Get the latest content and program updates via The Insider from Life Time.
Why Gravel Racing?
With Kristi Mohn and Michelle Duffy
Gravel racing has seen an upswing in popularity and participation in recent years — but why? In this mini episode, Kristi Mohn and Michelle Duffy, who work on the Life Time Athletic Events team, share more about this sport, how it’s different from other types of cycling, and why it’s something more people — from casual riders to professional athletes — are taking part in.
Kristi Mohn has built and shaped the UNBOUND Gravel race since its inception; she joined Life Time in 2018 when the company acquired the event. Mohn is also the cofounder of the Girls Gone Gravel podcast.
Michelle Duffy is the director of marketing, brand, and content strategy for Life Time Athletic Events. She helped launch the inaugural Grand Prix race series.
While off-the-pavement cycling has long been a pastime, gravel racing has experienced a rise in popularity since about 2005. Mohn and Duffy speak to some of the reasons for this growth:
- It’s accessible. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are 2.2 million miles of unpaved roads in the United States. It’s easy to find an off-the-road path to explore, whether you want to ride 25 or 200 miles.
- It can be safer than other types of cycling. With distracted drivers and road rage, the road isn’t as safe as it used to be, and this form of cycling doesn’t put you on busy roads with a lot of vehicles.
- It doesn’t have to be costly. Even though you can find expensive bikes, any bike can be a gravel bike.
- It fosters community. From newbies to pros and kids to adults, you’ll see all types of people taking part in this sport. The Life Time gravel race events are intentionally designed to be inclusive and lift up the communities they take part in.
More Like This
Choose Your Race: A Guide to Life Time’s 2023 Athletic Events
Pedaling for Meaning: One Athlete’s Pursuit to Bring More Riders to the Trail
Pro Gravel Cyclist Sara Sturm on Winning, Losing, and the Value of Rest
Transcript: Why Gravel Racing?
Season 7, Episode 7 | February 7, 2023
[MUSIC PLAYING] Hey, everyone. Welcome to this mini episode of Life Time Talks. I’m Jamie Martin.
And I’m David Freeman.
And today, we are really excited to have team members from our athletic events group here with us to talk about gravel racing and the rise in this off-road sport. David, I’m going to hand it over to you to welcome our guests.
Yeah, we got Michelle Duffy. She’s the director of our marketing brand and content strategy at Life Time athletic events and has led massive marketing efforts off-road races at Life Time for several years. And we’ve got somebody else that’s special. Jamie, who else we got?
Yeah, Kristi Mohn is here with us as well. She has built and shaped the unbound gravel race since its inception and joined the Life Time team in 2018, when Life Time acquired that event. Kristi has also been really integral in launching the DEI initiative and efforts within the athletic events group. Both for unbound and other athletic events that Life Time runs. She is also the co-founder of the Girls Gone Gravel podcast. Thank you both for joining us today.
Hello, we love having a fellow podcaster on with us. That’s awesome, Kristi.
No pressure, right?
No pressure at all. Not at all. All right, we’re going to jump right into this topic because, you know, we have heard and been reading, and obviously, we know because we’re part Of Life Time that gravel racing is on the rise. So we want to, first and foremost, just set the stage for everybody. What is gravel racing? And how is it different from other forms of cycling?
Well, I think gravel racing is pretty simply defined as riding your bike on off-road mixed terrain surfaces. So basically, when you use the term Gravel, but it really implies off the road, off the asphalt, off the pavement. It’s been around for a very long time. But the form that we seem to see today, really probably started taking shape in 2005-2006. And I would say unbound gravel was one of the leading events in that space of helping to grow the off-road gravel scene. I think we’re seeing such a rise in popularity for several reasons, a couple of which are the middle of the country is just packed with gravel roads, they’re just so accessible, and they’re everywhere. And it’s pretty easy to get out on your bike and explore those.
Secondly, I do feel like the road isn’t as safe as it used to be. Drivers are often distracted and not necessarily paying attention to what’s in front of them. And so being on off-road surfaces tends to lend yourself to a little bit more of a safety environment from the perspective of your fellow man out there in a much bigger vehicle than your bike is.
And then third, I think it’s just a pretty– like I said, it’s pretty accessible. You can take any bike on it, there’s the equipment needs, although you can spend a ton of money on in gravel cycling, you can also just– I always like to say, “Any bike is a gravel bike”, so you can just, kind of, get out there and explore and it’s a great way to explore terrain around you.
