go as well for you in Finland, if not better with Valtterri's help over there. Thank you very, very much for taking the time to come on. I really appreciate it.
Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure. Really, really enjoyed the conversation.
Thank you, Amy, very much. To everyone listening in, we're gonna see you guys on our next podcast.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on SBT GRVL with co-founder and race owner, Amy Charity.
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