Challenging Formula One Driver Valtteri Bottas In The SBT GRVL Bike Race

This challenge was accepted in June during the 2022 ENVE Grodeo event—a gravel party, as it were, that starts and ends at ENVE headquarters in Ogden, Utah. The course is about 98 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing over asphalt, dirt roads, rocky jeep trails and a fair bit of singletrack. But it’s not a race. There are no timing chips or number plates. It’s just an epic day on the gravel or mountain bike, depending on your preference. In the true spirit of gravel, the Grodeo is basically an adventure ride with feed zones, complete with some axe throwing around mile 50 and a hot dog BBQ at mile 80.

This was the context in which I was invited to participate in SBT GRVL, the popular August gravel event—a true monument on the gravel calendar—in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I rode most of the Grodeo with SBT promoter, Chris Lyman, and his pitch went something like this: “Come to Steamboat a couple days early and do a coffee ride with F1 driver Valtteri Bottas, and then do the race on Sunday.” What I actually heard, though, was, “Come to Steamboat and race against 10-Time Grand Prix Winner Valtteri Bottas.”

At this point in the season, I’d been doing a lot of riding, but I wasn’t planning to race this year. The Grodeo gave me a jumpstart into a training program for the next eight weeks leading up to SBT GRVL on August 14th. One of the upsides of putting Bottas in my crosshairs was that I had to sign up for the 60-mile red course…as opposed to the 100-mile or 140-mile blue and black courses, respectively. So I essentially had to train for a three-hour, full-gas effort, which is shorter than a stage of the Breck Epic and at lower elevations. In fact, Steamboat and Park City both sit at about 7,000 feet, so that would be a wash for me…and potentially an advantage since Bottas lives at sea level in Monaco.

If you’ve been following the gravel scene or the women’s WorldTour (or if you’re a fan of Formula One), then you’ve noticed Valtteri showing up with his partner, Tiffany Cromwell of Team CANYON/SRAM, to compete in some US gravel events. He’s also landed on the podium a few times, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that he’s a world-class athlete who competes at the pinnacle of motorsport. By definition, he’s one of the 20 best drivers in the world. Most recently, this sporting power couple partnered with the organizers of SBT GRVL to host a gravel event in Finland aka FNLD GRVL, which is scheduled for June 10, 2023. While all of that is cool and impressive—and while I’m a big fan of Bottas—my goal was to beat him. Despite being a bit older and not a world-class athlete, that became my training mantra: Beat Bottas.

My SBT GRVL Setup

In addition to training, I thought a lot about equipment choices and how that could become an advantage. As fortune would have it, I’d just taken delivery of a rare and highly sought-after ENVE Custom Road bike. Though it’s classified as a road bike, the Custom features clearance for up to 35c tires. I also opted for the All Road geometry, which extends the wheelbase by 100mm and makes for a more stable ride over choppy terrain. While this would an awful bike choice for the Grodeo, it seemed an ideal setup for the fast and smooth “champagne gravel” for which SBT is famous.

Except that I initially built the Custom with ENVE’s new SES 2.3 super-light climbing wheels. With a 21mm internal rim width, these aren’t suited to gravel. So I swapped them out (temporarily) for the Zipp 353/454 Tubeless NSW wheels that were featured on the S-Works Tarmac SL7. In addition to being more gravel friendly, they offer an aero profile that suits the fast SBT course.

Tire choice then became the next decision. Having polled various brands, I discovered that Schwalbe—in my experience, the category leader in gravel treads—was about to release a new race-spec tire. The G-One RS is a semi-slick tubeless tire that weighs 410g in the 35c width, though it’s also offered in 40c and 45c for more aggressive courses. Given the fast and smooth nature of Steamboat’s gravel roads, it proved to be the ideal size and tread to race at SBT.

