The weekly spin: WorldTour women pivoting toward gravel at SBT GRVL

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When the field lines up for the Steamboat Gravel event — okay, okay SBT GRVL — on August 18, there will be some recognizable faces from across professional road, mountain, and cyclocross racing.

They won’t just be recognizable men’s faces. The inaugural SBT GRVL event is shaping up to offer one of the highest-profile women’s fields at any gravel race in 2019 — or ever.

Much has been made about men’s WorldTour teams competing off-road this year, including here in this column last October. Over the past weekend, Lachlan Morton (EF Education First), Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo), Alex Howes (EF Education First) finished third through fifth at Leadville 100 behind mountain biker Howard Grotts (Specialized) and 18-year-old Quinn Simmons (Lux), winner of the Gent-Wevelgem junior race in March.

And while EF’s shift towards off-road, participant-focused events was a significant pivot from a Tour de France team, it’s happening on the women’s side of road racing as well.

Held four days before the Colorado Classic stage race — which begins, conveniently, in Steamboat Springs — SBT GRVL is drawing elite road riders from Canyon-SRAM and TIBCO-SVB including Australians Tiffany Cromwell and Brodie Chapman, and American Lauren Stephens.

That’s some serious firepower. Cromwell won the 2013 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and has taken a pair of stages at the Giro Rosa. Chapman won the Herald Sun Tour last year, and the Tour of the Gila in May. Stephens has won major American races like the Winston Salem Classic, in 2017, and the Joe Martin Stage Race, in 2015; she also finished second overall at the 2018 Santos Women’s Tour.

Tiffany Cromwell is no stranger to racing on dirt roads, as evidenced by the grime on her face after finishing Strade Bianche in March.

And while these proven stars of the women’s peloton bring recognition and proven endurance, they’ll have their hands full.

Among the 400 women racing SBT GRVL are Belgian Waffle Ride winner Sarah Sturm, Dirty Kanza 200 winner Amity Rockwell, Leadville 100 MTB winner Rose Grant, former national road, criterium, and time-trial champion Alison Powers, Trans Andes Challenge winner Kaysee Armstrong, cyclocross nationals silver medalist Sunny Gilbert, and Dirty Kanza XL podium finisher Kristen Legan.

“It’s that perfect balance where everyone brings a bit of their own skills, and it’s a good level playing field,” Cromwell said. “At an event like Steamboat, being able to interact athletes from different disciplines, because it’s very rare that they cross over, I think that’s quite cool. At the end of the day, we all share a common interest, and a common love of cycling, and we just do it in different ways.”

Several factors helped draw such a stellar and varied women’s field. There’s a healthy, equal-pay prize list, with $5,000 to the winner, $2,500 to second place, and $2,000 to third. It also helped that one of the event’s founders is former pro Amy Charity, who raced with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies.

“My business partners and I had a very direct approach to contacting the top talent across all cycling disciplines, road, mountain and ’cross,” Charity said. “It certainly helped  that I had raced with many of them on the pro road circuit and more recently in gravel races. I would say it added credibility to what we were pitching, that it was coming from someone they knew and who understood bike racing.”

Stephens has a realistic chance of cashing one of those prize checks. Though she’s dabbled in gravel for years, this year she’s worked the off-road discipline more directly into her race schedule. She won the DK100 race in June, and finished second at Crusher in the Tushar in July.

Though riding 140 miles at elevation four days before a four-day stage race might not be ideal preparation, Stephens said when her TIBCO team management encouraged her to take on the challenge, she didn’t push back.

“I’ve become passionate about gravel,” Stephens said. “Logistically, doing SBT GRVL and the Colorado Classic makes sense, because the first stage is in Steamboat. Recovery-wise, it doesn’t make much sense, because you are recovering at altitude. But I didn’t want to give up the opportunity to do this race. I love the adventure of gravel racing, as well as the endurance side of it — we never get to do anything this long. I also like the field all starting together, going head to head with the men, racing all together.”

And while she’s dabbled in mountain-bike racing and cyclocross, SBT GRVL will be Cromwell’s first gravel event. Canyon is the primary sponsor, and bike partner, of SBT GRVL. As a Canyon-sponsored athlete, she’ll be getting set up with a Grail when she arrives in Colorado next week.

“It’s something that is easy to transition across,” Cromwell said. “It’s not as technical as mountain bike or cyclocross, but it’s something a little different to road. You also have the endurance factor, which benefits road riders. These types of events are getting big not just with men’s WorldTour teams, and a few women’s WorldTour teams, but also at the public level as well, there’s such an interest, more people want to race these types of races.”

Cromwell will be entering the “blue” 100-mile/161km event, which delivers 5,974 feet (1,820 meters) of climbing, rather than the “black” 141-mile/227km event most pros will tackle, which delivers 9,107 feet (2,776 meters) of climbing. Charity says both routes will favor the rouleurs.

