Steamboat Springs and the surrounding area has no shortage of scenic gravel roads. Sunday, those roads were filled with more than 1,000 cyclists in the inaugural SBT GRVL event.
The gravel race, following on the booming success of gravel grinders across the nation, triumphed in its first running Sunday.
Top pros lined the field as part of 437 riders on the grueling 141-mile black course. Another 512 riders tackled the 100-mile blue course, while 167 more competed on the 38-mile green course.
It was another big day for two Durango stars, as Payson McElveen finished second among men and Sarah Sturm was third in the women’s field on the black course. McElveen also was crowned King of the Mountain for his combined time on the three main climbs that came in at nearly 9,000 feet. The black course featured 100 miles on gravel, with the rest on pavement through Steamboat Springs and Routt County.
Sunday was a bit of redemption for McElveen after a food-borne illness saw him finish 12th in Leadville while persevering to the finish line on an empty stomach.
“I had one of my strongest races of the year, and I am very happy with the result, despite feeling so close to a chance at one better,” McElveen said in a post to Instagram on Sunday. “Mountain bike remains priority one, but the way these massive gravel events play out like an epic one-day classic really, really has my attention. There is something about the tactics, the gradual selections, the depth of suffer, the community and the distances covered that I foresee participating in for a long time. Congratulations (SBT GRVL) on a truly incredible first-year event. Instant classic.”
Much like the Leadville 100 a week earlier, the Belgian Waffle Ride held in May and the Dirty Kanza in June, SBT GRVL featured many big-name WorldTour pro cyclists along with mountain bike stars. Sturm found herself toe-to-toe with a pair of pro road racers on her way to third. It came only eight days after she duked it out for 104 miles with marathon mountain bike star Rose Grant for second place in Leadville, and it was her third consecutive weekend of racing after she also competed in Downeville, California, two weeks earlier.
“I think I race as hard as I could have gone, and I’m pleased,” Sturm said. “I could have maybe stretched it a bit more, but that ran the risk of blowing up and not even finishing with the level of fatigue I had.”
Ted King, a retired WorldTour cyclist and 2018 Dirty Kanza winner, was the winner on the black course, as he finished in 6 hours, 34 minutes, 50 seconds. King, a 36-year-old out of Vermont, had the legs to hold off McElveen, who challenged all day and finished second in 6:36:11. King and McElveen have gotten to ride together plenty this year, with their performances at Leadville, Dirty Kanza and the Land Run 100 in which McElveen sprinted past King for a one-second victory.
Sunday, the 26-year-old McElveen was 1:24 in front of third-place Jacob Rathe of Oregon.
“I raced aggressively with (Colin Strickland) in the opening hours, hoping to force a selection,” McElveen wrote. “The smooth, rolling course proved even less selective than anticipated, and despite many efforts, the group remained (50-plus) strong 80 miles in.
“I feared I may (have) screwed the pooch, but finally the cream did rise to the top and there was a final selection of four ... In the waning miles, (Rathe) dropped off the pace, Colin dropped off with a mechanical, and Ted and I fist bumped over the top of the final major climb knowing we were all-but secured for a (Land Run) 100 sprint finish redo.”
McElveen suffered from legs cramps the final miles, and that allowed King to get away.
“They came on so suddenly that I couldn’t help but let out a startled scream, and it was more than enough for Ted to take the cue,” McElveen wrote.
Sturm, 29, completed the black course in 7:13:48 to place third. Australia’s Brodie Chapman, a 28-year-old pro road cyclist and 2019 Tour of the Gila winner, won in 6:56:40. Lauren Stephens, a Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank teammate of Chapman’s, was second, as the 32-year-old from Dallas finished in 6:59:18.
“Payson gave me some data on the course, and it was definitely a road-racing type course,” Sturm said. “There was no sustained climb, nothing technical, so I put skinner tires and kind of prepared to have more of a road-race dynamic. The first 30 miles, I definitely felt not great. The legs were really tired, and my breathing was fatigued. Then I kind of reminded myself that it was a long race. I saw the breaks go with the two Tibco girls in the main group, and I knew that if I pushed myself at that moment that I could just blow up, and I wanted to finish the race, so I made the decision to do my own pace knowing it was strong enough to get on the podium. I rode my own race from there.”
Sturm, this year’s Belgian Waffle Ride winner, was more than 10 minutes faster than fourth-place Alison Powers, a former pro road cyclist out of Colorado. Sturm said she put her trust in her coach Rotem Ishay in order to get ready for the race after such a grueling effort at Leadville.
“I was really excited and nervous for the last three weeks of racing,” she said. “I just didn’t know how that would feel going from Downieville straight to Leadville and then straight to Steamboat getting progressively harder and harder with distances. Mentally, it was an unknown, so that was kind of exciting but all nerve wracking because I just hoped my body would hold up.”
Former Fort Lewis College cyclist and retired WorldTour pro Tom Danielson finished 14th among men on the black course. The 41-year-old who lives in Longmont finished in 6:56:40 in a tight group finish that included 12th-place Matt McLoone, 15th-place Jeremiah Bishop and Chapman. Four other riders finished within two seconds of that group.
Nearly 30% of the SBT GRVL field were women, and the race was proud to offer equal payouts. The prize money was quality, too, with a $28,000 prize purse, with most going to the black course’s top five. First place took home $5,000, with $2,500 going to McElveen in second and $2,000 for Sturm in third. Fourth-place took $1,000 and another $500 went to fifth.
“I had no idea there was such a big prize purse, I was just really excited for another first-year event similar to the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder,” Sturm said. “There’s just a fun energy and nobody really knows what it’s going to be like. The race promoters did an amazing job, and I think every race I’ve done this year has had equal payout for men and women, which is a pretty special thing and a big step forward in the sport.”