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Why am I doing this again? Inside a do-it-yourself cycling event

Why am I doing this again? Inside a do-it-yourself cycling event

Across the U.S., grassroots event organizers have steered participatory cycling in a bold new direction. Gone are the days when cycling events revolved around category upgrade points and photo finishes.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the June issue of VeloNews magazine.

The frown on Bjorn Snider’s face tips me off. This phone call brings bad news.

“What do you mean there’s a river running through there now?” Snider barks into his phone. “How muddy is it?”

From my place in the passenger seat, I hear a man’s garbled voice buzz on the phone. Mud up to my waist. It’s a swamp. And finally, Find another route.

The tires of our minivan screech as we speed onto the highway and begin driving up and over the Santa Monica Mountains. For the last five hours, we have driven this van along backroads and neighborhood avenues, marking the course for Snider’s upcoming gravel cycling event, a 55-mile mass-start ride called the Rivet Raid. We dodged cars on Mulholland Drive and sprayed chalk arrows through Brentwood. This call brings a new challenge. A mudslide outside Malibu has washed away a long section of Snider’s course.

“Apparently it’s a full-on raging river now,” Snider says. “Dude, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

We devise a new plan. Snider will ride his bike up to the ridgeline and mark a new route down through Malibu Creek State Park. As Snider pedals away from the minivan, his bag overflowing with wooden stakes and signs, I take stock of the situation. It’s nearly 3 p.m. We still need to purchase snacks for the feed zones and pack the van. Riders arrive tomorrow at 7 a.m. for breakfast before the 8 a.m. start at Pedaler’s Fork, an upscale restaurant in Calabasas.

Snider flashes a hang loose sign as he pedals into the park and laughs.

“Why am I doing this again?” he says.

Snider may not realize it, but he is pedaling at the forefront of a revolution in American cycling. Across the United States, grassroots event organizers like him have steered participatory cycling in a bold new direction. Gone are the days when cycling events revolved around category upgrade points and photo finishes. Today, many cyclists crave mass-start events that deliver adventure, companionship, friendly atmosphere, and a post-ride beer or gourmet meal. Results page be damned.

Organizers like Snider—a day jobber with a wife and three children— have stepped in to fill the void with events that boast a decidedly do-it-yourself vibe. Not quite a gran fondo, and not quite a group ride, these events inhabit an entirely different realm within the ecosystem of cycling events. They rely on GPS files and popular Strava segments, and social media marketing and grassroots buzz.

And that’s why I’ve come here, to Southern California, in February, to spray chalk arrows on the ground and hand out number plates. If my longtime friend, Bjorn Snider, is at the forefront of American cycling’s DIY revolution, I want to be there, too.

An idea becomes reality

Snider and I met during our freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, and his passion for cycling persuaded me to join the collegiate team. Our paths intersected throughout our twenties and early thirties, and cycling was always present. Over the years, our cycling conversations often focused on the sport’s frustrating business models. Snider is a sales trader, and his professional life revolves around dollars and cents. Since his mid-twenties, Snider always discussed someday blending his expertise in finance with his passion for cycling. Two years ago, Snider launched his own event company, called Rivet, with a cartoon Viking as his brand.

“I know I’m never going to be like Levi’s Gran Fondo with thousands of participants. I’m a startup,” Snider tells me over dinner. “I thought it would be cool to try and create a race that I would want to do. It’s fun and you get to hurt but it’s not a slog.”

Like many event organizers, Snider had heard the often-repeated stories of grassroots races that bucked the traditional model and grew into a global phenomenon. Dirty Kanza started with 34 people in a parking lot. Last year, it sold for a rumored seven-figure sum. San Diego’s Belgian Waffle Ride had similarly humble roots. Now, the mixed-surface race attracts more than 1,000 participants and financial backing from Canyon Bicycles.

Every day, images of new grassroots events pop up on Instagram, alerting cycling fans to the changing tastes in American cycling. These events blend road with gravel, and often times are held on open roads and rely on GPS data to route the riders. Everyone starts at once, and the goal is to have fun. What’s missing? Cat. 3 drama, paranoia over amateur doping, attacks in the feedzone, and testosterone-driven rage.

These changes reflect a phenomenon that Snider and I both felt when we entered our thirties.

“It was like, ‘I don’t want to do road races and crits anymore,’” Snider says. “I couldn’t train enough to be competitive anymore and I just didn’t like the vibe.”

All of these forces helped shape Snider’s first Rivet Raid in July 2017. He plotted a challenging 50-mile route through the Santa Monica Mountains on some of his favorite paved and gravel roads. He created a brand image and marketed the event on Instagram and through his network of riding buddies in Los Angeles. He built a website and sent GPX files to participants. He charged $40, and 30 riders showed up to ride, most of them through word-of-mouth. Snider lost money on the operation, but he had fun.