I love that introduction. Thank you for grounding us with that. I just want to take you back down to memory lane. Do you remember the age you were at when you first learned how to ride your first bike?
Oh, yeah, I was probably six. And I remember specifically asking for a Schwinn bike with the banana seats and the big ol’ handlebars that came up like this. I got that for Christmas when I was in second grade, and I remember that bike very specifically. And I also remember the feeling that I literally had, like riding that bike and feeling like I could go anywhere. Like, of course, that wasn’t exactly true. But in my mind’s, I as a kid, I was like, I can go further than around the block. And I thought that was real, I can ride myself to softball practice. It just was a moment of definite freedom, and I very much remember that.
That’s awesome. I mean, going back to what is gravel racing, and then going back to your childhood and how you, kind of, came into riding bikes. You said 2005 it started to pick up, it started to– everybody wanted to become part of this. So over the past, what, 18 years, we’re now in 23. What do you think cause such a draw to this sport?
The community that surrounds it is just absolutely phenomenal. You know, you can bring your friends, you can bring your kids, you can bring your spouse, everybody can come and play for the most part. And I think, I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done at Life Time in making the space even more inclusive and making sure people feel welcome to come and join us at a start line and experience the finish line and whether you’re riding or just spectating. There’s a space for you in gravel writing.
Michelle, I want to toss it over to you for a second. You’ve been with Life Time for about five years, you helped to launch our inaugural Grand Pr-ix race series. When Life Time started getting involved in more of these off-road races, why do you think that was? What were you and the team noticing, that was like, we’ve got to get more in this space? How was that? How did that evolve?
Yeah, I think, we were– When I came into this role for since 2011, we’ve had the Leadville race series events and they really grounded us in our success and understanding the success based on community, and event like the Leadville trail 100 mountain bike race in Colorado doesn’t exist without the backbones of that community. And while that’s traditionally a mountain bike race, I think that culture translates into what we’re seeing in the successful gravel events around the country. And they may have beautiful gravel roads and terrain that you’d never otherwise see if you were not on your bike.
But they do provide accessibility and they do come with really strong communities, whether that’s the local community in which the event takes place, or the community that gathers through the bike and understanding that, I think, Life Time has done a really great job, our team. Especially on taking the time to participate, taking the time to open our arms to that sport. I did not ride bikes, when I took this job. I rode a bike, I had a bike, but I didn’t lean into cycling, until we started to build our portfolio, deeper into the space and it required, taking the time to truly understand what the sport’s grounded in, in order for us to find success.
How do we acquire those events and just leaned into growing this as big as it could be, and, kind of, steering away and forgetting what really uplifts these events, I don’t think that we’d find as much success. I don’t think, that we would have been able to launch new events and sell them out, without prior ownership, without a community that’s had that event for 10 years prior to Life Time coming in. And I think, that’s something that not just Life Time, but the gravel community as a whole really leans into, where is it located? How can I support? The community volunteers, local businesses, all of that kind of helps to build the experience beyond the bike.
I like what you said there. I mean, you have to lean in at certain points in time, if you’re connecting and serving people in this space. So you started riding more frequently and getting involved. So my next question is going to be for both of you. I’ll start with you, Michelle. What’s the longest distance you’ve covered on a bike?
Kristi has me beat on this one. I’ve done like 120 miles.
In one setting?
Yeah. But you haven’t asked Kristi yet.
OK, OK. Kristi, you’re up. What you got for us?
Well, I’ve done, I’ve actually competed and completed our 200-mile event. So I’ve done the full 206 miles, and then also did it wasn’t in one day, but I did the Ho Chi Minh Trail over in Laos over the course of eight days, and that was pretty. That’s pretty intense.
Yeah, you think, right?
So, I mean–
I was in way over my head.
I know within what you both said this word inclusive. And this is another big thing that we’re huge on here at Life Time, making sure everybody feels welcomed, supported to fully participate. So, what’s the youngest age that you’ve actually seen participate at these events? And also, the most veteran age, senior age, like so, what on both ends of the spectrum? What have you seen?
Dang it, that’s a good one. I’m going to guess our youngest has been probably around seven or eight, and that’s probably in the 25 mile distance. I think our oldest has been up in the 80s, 84, or 85, somewhere in there. Is that right, Michelle?