Hydration and fueling strategy are also key considerations, as the neutral feed zones will cost precious time. Do you go light on water and take time to refill, when you don’t know how long that could take? Or do you carry it all from the start? This is obviously a bigger consideration on the longer courses, but I knew I’d need three bottles for a three-hour effort, and the ENVE only has two bottle cages. In the end, I opted to use the EVOC Pro 1.5 race pack. Though I’m no fan of hydration packs, this particular model wears like a vest and distributes the weight more evenly. There are zipped pockets and stuff pockets on the front, which would be useful for much longer rides but were not needed for this race distance. I also didn’t need to fill the full 1.5 liters.

A few other key gear choices include the Garmin RS200 SPD power meter pedals; the Specialized Prevail 3 helmet; a Rapha race day kit with the Pro Team jersey and Cargo Bib shorts; and a Tubolito super light spare tube that’s packed into a saddle bag with tools.

The SBT GRVL Curve Ball

My training program was on target…until it wasn’t. With about 10 days to race, I decided to check out the new bike park at Utah’s Powder Mountain for the first time, effectively riding the downhill bike as a recovery day. The ski area has built three trails so far—two flow and one technical—with plans to build two more per year. I ended up crashing on the third or forth run. It was a proper, over-the-bars digger, though I still felt fine to take a couple more laps despite a sore wrist. The next day it was swollen. I got an X-ray that revealed a fractured scaphoid bone, which is right at the base of the thumb. It’s perhaps the most common wrist injury. With this I assumed all my plans for SBT were shot.

Two days before I was scheduled to drive to Steamboat Springs for the Bottas coffee ride, I met with an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Heiden suggested we put a pin in it to assure quick and thorough healing. I agreed but also presented my situation: that I was supposed to race against Valtteri Bottas in Steamboat that weekend and then go to Finland the following week to pre-ride the FNLD GRVL course with him. Was there any way for me to swing those without doing irreversible damage? Turns out, there was. Dr. Heiden referred to a physical therapist to get a custom splint (above) that would be shaped to my handlebar and riding position. We could do surgery when I returned. So I got the splint and drove to Steamboat two days later.

The SBT GRVL Experience

I previously interviewed SBT GRVL founder and organizer, Amy Charity, about the gravel revolution and what sets her Steamboat Springs, Colorado, event apart from the dozens that have emerged over the past decade. She emphasized the core value of inclusivity: that everyone was welcome, that there was something for every type of cyclist, including e-bike categories, and that the SBT organization was committed to supporting and promoting diversity in cycling. All of which is quite laudable. But it’s also something we hear quite often these days. It’s become quite fashionable. And it’s one thing to make the claim and another to actually deliver.

What you’ll find with SBT GRVL when attending is that it’s not actually a gravel race. It feels more like a bike festival. Starting as early as Thursday, there are multiple “shakeout” rides per day, many of which are organized by sponsors including Zwift, Castelli, Wahoo and others. There’s a women’s ride and a youth ride. Several are led by gravel pros. Then the downtown expo opens on Friday, featuring the latest cycling technology from Specialized, SRAM and dozens of other companies.

One of the highlights for many was meeting basketball legend Reggie Miller, who was at the Castelli booth to promote his Boom Baby line, which benefits both the Equal Justice Initiative and Dropping Dimes. Featuring a Pop-a-Shot setup, it was the booth with the most energy and star power while also supporting very worthy causes.

The expo is complemented by a schedule of related events, panel discussions and parties leading up to the big day on Sunday. It’s an immersive weekend of gravel cycling (and all it stands for) in the idyllic setting of Steamboat Springs.

As a ski resort destination, there is no shortage of lodging options, though the downtown properties adjacent to the venue book up well in advance. Since I only decided to attend about eight weeks out, I had to look a bit further out of town. That said, I’d still highly recommend the Lodge at Steamboat, which is located at the base of the ski resort. I rented a two-bedroom condo with a complete kitchen and plenty of room for my bikes and gear. There’s a killer burger place/pub—Apres Burger Bistro—right next door, and you’ll ride about three miles into town on the Yampa River Core Trail, which is free of automobile traffic and makes for an ideal warmup and cool down before and after the race.

