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Last weekend, my career evolution took yet another step. I took off my racer hat and donned one from the other side of the barriers, the one of event organizer. The one responsible for everyone else’s day. After two years of false starts, first due to Covid and then the Caldor Fire at Lake Tahoe, Stetina’s Paydirt finally opened its gates to 500 souls.
The Paydirt is a joint venture between me and Bike Monkey, an event organization team who are close friends of mine. I craft the look and feel of the event, organize media exposure both social and traditional, align sponsorships, recruit luminaries, and create my ideal route. Then, Bike Monkey does the real work: in addition to goofy brainstorming and getting creative with me, they do the permits, registration, contracts, timing, insurances, finances, and generally bring concept to reality. We balance each other out; and while there is always a push-pull dynamic from either side, in the end it works out because our friendship transcends business.
Read also: Gallery: Stetina’s Paydirt
Together, we’d created what my greatest day of gravel riding would look like. Of course there was competition, but I hope it’s clear to readers by now that I didn’t come to gravel solely to race my bike — I’d have stayed on the tarmac if I wanted that. I am serious that I am in love with the lifestyle and the communal adventure. The question was, how could I keep my racing peers happy but focus on all the riders? Furthermore, how could I make a positive difference for our growing discipline?
“In gravel, we make our own house rules”
To answer that first question, I needed a route that told a story, one where distance and vert metrics would be arbitrary. After many dead ends and calls for help while exploring, we landed on a route that incorporated both sides of the Carson Valley. Riders would journey through the largely unknown Pine Nut range, then later cross the valley and hit the coolest singletrack for gravel bikes I know of in the foothills of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The hiccup was crossing the valley required crossing busy Highway 395.
Enter Bike Monkey and their problem solving. Our solution was one we’d tested in our old road fondo, Stetina’s Sierra Prospect: timed segments. The format was wildly popular because it would allow racers to race but also encourage regrouping and leisure riding. We could safely make sure the 395 crossing was outside of race timing, removing the dangerous aspect it posed should riders be stressed on timing.
Beyond that, I had a gimmicky idea to include alternative time bonuses. My whole road career, there were intermediate sprints for bonus time, so I decided to riff on that. Gravel has always been about being a normal fun person beyond a singular pedal-pusher. I like the socializing and beer drinking as much as the riding. To keep us racers from taking ourselves so seriously, and to celebrate the western theme that pervades Nevada, we got sponsors to come on for a mechanical bull and a tire lasso, both of which riders could play for time bonuses at the finish party to boost their result while waiting for awards.
There’s no UCI rulebook in gravel, we make our own house rules.
Be the change you want to see
I also needed to address why I was doing this. Why was I taking on yet another privateer project? For me, this event is about giving back to the community that has given me so much. Beyond a great day on two wheels, how could I leverage what position I have to make this space better for all?
First, the event supported the High Fives Foundation, a group of people near and dear to my heart. High Fives exists to help athletes who’ve had life-altering injuries get back to the sporting lifestyle they love. Beyond fundraising we made sure to get some of their athletes to the event. We used donations to open the door to five para athletes. My hope is that when other para cyclists can see an entire podium full of riders, they may be motivated to challenge themselves in this space someday.
Second, any growing event gets a media boost from pros in attendance. How would our pro field look? In this space that celebrates equality, I’ve been privileged to make so many amazing female friends who happen to be very fast. In my whole career I realized the women’s race was often treated as the opening act to the men’s, and simply due to my gender, I’ve profited off that. We resolved to make the women’s event our main show. I believe more exposure brings more opportunity, healthier endorsements, and more stable career opportunities.
There was concern it could backfire in the public eye with some male riders. But we also realized that I, perhaps better than others, could take this step simply because of the fact I am a male pro; obviously I don’t want to hurt male cycling. Shimano believed in this vision and ponied up a hefty women’s purse. We would still have podiums for all, but the historically undervalued sex was who we highlighted with cash and media.
As perfectly exhausting as your own wedding
Every event organizer can recognize it — it’s the look over-stimulation and a look of being spread too thin. It’s like your own wedding wedding — you’re so concerned about everyone having a good time and to ensure that you’ve been putting out minor fires behind the scenes for days. It’s somehow exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. I got four hours of sleep the night before but awoke without needing coffee.
The day went great, and whether you want to relive it or live vicariously through other’s experience, there’s a photo journal of the event here. Together we mourned the loss of Mo — it was the first public appearance for many of her friends. Then, we journeyed across two mountain ranges together. We raced hard but stopped for pictures, rode a bull, tossed tires, and had a complete para podium. Our women’s and men’s winners Flavia Olivera and Griffin Easter were deserving, gracious, and embraced the vibe of the event perfectly.
Flavia donated a majority of her winnings to the #RidelikeMo fund, while Griffin slammed a hot dog mid race and still won. They were perfect ambassadors. Many folks pulled me aside and thanked me for one of their favorite days on the bike, ever. I now turn my eyes back to my day job, Unbound 200 is on the horizon. I cannot wait for Paydirt 2023, but once per year is enough for me, I’ll let the Bike Monkeys continue to do the heavy lifting all year long.