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A Toast To Champagne Gravel

Words by Charlie Hagen, photos by Noah Wetzel

Every August at the SBT GRVL event in Steamboat Springs, hundreds of cyclists pop the cork of race-day excitement to spin over 140 miles on world-class gravel, chasing not only finish line glory but the joy of riding with friends through Colorado’s raw highland beauty.

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Champagne is more than a festive libation; it is the epitome of celebration. Graduations, weddings, promotions, and the births of children are all celebrated with champagne. It's fun, it pops, fizzes and bubbles throughout the experience. It's a party in a glass and a celebration beneath a cork, and I believe that its essence is bottled every August in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Since 2019, the annual “SBT GRVL” event offers the cycling world a taste of Steamboat’s finest. This event boasts several courses of varying lengths culminating in their premium offering: the 140-mile, 9,000 vertical foot Black Course. It’s demanding enough to garner the attention of the pros and all those who want to toe the line with them. 

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Steamboat starts shaking the bottle a few days before race day with a casual course inspection ride—provided by the pros—a massive expo from the gravel industry, live music, and a costume-themed hill climb “race.” The positive, bike-centric energy building inside the bottle is palpable. 

Race day starts like most: in the dark. SBT GRVL races begin with a mass start, meaning that all riders have the same start time and starting line. Everyone crams into the same bottle-necked chute, while the pros are introduced and opening ceremonies commence.

3…2...1… POP!

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Chasing the cork, almost a thousand white-helmet-adorned bubbles explode from the neck of the starting line, and the party is on! Racers burst onto the course, feeling early-ride euphoria transforming from pre-race jitters. Shared feelings promote quick-forming bonds and race-day friends. As riders gravitate into pace groups, these party wagons buoy the bubbles upward.

The wanderlust heads north from Steamboat, climbing through Clark and toward Hahns Peak. The quality of the gravel is refined, smooth and playful, tickling your tires and aiding your fingers to go ahead and grab another gear to effectively plane out your drop-bar gravel rig and fly. At these speeds on gravel roads, it is difficult to resist the urge to sit up and clink your glass for all those who made today magnificent, on course and otherwise. A toast seems appropriate: the substrate truly is “Champagne Gravel.”

It’s a long day on the bike, with no personal support crews permitted. Throughout the day, riders flow in and out of party wagons, as paces shift, but without fail, racers check in on each other as they pass to ensure everyone has what they need to continue. The aid stations put on a show with high-energy enthusiasm, bike frame cowbells, drum kits, and good old-fashioned pump-up jams from powerful speakers. August in Steamboat is particularly hot, and pickle juice shots flow like picklebacks on karaoke night.

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In gravel racing, there is a prominent “we are in this together” culture, and everyone genuinely wants to see each other succeed. SBT GRVL is a prime example of this spirit—they mean it when they say everyone is included. It’s obvious that the organizers of SBT GRVL understand how to capture the joy of bikes on scenic roads. The event deftly enhances the experience of riding with friends by providing an extremely well-organized course and A-Team aid stations, allowing riders to get lost in the raw beauty of the central highlands of Colorado. 

The event organizers expertly time the departure and return of roughly 3,000 riders. I think the party hosts plan it this way to ensure maximum finish line celebration, and after 140 miles it is appreciated! Racers drop into the final straightaway and are overwhelmed by loud music and cheering, with countless fans, face-painted kids, and dogs forming a huge gallery, ready to dole out high fives, hugs, cold beverages, salty snacks, and snow cones. The finish line is also, conveniently, meters from the bank of the Yampa River, which is famous for summertime inner-tubers. On race day, tubers are joined by legions of riders who have all proudly donned the same emblematic uniform: Champagne Graveldust.

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So, if I may, (Stand, raise my glass, clear my throat…)

Thank you, SBT GRVL for organizing such a wonderful event! Here's to the town of Steamboat for throwing such a killer gravel party! Here's to bikes, the places they take you, and the memories and friends they provide. And lastly, to all the participants, riders, and supporters alike, for bringing your finest gravel spirit and for making riding bikes with friends so darn fun!

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