“There is enough space between the climbs that I don’t see the race being pulled apart by a pure climber,” Charity said. “The climbs are punchy and keep coming, which will suit the explosiveness of a ’cross or mountain-bike rider. That said, Gila winner Brodie Chapman will make the climbs interesting.

“The one long climb, Trout Creek, which comes late in the race, will suit a power rider, such as Alison Powers or Lauren Stephens, who can push out the watts on a big gear. We could certainly see some damage done there. Riders will also go backwards if the hammer goes down and they can’t handle being forced to ride at speed across loose dirt or rocky sections, such as Salt Creek or Cow Creek. A Sarah Sturm or Kaysee Armstrong might make an escape here.”

Both courses will reach elevations over 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) above sea level — high enough to make a difference as the air gets thin and the power begins to fade.

Both the blue and black courses at SBT GRVL will reach elevations over 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) above sea level.

Stephens previewed sections of the SBT GRVL course last month, and has a decent idea of how the race might play out.

“There’s a long road section after the last gravel section, so if you come off the gravel in a group, it’s going to be a sprint,” she said. “There’s no getting away on that road section.”

Though her teammate, Brodie Chapman, comes from a mountain-bike background, SBT GRVL will be her first gravel-specific event. As for team tactics, Stephens said that while it’s possible to fire off attacks in the final few miles, a 140-mile race on gravel, at elevation, generally comes down to “survival.” Only if teammates are still together at the end will there any chance of a late-race attack followed by a counter-attack.

Asked about the growing trend of gravel events, and the bike industry’s pivot toward gravel bikes, Cromwell said she’s all for anything that draws more people into the saddle.

“I think anything that will keep growing the sport is fantastic,” she said. “Various disciplines have different stigmas. Road sometimes is looked at as very pretentious, if you’re not wearing the right clothes… road can be very friendly but there is that stigma. And with the traffic, as it’s getting more dangerous on the roads, people want other options as well. Then on the mountain bike, it can be quite technical, you need a certain skillset to be able to handle mountain-bike trails. I think this gravel racing is that perfect medium.

“Anything that gets people on bikes, people exercising, people outside, I think that’s fantastic. And then there’s a big thing where people like to explore or adventure, ride for fun and take away the power meter, which I think is also good. I think people get too stuck into numbers, sometimes. It’s important sometimes, for race preparation, or if you’re training specifically for something, but at the same time, people forget the beauty of cycling. I think it’s embracing adventure and getting out there and seeing the world, and the beauty that can be found.”

Given that she’ll be at SBT GRVL, in part, to promote Canyon, her team’s bike sponsor, and given that her team doesn’t want her to spend too much energy days before the Colorado Classic, should we expect to see Cromwell riding to win in Steamboat?

Well, she is a bike racer after all.

“I’ll be there to have a good time, it will be my first experience in a gravel race,” Cromwell said. “I’ve been doing road cycling so long, I need something a bit different, just to test the skills. For the team, obviously the importance is the Colorado Classic a few days later, so I don’t want to be out there killing myself and then being rubbish for the tour. But if I’m up there at front, I’ll have a good crack, and be like, ‘All right, it’s go time.’

“Maybe I’ll play the steady game to start with, ride into it, and of course if there’s a chance to win I’ll take it. It’s going to be great endurance ride. As they say, you can go as hard or easy as you like. It’ll be a good day out.”

Lauren Stephens (TIBCO) attacking on the cobbles at the 2016 Tour of Flanders.

The Colorado Classic overlaps with the Ladies Tour of Norway and Vårgårda WestSweden, meaning Canyon-SRAM is sending a largely younger, more inexperienced squad to the Colorado race.

In total, four pro women from Canyon-SRAM and TIBCO-SVB will be racing SBT GRVL and the Colorado Classic — Cromwell and 2018 Zwift Academy winner Ella Harris from Canyon-SRAM, and Stephens and Chapman from TIBCO-SVB.

“We’ll have a super young team because it’s at the same time as Norway and Sweden,” Cromwell said. “It’s like me and the kids. We have our Israeli rider, Omer Shapira, who is quite a strong climber, so from a GC point of view it’s a good chance for her to do something while we don’t have bigger riders like Kasia [Niewiadoma] or the Barnes sisters. Obviously I want to have a good showing as well, and I have some personal goals to try and get a result, but I also want to give our younger riders a bit more confidence, it helps teach them a bit more, without the pressure of a WorldTour race, where it can be a bit more hectic.”

There will be some notable men racing in Steamboat as well. Among those on the men’s pro start list: Dirty Kanza 200 winner Colin Strickland and retired roadies Tom Danielson, Timmy Duggan, Lucas Euser, Ted King, Scott Moninger, and German Erik Zabel, who now works with Canyon. Mountain-bike stars Geoff Kabush, Jeremiah Bishop, and Payson McElveen are also competing.

I’ll be there as well, competing in the the “blue” 100-mile/161km event. None of us, of course, will be racing the women’s-only Colorado Classic.

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