The Grind: Gravel racers forge a new business model for U.S. racing

Gravel racers have become the entrepreneurs of American cycling, pushing the sponsorship model in strange new directions.

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There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the daily life of an American pro bike racer was fairly straightforward, if somewhat boring.

Train, rest, recover, and then repeat, day after tedious day.

Those days are long gone for the men and women who are making a living racing gravel. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time with some of the elite riders who will battle for the win at Dirty Kanza 200, Belgian Waffle Ride, and other events. While their days are structured around big, burly training rides, the traditional time for recovery and rest has now been taken up by tasks that your overachieving cousin does at his fancy tech job.

They produce PDF proposals to send to potential sponsors, draft spreadsheets, and send out countless text messages about content, content, and more content. They coordinate video shoots with freelance videographers and spend a lot of time tweeting and uploading photos to Instagram.

They do lots and lots of Instagram.

“I used to think a dek was the thing on my house that needed replacing,” Peter Stetina told me. “Now with some help from friends I’ve made a sponsorship dek with marketing metrics and ROI and all of that stuff. It’s been a big learning curve.”

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A Gravel Stage Race?!? Only hiccup is I have to pitch my own tent at each stage finish, can I bring my soigneur? #PeteRuinedGravel Seriously though, I'm so friggin' excited for this event. 5 days of grind by day and campfire party by night. This ain't cheap, but it's cheaper than 5x 1 day gravel races. Prices increase Jan 1, hope we hang under the cascade night sky together #Repost @oregontrail_gravelgrinder • • • • • Be on the lookout for @pstetina this summer as rumor has it that #stinkypete will be loitering around the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder as he continues his campaign to ruin gravel. Be forewarned that he’s likely to steal your beer and your campfire spot if left unattended. We hear he can pedal a bike pretty ok too…

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In my recent trip to see Colin Strickland at his home in Austin, his phone endlessly buzzed with texts and emails from sponsors. After one flurry of texts he produced his phone and played a video, shot and edited by Red Bull. In the video, he rides his gravel bicycle to a barbecue restaurant, stuffs himself with smoked meats, and then rides off into the sunset. Now that is some killer content!

As I sat in TJ Eisenhart’s art studio outside Saint George, Utah, he talked about the various ways in which he plans to bring media value to his sponsors. Eisenhart will paint designs and upload them to his wheel sponsor, Enve, which will then print out custom decals of the paintings for his wheels.

“I’m not telling my sponsors I’m going to win this race like every team does,” Eisenhart said. “I want to do something different to highlight the creativity of the sport.”

Here’s my take: Gravel racers have become the new entrepreneurs of the American cycling space, pushing the business model of professional cycling into bold—if uncharted—new directions. They are taking risks and using their creativity to create business opportunities where they previously did not occur.

These riders piece together privateer racing programs funded by brands who pay for access to their social media, jersey space, word-of-mouth endorsement, and world-class talent. It’s a model that’s been popular amongst mountain bikers and cyclocross racers for years, however it’s one that’s totally new to the roadies who are entering the gravel space.

And boy, is it pushing these roadies in new directions.

Take Stetina, for example, who has ridden in well-funded pro teams since he was a teenager. WorldTour teams employ a small army of communications and social media staffers, as well as handlers, mechanics, and managers. As a WorldTour rider, Stetina’s travel was arranged by the team; a team PR person organized any media interviews; handlers picked him up from the airport and took him to the hotel and race.

Now, he’s handling all of the stuff himself.

“Being a pro roadie was one dimensional. All you do is focus on going fast,” Stetina said. “Now I’m answering emails as soon as I get home, on calls into the night into different time zones to put together the pieces of the sponsorship puzzle. I’m balancing obligations. It’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun too.”

A few years ago I would have laughed at the concept of a professional gravel racer who spends five hours a day agonizing over tweets and Instagram video. I’m not laughing anymore. These riders are earning enough cash from their endorsements to make mortgage payments. And chapeau to them—they have made gravel racing a legitimate professional undertaking.

Let me reiterate myself: These riders are helping push the business of American pro bike racing in a new direction. You’ve likely read our coverage of the changing landscape of American cycling. The Amgen Tour of California has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Domestic pro road teams are heading overseas to get racing days. Amateur racers like Justin Williams (amateur per UCI definition) can grab more media attention than WorldTour pros. Anyone, it seems, can launch their own mass-participant cycling event. And yes, big time gravel events are booming.

American cycling is undoubtedly changing, and nobody knows for sure what form it will take a decade or two from now.

What we do know is that there are many companies out there—manufacturers of caffeinated soda water, as well as bicycle brands—that no longer want to adhere to pro cycling’s old marketing rules. These companies don’t want to just be one of a dozen patches on a pro team’s jersey. They believe they can get more bang for their buck in backing one or two riders at grassroots events. Maybe they don’t have the marketing budget to fund nine riders at the Tour de France, or to be a category sponsor at a big pro race.

No matter the case, these brands are looking for a new way to market their products to cyclists like you and me. And our intrepid gravel entrepreneurs—with their spreadsheets, emails, and killer content—are the answer, for now.

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