Yeah, we’ve had people in their late 80s participate at some of our events and then some events also have youth like kids races. So we’ve seen Little Tykes on bikes, and that’s always really fun. But something that really stood out to me last year was standing at the start line of one of our events here in Emporia, Kansas, and watching this probably seven or eight-year-old, like take off to go do the 25-mile event, and it was just so super, super cool. These, Kristi, you said earlier, the bike was a vehicle that gave you some sense of freedom, and just imagine being seven years old and getting to roll out of a town on a bike, like your parents would never let you just go, run, or obviously, you can’t drive a car. So how else would you be able to travel that distance in a safe environment that your parents know and trust? So I thought that was really cool.
Well, a couple of things that you’re alluding to here as well is like, it doesn’t have to be a 200-mile race. It can be a 25-mile race, and this really has proven to be a sport where it’s like, more people are getting involved from all different walks of life. It’s not that they’re starting young, they’re starting from– maybe they’re in their middle age and just starting. So there’s really start small, but start any time. There’s really no limits on when you can participate. So can you speak to a little bit about that aspect of it?
For sure. I mean, I think one of the things I don’t like hearing is, “I’m just doing the 25”, or “I’m just doing the 50.” All of those distances are valid, and they all come with their own challenges. And I think that it’s one of the coolest things that we have, is that you can be lined up with a really strong pro rider, and just be, kind of, coming into this and starting to explore it and still be able to do it and participate. And it’s just– it’s one of the things that I think is the best part about the gravel cycling, just in general, is that we try to accommodate different abilities. And that can also mean different time commitments. Like, do you have time to train for a 200 mile? That takes a lot of commitment and a lot of time. So if you don’t, then we have other options for you. That still– you can still participate and be part of it.
Yeah, I want to go back to the community piece. And the inclusive piece. That was huge. I know we just talked about age right now. When you’re starting to see different people show up at the starting line, and I know you’ve head up a lot of the DEI initiatives. Can you share with us what you have start to see over the past few years, as it comes to evolving in this space and seeing all different shapes, sizes like any kind of creed coming into this space. Can you share with us a little bit of what you’ve been seeing?
Sure. I mean, I think it really came down to a realization for me several years ago, where what I understood was that people although the space was inclusive, we needed to invite people, we needed to make sure that they knew that they were welcome. And in doing so, we have got more, definitely more diligent about our approach to that. And as we’ve grown and learned more and more, I think one of the things that Life Time has done really well is find really strong partners that we can trust to help us bring in all of those different aspects, whether it’s body shape, whether it’s skin color, or whatever it is, we’ve found really solid partners to help us help them like they have access to our platforms we’re able to give them, whether it’s an entry to a race or whatever it may be, whether it’s hosting training rides for them. It’s really about finding those partners in the community and helping them do the work to make sure that they understand that the groups of people that they ride with every day are welcome at our events.
And that’s really helped us grow the inclusivity in an incredibly strong way that will survive this movement and this passion that we’re seeing in the industry around DEI. We’re growing the next community and it looks different than the one that’s currently been at a traditional bike start line. And I think that’s really exciting.
If I’m remembering correctly and correct me if I’m wrong, from a fact-checking standpoint. But I had read a New York Times article that talked about when athletes learned that, for instance, there was a nonbinary category for the first time in UNBOUND. And if I’m remembering that was just a couple of years ago, but it made a big difference in the race.
Can you speak to that piece of it?
Yeah, we actually rolled out a nonbinary category in 2020. But then with our friend COVID, we did not get to host our first year of events with nonbinary categories. So that really came to fruition in 2021 across the Life Time portfolio in UNBOUND Gravel was the first event that happened that year, that we had a nonbinary podium. And by making just that one category available, accessible, and it created change within the industry.
Not only did it open the doors for individuals that are nonbinary, but it also held other events accountable to have to do the work themselves as well to listen, and to follow suit. And whether those events were ready or not, they had to stay in a space. So it push the issue for them. And I think that’s great. I think holding others accountable is part of the work that we’re doing as well. We’re providing platforms. We’re providing accessibility. And we’re encouraging others to follow suit as an industry leader.
This past year, we went from a one person on the podium in 2021, Krisit, to having a full podium in the 2022 200 and 100 events. So we saw huge growth there. And we saw professional athletes that are nonbinary come to events like Big Sugar and Rich McBride in particular, professional triathlete that had never been able to compete in triathlons as nonbinary, was able to come to Big Sugar Gravel and stand on their first nonbinary podium, and become a champion there. And that was a big win for Rich, for us, and for the industry because I think after that we saw the page turn.