“I had beer. I had a taco cart come out,” Snider says. “It was small but I figured I can’t just come out of the gate with some grand idea.”

In February 2018, he held another event, this one more upscale. He called the Kimpton Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara and asked if the hotel was interested in staging a bike event. He found a chef and hired a DJ. The price tag was larger at $115—he had to split revenue with the hotel and cover his costs. The event lost a few hundred bucks, but again, Snider had fun.

“I learned that sometimes you just have to call people to see if they’re interested in partnering,” Snider says. “People were interested in putting on a high-end event.”

He held a third event in July 2018. These events followed a similar ebb and flow. Coffee and snacks, then the ride, and then a post-ride meal and beers with plenty of time to socialize.

Snider combined his experiences and knowledge from these first three events when planning his fourth event, this Rivet Raid. He approached Pedaler’s Fork to host the start and finish, and to serve breakfast and a post-ride lunch. He agreed to pay $35 a head to the restaurant and asked the restaurant to publicize the ride through its social media feeds. He networked with a local bike shop to host a raffle. He worked with mobile bike shop VeloFix to man one feed zone, and a local open space group to man his second feed zone.

He purchased event insurance from USA Cycling, and planned a route through the Santa Monica Mountains that was challenging, but doable for hardcore and weekend- warrior riders.

He listed his ride entry fee at $99, and ran the numbers. If 100 people showed up, he would probably cover his costs.

“I knew I would probably lose money,” Snider says. “Do I want to be in the red? Absolutely not. The goal is to someday make money.”

Dollars and cents have helped fuel this revolution in American participatory cycling. For years, clubs and individual promoters struggled to navigate the tenuous economics that govern a traditional cycling road race. The line items on a typical USA Cycling-sanctioned race include road closures, police escorts, referees, and timing crews, among other costs. Race entry fees should cover the costs—often, they do not.

By contrast, events like the Rivet Raid boast an entirely different economic setup. There are no road closures or police escorts. Some promoters pay for event insurance, while others do not. The thousands of dollars that organizers might spend on timing chips and prizes can, instead, be spent on upscale feed-zone snacks and beer.

These rides are hardly a new concept— cycle randoneurring events and weekly group rides have existed for decades. Yet the confluence of GPS and social media has helped propel a new vibe and format.

When David Trimble looked to organize his own road cycling events in the late 2000s, he saw the economic hurdle standing in his way. Trimble, founder of the iconic Red Hook Criterium, instead created invite-only grassroots events in and around New York City. In 2011 Trimble held a mountainous race on open roads in the Catskills called “Neversink.” He rewarded KOM points atop a series of climbs, and the winners received prizes. Word of the event spread on social media, and Trimble brought it back in subsequent years. Trimble has never obtained permits for Neversink.

“I try to make it as remote as possible so we’re away from traffic,” Trimble says. “By the time the cops find out about us, it’s over with.”

The elastic economics of events like Neversink give grassroots organizers a tremendous amount of freedom. Sam Ames, a longtime race promoter in Bakersfield, organizes a gravel event, called the Rock Cobbler, that sends racers pedaling through someone’s living room.

“I wanted to put on an event and do things that we could never do in a traditional road race,” Ames says. “We wanted to hand out beer and have fun. We wanted to give riders a canvas so they can get whatever out of it that they want.”

For years, Ames organized criteriums and road races in California’s Central Valley. Two years ago he launched the Rock Cobbler as a way to showcase the trails and roads around Bakersfield. He relied on his local connections to chart his course. Ames pays for permits to use public land, and he also donates cash to a private ranch that allows him to ride on its trails. The overhead costs, he says, are larger than that of his criterium. Yet he sells out all 200 entries for $140, and the entry fees cover his costs.

“There’s a lot more work that goes into it than a crit,” Ames says. “You’re marking a long course and doing cleanup. It’s probably more resources but it’s a lot more fun.”

John Hornbeck, a former pro racer, launched his event series, called the Spandex Stampede, in Temecula, California, in 2015. For his events, Hornbeck charges an entry fee in the range of $100; the fee pays for a gourmet meal and drinks at a local winery. Each of the 200 participants also receives a sweatshirt branded with his logo.

“Why pay $1,000 to some timing company? I’d rather give my riders free beer and Mexican food,” Hornbeck says. “I got great live music. It’s a bitchin’ hangout. Sure, I have to clean things up at the end. But it’s the vibe that I always wanted in an event.”

Both Ames and Hornbeck say they do pay for insurance—events that charge an entry fee are liable should anything go wrong. Neither, however, worked with USA Cycling for licensing and insurance. While the national governing body does sell insurance to gran fondos and smaller grassroots races, there is a caveat—participants must buy a $10 one-day license in order to participate.

For some promoters, the added fee is a deterrent.

