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Are Lotteries the Best Selection Method for Bucket List Events?

Unbound Gravel and SBT GRVL are the two biggest gravel races in the country. Thousands of riders enter lotteries for a chance to participate in these bucket list events. But what if there was a different way to get in? Could qualifiers improve the experience?

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Gravel

Hoping I get picked... Photo: Ian Matteson

I am 2 days away from finding out if I have been selected to race Unbound Gravel, and I'm going a bit crazy with anticipation. If you don’t know, Unbound Gravel is currently the world’s biggest gravel race. 

Every June, over 4,000 riders descend on the small town of Emporia, Kansas for a shot at gravel glory. To decide who gets to race (because there's way more than 4,000 people who want to), Unbound uses a lottery system. In January, riders can enter the lottery. If your name gets drawn, you’re in, and the panic training begins. 

Waiting around to know my fate has me feeling super anxious, which got me wondering — is a lottery the best way for big bucket list events like Unbound to decide who gets to race? Or is there a better way?

Update 1/25/24: I got into Unbound! But a few of my friends didn't 😢. Such is life.  

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Lotteries Can Be Better Than First Come First Served

Unbound Gravel Emporia KansasEmporia, KS is a small town that can only fit so many people. Photo: Ian Matteson

Before I get too far, let me start by saying that I like the lottery.

I think lotteries are the fairest way to manage in-demand and high-profile events like this. Allow me to tell you the story of the first time I entered Unbound Gravel…

I entered for the first time with my cousin back in 2017. Unbound was getting a lot of buzz after Ted King won it on the new Cannondale Slate. Gravel was really starting to take off, and we were captivated by the idea of this brutal, unpaved, long-distance event in the middle of nowhere. 

We woke up early on registration day and sat together at the dinner table with our laptops ready, eagerly refreshing the race website. At 6:00 AM, the registration button appeared and we scrambled to fill out our entry forms, sign waivers, and add our credit card info. We both hit “submit” a few minutes after registration opened … then both of our browsers crashed. The race website had been hugged to death by the flood of submissions.

We couldn’t tell if our registrations had gone through, so we checked our emails. I had an email confirmation and was in. My cousin had nothing. He was out. We had pressed submit within seconds of each other. Needless to say, it was super stressful and frustrating. 

In response to these issues, Unbound introduced its lottery system the following year. It was a good move. It made gaining entry feel more relaxed, but also more fair. The longer lottery entry window ensures everyone who’s interested gets the chance to throw their name in the pot. Obstacles like time zones, work and family commitments, or internet speed don’t affect your odds of getting in. 

When entering a lottery, however, there’s always a chance you won’t get picked. This year, I also entered the lottery for my favorite race of the year, SBT GRVL. Sadly, I wasn’t selected. My wife, who was hoping to do the full-distance Black Course at SBT GRVL after completing the shorter Blue Course last year didn’t get in either. It was a huge bummer for us, but that’s just how it goes. 

Can You Get Into Events if You Miss the Lottery?

SBT GRVL VolunteersStaffing the reg tent at SBT GRVL. Photo: Linda Guerrette

SBT GRVL was the only big goal my wife was targeting. Now, she’s browsing local races looking for a suitable replacement. She wants to try to enter SBT again next year, but the possibility of training for a whole year, only to get rejected by the lottery again is weighing on her. There is one way, however, to guarantee that she’ll get in: Volunteering

SBT GRVL relies on volunteers during the race weekend to get everything set up and running smoothly. These volunteers get guaranteed race entries for the following year. My friend Mike Shugars took this route last year after he wasn’t selected in the lottery. 

“It went very smoothly and got my early entry as promised,” Shugars said. “You pick a 4-hour time slot to volunteer (set up, tear down, etc...) and I picked a day and showed up. I was put with a group of 4 other people and we drove around marking the route. Was super easy and fun. And I loved volunteering since I'm a bike geek.”

Unbound has a similar system for volunteers. If I don’t get selected this year, I might still drive the 8 hours to Emporia to work as a volunteer, just to ensure that I have a shot at redeeming my disastrous 2023 race

But volunteering won’t work for everyone. I’m lucky that I live somewhat close to these events, so it isn’t too hard to go out, sleep in my car, and volunteer for a weekend. But many people live too far away to make volunteering an easy or affordable option.

There are other alternatives for getting entries, like riding for charity or joining Unbound's expensive ($1,000-2,200!) 4-day training camp, but again, these won't work for everyone. 

Could Unbound and SBT Follow Leadville’s Qualifier Example?

Leadville Trail 100 MTB

Lucky lottery winners AND qualifiers get to suffer together at Leadville. Photo: Pete McBride Photography

Qualifying a year or more in advance would provide another huge benefit: More time to train and get ready! 

Here’s what I would love bucket list events like Unbound Gravel and SBT GRVL to add: Qualifier events

I don’t think the lotteries should go away. As I said, I think lotteries improve fairness, especially since they help these events get a diverse mix of riders. Giving riders from different backgrounds and of different skill levels the chance to compete is good for the growth and health of the sport. But the same could be true for giving dedicated racers a way to qualify outside of the lottery. 

The Leadville Trail 100 MTB is an example of a race that already does this. Just like Unbound and SBT, Leadville offers a lottery at the beginning of the year. But riders can also qualify to gain entry by earning a “coin” at a different events in the Leadville Race Series

These events each offer between 30-50 slots for the following year’s Leadville Trail 100. Half of the qualifying spots or coins are given to riders who finish in the top of their age group, and the other half are drawn in a lottery for all riders who finished the qualifier race within the cutoff time. 

This year, Leadville qualifier events include:

  • Austin Rattler MTB
  • Sea Otter Fuego XL 
  • Lutsen 99er
  • Silver Rush 50 MTB
  • Tahoe Trail MTB
  • Leadville Stage Race
  • Little Sugar MTB

This means racers around Colorado, Texas, California, Nevada, Minnesota, and Arkansas have a race nearby where they could potentially win an entry into the biggest mountain bike race in the US.

I’ve been thinking about qualifier systems because I’m also part of a few local and online running clubs. If you’re familiar with marathon running, a common goal is to run a qualifying time at a smaller race that will allow you to apply for a bigger bucket list marathon like Boston. Runners will work for years to run Boston. A couple of my old cycling buddies have transformed into hardcore runners because they're pursuing Boston. 

If Unbound and SBT offered qualification entries at a smaller events a year or more in advance, it would provide more opportunities for riders to chase the dream of racing the biggest gravel races in the world. 

Qualifying a year or more in advance would provide another huge benefit: More time to train and get ready. I could arrive in much better shape than I do now with only 5-6 months of panic training after finding out the lottery results (I need to be signed up for something to stay motivated!).

Another perk to qualifying early is having more time to plan your trip. One of my biggest beefs with Unbound and SBT is how hard it is to find lodging in town. By the time the lottery results are announced, it seems like most spots have already been scooped up. 

Despite Leadville being my main example, I do think Leadville’s current qualifier system could be better. For any event using qualifiers, I want more available entries (Leadville used to offer a lot more than 30-50 per race!) and more qualifier races throughout the year and across the country. The dream would be if these qualifiers could be actually affordable too! (Though that might be a dream too far.)

I think connecting races across the country and giving riders a way to work toward big goals without relying on luck could only be good for our small sport. Or maybe I just hate the stress of waiting for lottery results. Let me know what you think! 

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