There’s a statistic that I think is really important to know. You mentioned how accessible gravel racing is. I think it was a New York Times article as well. And I know we’re doing a story in EL coming up on gravel racing as well. But something like 2.2 million miles of unpaved roads in the US. That’s according to the US Department of Transportation. And that’s so interesting because it really does make it more accessible for more people. And I think that’s an important thing for people to note.
But with that in mind, there has also been this growth on the professional side of the sport as well. And I know that, Michelle, you were really integral in growing our Grand Prix race series. So I’d love for people to know a little bit about what that is, and what it’s doing for this sport.
Yeah. In 2022, we hosted the inaugural Life Time Grand Prix, which is comprised of a series of already established Life Time cycling events. And it was a few years ago that we, one, started to recognize a change in tide. While gravel riding has been around for as long as a bicycle has been a vehicle, gravel racing really began in the early 2000s. But it wasn’t until around 2015/16 that we started to see professional cyclists come to these events and experience them for themselves.
Since that time, in 2015 till today, we’re seeing a rising tide in professional cyclists that are making a livelihood off of riding their bike off road. That’s very different than it was just in 2018 or 2019 where it was still newsworthy if an elite cyclist was coming to a gravel event. And now we have hundreds of elite level cyclists that are coming to these events with sponsors bringing 300 brands to our expos.
And we really took a step back, and we have this amazing portfolio of events. But then looking at the fans that those athletes may have, the fans that these events front of pack may have, that’s still lacking. And if you think about the United States cycling culture, it’s been tarnished since the Lance Armstrong era.
And how do we regenerate that? How do we figure out how to lift some of these athletes to the point where if you look at individual sports like track and field and Ashton Eaton, gymnastics and Simone Biles, golf and Tiger Woods, tennis and Serena Williams, they have a hero that stands on a pedestal and that people want to emulate. They follow the sport. They follow the person. They fall in love with them.
So how can we, using the assets that we have, both create a life changing experience for an everyday rider that’s simply trying to get to the finish line of their first 25 mile event on a $200 bicycle and also feed the sport by creating fans of the elites that are doing this as a career move, both for the elite athlete, ourselves, and then our sponsors that are coming up, showing up, and providing experiences for our athletes?
So we launched the Grand Prix. And it’s an application based initiative where professional athletes from around the world apply to be a part of it. They come. They race six of our events. This year we’re actually transitioning to seven events. And they’re competing for a $0.25 million dollar prize purse.
I love it. And I know there’s a documentary that’s out around this, a docuseries I should say. And so we’ll be able to point to that too from this episode’s landing page when we get to that.
Absolutely. And the other key thing around the Life Time Grand Prix is that there’s 100% equity. We took the same amount of women as we did men. Our prize purse is 50/50 split male to female. And our media coverage is 50/50 split male to female, both on at our events. But then as we talk about this docuseries, we are taking a non-traditional approach here where we’re trying to show you under the lens who these athletes are as people and the episodes.
It’s a six episode series and documents not just how the race unfolded but who is the human that is Haley Smith, the now champion of the Life Time Grand Prix? And it goes from male to female to male to female intentionally so that we can really dig in to who these people are.
I can’t wait to see the full thing. I’ve seen the trailer and I was like, this is going to be great. The last thing I want to just toss over before I hand it off to you, David, is back to you, Krisit, one thing that I’m hearing from all these athletes, we have actually athlete Sarah Sturm is going to be on the cover of Experience Life coming up, really excited. I have heard Haley Smith’s story a bit. And there seems to be this little bit a common thread in some of their stories about how gravel racing has brought back some joy to their experience of cycling. And I think let’s just, before we sign up, before David asks you guys a few quick fire questions, tell us a little bit about that, the joy that you’re finding in your athletes, whether they’re beginner or pros.
I think in the day and age that we’re in, there’s so much divisiveness. And the wonderful thing, the little bit of magic we have in gravel is that even there may be some issues that we like to fight about that are fun and funny but ultimately, we all are here for the same goal. And we’re all here to cheer each other on. And so I think when you’re in a community where there’s just that much support, you just can’t help but smile when you’re out there on your bike.