Hornbeck says his events now generate a small profit. He is restricted to 200 participants by the trail usage rules of Riverside County. But with five events throughout the year, Hornbeck is able to cater to 1,000 total participants. Like Ames and Snider, Hornbeck operates Spandex Stampede as a side business.

“We’ll see where it goes,” Hornbeck says. “I don’t have some huge business model planned out for it. It’s my concept. If it’s cool and fun, it will work.”

DIY with a DJ and a viking

The first rider rolls into the parking lot at Pedaler’s Fork just as the February sun peaks over the horizon. Snider and I have been awake for hours, assembling pop-up tents and fold-out tables with three volunteers: his wife, Barbara, and two buddies from work.

Our early-morning setup goes quickly due to the massive organizational push we made the previous evening. After Snider marked the new course, we rushed to the local Costco and purchased two large shopping carts worth of cheeses, dates, and other upscale snacks for Snider’s two feed zones. We then spent several hours loading the race gear into Snider’s van. I carried wrist bands, raffle tickets, number plates, pop-up tents, and event flags emblazoned with the Rivet logo.

As more riders arrive, Snider’s entertainment kicks into gear. A DJ sets up a table and begins to play thumping dance music, and a photographer arrives to snap photos. And then, a hired actor shows up, puts on a Viking costume, and begins to snap photos with the riders.

An actor in a viking costume added to the atmosphere. photo: Fred Dreier

“I think this guy does kids’ birthday parties,” Snider says. “He was affordable.”

More riders roll up, and soon the parking lot fills with men and women in Lycra. As the 8 a.m. deadline arrives, I look at Snider’s registration page. With the day-of and pre-registered riders, the tally is 107. I stroll through the parking lot to speak with the riders. Some tell me they learned about the Rivet Raid through Instagram, and others say they learned through friends.

Most of the riders, however, tell me they heard about it directly from Snider.

“I know him from the Tuesday night ride,” says John Middleton, 35, of Ventura. “We rode down in Conejo Valley and it was a slugfest.”

More and more riders reveal their personal connection to Snider, and I recall a conversation we had, two nights before, about the origins of this ride. The key to Snider’s ride is his gregarious personality on the bike. He never rides with headphones. Whether he knows it or not, it’s Snider’s bike rides throughout Southern California that have promoted his event.

“I put myself out there,” Snider told me later. “I see myself as an ambassador for my ride. Wherever I go, I’m never a wallflower.”

The riders depart for the Dirt Mulholland climb, and Snider and I hop back into the van and speed over the mountains to Santa Monica. Pedaler’s Fork has a café in Santa Monica, which is the site of the first feed zone. So we drive to the second feed. As the riders speed through, we drive back up and over the mountains. It’s a crucial moment—riders will navigate the gravel climb up Puerco Canyon Road, and then the dirt descent.

“This is the most stressful moment,” Snider says. “If people have a bad experience, people find out about it, and there goes your reputation. You only have one chance.”

We arrive at the final feed zone to learn that the lead group of riders has already come and left. Stragglers roll by, one by one, and stop to fill their bellies with cheese and nuts. A mud-coated rider describes the ride up and over the mountains—sunny areas were dry, while shady areas were still wet. The elevation gain from Malibu presented a challenge, and the view from the top was worth it.

We arrive at the finish line, four hours after the start, to find several dozen riders sitting on benches eating pulled pork sandwiches and drinking beer. Music blares from the speakers as more riders arrive, coated in mud and smiling. The party eventually heads into the restaurant. Beer is poured. Stories are told. A local bike shop raffles off several dozen items: tires, inner tube plugs, and even a yearlong Zwift account.

I ask riders to compare the Rivet to other traditional organized cycling events.

“It has the gran fondo feel, only as if Strava segments were built into a group ride,” says one rider. “A charity ride is about getting the most number of people onto a predictable course. That’s not this event.”

“I’m 30 minutes from home and I know everyone here,” says another rider.

In the days following his event, Snider will add up his expenses. He pays Pedaler’s Fork $4,000 or so for the food and beer, and then there are various small fees: $952 for the feed zone; $550 for photographers; $400 for rider insurance; $100 for custom-engraved growlers for the winners; $150 for his Viking performer. When Snider adds in the $1,500 donation he makes to the local open space nonprofit, the final tally comes in.

He’s earned a few bucks, which he donates to charity.

I capture the true value of Snider’s ride as the event slowly winds down. As the Southern California sun dips low over the Santa Monica Mountains, Snider stands in the parking lot, beer in hand, holding court with a group of his customers. I eavesdrop on their conversation as I fold up the card tables, and pack away the tablecloths. As Snider smiles, these riders recount their day in great detail.

One rider reaches out and gives Snider a high five.

“Dude, that was awesome,” he says.

This content was originally published here.

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