The SBT GRVL Race

When I decided to race the 2022 SBT GRVL Red Course, where Bottas would be one of more than 700 competitors, my intent was to beat him and finish on the podium. Did I think that was possible? Yes. I had to believe it was possible because that’s what I was training for. That would be my journey for eight weeks of epic riding in and around Park City, Utah, where I live. I knew if trimmed down to a competitive race weight and ramped up my power, I could be at the front. One of the more rewarding and addictive aspects of training is the data feedback and measuring your progress. That dopamine hit when the Garmin says, “You hit a new FTP. Do you want to save it?” Or when the Garmin app classifies your fitness level as “Peaking.” Or when your fitness level registers triple digits in the Strava or Training Peaks app. Indeed, the journey of bike racing is every bit as rewarding as the destination.

But then I fractured my wrist, which destroyed my final block of training. Did I alter my goals accordingly? No. Why? Because these are just excuses, and there’s no such thing as a good excuse.

SBT GRVL would be my first gravel race. I’ve ridden grand fondos and centuries, but all of my competitive cycling has been on a mountain bike. Having pre-ridden the start and finish sections of the course, it was apparent the racing style would be similar to a road race given how smooth and asphalt-like Steamboat’s dirt roads are. It’s quite easy to ride in a pack and work together.

The Red Course sets off at 7:30am following the Black and Blue course riders. There is a brief neutral section as the group is escorted through town and to the first dirt section. Just before that, there’s a short, steep asphalt ascent—the airport climb, as it’s known—where the hammer drops. I reacted to the acceleration but wasn’t close enough to the front of the pack. By the time we turned left onto the dirt road, the front group has already created a good 50-meter gap. I attempted to bridge, burning matches in the process, but it was in vain as I found myself alone in no-man’s land. My only choice at that point was to sit up and wait for others to start working with. We’d keep the leaders in sight for the next hour or so, but it was clear they were pulling away. None of us felt compelled to catch them at this early stage.

According to my Garmin Edge 1030, the SBT Red Course has eight climbs. As I’ve suggested in the past, loading the GPX file of the course onto your Garmin is an invaluable tool for racing. It counts down all the climbs, and it shows you each climb’s distance and profile as you’re on it. This enables you to set pace accordingly, knowing when the steep sections are coming and when you’re approaching the summit i.e. an opportunity to recover. As with all SBT courses, the climbs are backloaded a bit, and the toughest one on the Red Course—a Category 4 called “Backside to Wolverine” on Strava—is the final climb at about mile 50. This is followed by the fastest and roughest descent of the course called Cow Creek, where you may actually have to dodge cattle in an open range. With a fractured wrist, this proved to be the most tense and tentative section of the course, where I actually lost at least a minute to most other riders by just picking the smoothest lines and riding the brakes.

With my legs threatening to cramp for that last several miles—a rolling asphalt descent back into town—I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:06, an average pace of 19.1 mph and average power output of 213 watts. This put me 21st overall, which was 10 minutes behind Bottas in 4th place—well short of my goal. But I was still satisfied with my race because I gave it 100 percent and was thoroughly knackered at the end. I also finished fourth in my 50-something age group, just one spot off the podium.

The winner of our race distance was a former pro, which brings me to a final critique of sorts. The pros and former pros ought to be in their own category for each gravel distance, in my opinion. I get that gravel is a new thing, where everyone rides together and there are minimal regulations, but once you’ve crossed that (hugely impressive) threshold—racing bikes as a job, as an actual profession—there should be no going back. You should never compete or be compared against amateurs in any type of event. I may be alone in this opinion, but when an elite rider stands atop the podium, hands in the air, where 99% of their competitors are amateurs, it looks odd and even a bit embarrassing. It’s akin to Reggie Miller going to high schools to dunk on a bunch of kids and then celebrating it on social media. These elite riders, who I certainly admire for their accomplishments, should either forego the podium at events like this or else compete against one another exclusively. Sandbagging is bad enough when it comes to sanctioned Cat 1 and 2 events and the Sport/Expert categories in mountain bike races. Gravel racing shouldn’t one-up them by pitting pros against amateurs. So, yes, if you’re a former pro, you have to race against current pros. That’s the privilege you’ve earned by becoming an elite rider that we all admire.

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