And for an athlete like Sarah or Haley, they get to do this for a living. And we’ve made it possible. That’s just really cool, and it’s super fun. And there’s definitely pressure in there. There’s definitely stress, but it’s definitely different than other forms of cycling. And I’m hoping we can keep it that way. And I’m hoping that 2 plus million gravel roads around the world don’t start getting paved.
All right. David, over to you.
I don’t want to call it a hot seat question. This a question that really allow you to go a little bit deeper in your mindset. I’m always huge on mine because I feel like, obviously, any and everything that we do it starts there. And understanding that you both have rode 100 plus miles, and I shared this story on another podcast that we had. I think it was with [INAUDIBLE]. I can’t remember.
But I did a century ride before, and I shared how when I got around mile 80 that mentally I was in this place of like I feel like every mile marker is coming up slower and slower. So what I want you all both to share is your personal experience of the most challenging ride that you might have had and what you ended up doing in those moments to get through it.
So I ride the tandem a lot with my husband. It’s kind of a thing we do, the tandem on gravel. And we’ll participate in events on it. And this past summer, we rode gravel worlds, the unofficial gravel world which takes place in Lincoln, Nebraska. And normally, we’re totally in sync, and we just grind away when we’re on a tandem bike.
Where he’s in the front and he’s responsible for pretty much everything. And my responsibility is to just eat and pedal. You have to exert just as much energy. You have to pedal at the same cadence because those bikes are going in tandem. But we made a late decision to 10 gravel worlds and I had not been riding at all this summer, so I went through a bonk in the high heat of Nebraska back country one could call it. And I put my tunes on and really look around me.
And I think that’s the key for me when I’m having a challenging ride is blocking everything else out. I found that to be my solace even on my best rides is looking around me because why else would I be out in these valleys and hills of rural America if it wasn’t for my bike? And finding the peace and gratitude in that, knowing that it’s accessible to me. While I was in Lincoln that time that’s really how I found my soul.
I made the decision to move to Emporia, Kansas through work and through meeting the people, my coworkers, my now husband, because being in on the gravel in these rural communities has provided so much solace for me even when the ride is hard. So finding that time, putting in the earbuds, and looking around is really what gets me through. And I love to just dig deep, so there’s that too.
Love it. Thank you for sharing that. Krisit, what you got?
I got a little bit of time to think about it while Michelle was answering. But when I was on that ride in Laos, I broke my wrist on the beginning of the second day. And literally being in the back roads of Nebraska feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere until you’re literally in the middle of nowhere in Laos and there’s nowhere to go. And I had no choice to continue riding. That was the only option. But in that moment what I also realized was that I had chosen to be there.
And I really took the same sort of gratitude standpoint of like, I’m lucky. My life is allowing me to do this. My body allows me to be capable of doing this. I’m so fortunate to be here and I need to focus on that versus the fact that it’s a struggle and every mile seems like it’s going by an inch at a time. So I think just like Duffy, finding a place to just be appreciative of everything you have when you’re struggling is a pretty special place and you can take that and apply it to anything else.
Thank you all for sharing that. I like it because of our listener is being able to understand in those moments of struggle or whatever it is that they may be going through those words that y’all just shared can now resonate with them or probably get them through the next time they might have some trouble going on mentally in their life. So I appreciate y’all sharing that.
And we’re going to wrap up this episode on that note because I think it’s a really high place for us to end. And we want to just check in with both of you. Are there places people can follow you, stay connected you on social or just the Life Time athletic site? Where do you want to point people?
Yeah, we’d love if you guys followed along with the Life Time Grand Prix social channels. The handle is just that. Growing fans of a sport doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be on a bike; it just means you need to be able to see yourself in those that you’re following. And so I think we’re going to be able to share some stories that people can really resonate to through that channel. And we’d love to have listeners follow along for that journey this year and our second inaugural year.
Awesome. And we will link to the docuseries, the different Instagram handles, and all that in our show notes. So thank you both for taking time out of your schedules. I know race season is coming up. People are going to be on the roads, and in all sorts of race forms coming up here shortly. So thank you for all the work you’re doing to make it more accessible for more of us.
We’d Love to Hear From You
Have thoughts you’d like to share or topic ideas for future episodes? Email us at email@example.com.
The information in this podcast is intended to provide broad understanding and knowledge of healthcare topics. This information is for educational purposes only and should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of advice from your physician or healthcare provider. We recommend you consult your physician or healthcare professional before beginning or altering your personal exercise, diet or supplementation program.