Colorado’s Beti Bike Bash is the largest women-only mountain bike event in the world. Why, then, after ten successful years, was the event in jeopardy of going away?
For women across Colorado, the Beti Bike Bash has served as an entry point to mountain bike racing for more than a decade. The event, now in its 11th year, is a low-stress, come-as-you-are day of racing, held in May, at Bear Creek Lake Park, with courses that appeal to everyone, from first-timers to pros.
Jen Barbour, the Executive Director of Team Evergreen, said she heard dozens of stories from women who fell in love with cycling at the event, during the 2020 Beti Bike Bash’s recent kickoff party, at Yeti Cycles in Golden, Colorado.
“There was this woman talking about the race, saying how she knew she was faster than the woman ahead of her, but didn’t know how to pass on singletrack,” Barbour said. “She said how she’d never forget when the woman ahead of her ended up being the one to teach her how to pass.”
For an event with more than a decade of successful operation, the future of the Beti Bike Bash should be bright. Yet, the departure of major sponsorship dollars going into 2019 threatened the event’s sustainability. At this time last year, Amy Thomas and Sarah Rawley, the event’s co-founders, were unconvinced the event could continue.
“We were both like, ‘we’re done,’” Thomas said.
The event squeaked by on a shoestring budget for the 2019 edition, funded primarily by Yeti Cycles, which had originally launched the event in 2010. After the tenth year, the co-founders struggled with finding a solution for reconciling the decrease in financial support with what it takes to run a successful event. The stress of having to work for free and cut budgets was hardly their style; Thomas and Rawley were convinced that the Beti Bike Bash had become something more than just another bike race.
After several months of debating the race’s future, the event was ultimately saved, when it formed a financial relationship with Team Evergreen, the largest cycling club in the state.
“We got really sad when talking about it being over,” Thomas said. “We realized it had become bigger than ourselves. I didn’t want it to just go away, even though it was so hard in 2019 to make it happen.”
Origins of the Beti Bike Bash
Thomas had long been involved in competitive sports, first as a triathlete in the early to mid-90s, and then as a cross-country mountain biker. Although she devoured the sport, both as a participant and a fan, she always felt like a minority.
“I’m on these teams that are 95 percent men, and the races are 90 percent men, and no one gives a shit about women,” Thomas said about her early years in cycling. “Why at races am I just racing my own team?”
In 2007, Thomas and a few other women started planning what would become the Yeti Beti mountain bike team. In 2008, the ladies had their first season, competing in events like the now-defunct Mountain States Cup. As female participation in cross-country mountain biking increased, Thomas decided she wanted to put on a women’s race. In 2009, she approached Chris Conroy at Yeti, and the founder of the company gave her the green light. Yeti owned the Mountain States Cup at that point, and the company launched Thomas’s event, called Beti Bike Bash, alongside the Mountain States Cup.
Rawley, who had joined Yeti’s marketing department that year, became Thomas’ partner in the endeavor.
If Thomas sounds glib when she describes her and Rawley’s attitude toward the first Beti Bike Bash, that’s only half the story.
“We were like ‘let’s just try it and see if anyone shows up,’” she said. “We knew our friends would.”
Approximately 200 women showed up for the first edition in 2010, and they weren’t all friends of the organizers. These were women who responded to the careful calculation that Thomas had made when crafting her version of a bike race. As a seasoned veteran of the race scene, Thomas realized that while there was a lot to love about racing mountain bikes, there was an equal number of things that weren’t as endearing. Thomas took an opposite approach employed by many other race promoters: instead of focusing on what she loved about races and incorporating all of those elements, she decided to focus on what wasn’t that great.
“For these races we were doing, you had to be gone all weekend,” she said. “The entries weren’t cheap, you were often going to race at altitude, the courses could be super [technical]. We said, let’s remove those barriers.”
This translated to staging something close to Denver, with a low entry fee, and staged on a single day. The beginner course, at eight miles, was attainable by anyone.
“Anyone can do eight miles at Bear Creek,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ friend Dede de Percin, who was at the first Beti Bike Bash, and has attended six or seven subsequent events, said that the initial appeal was in how low-key the race seemed, especially for those people who don’t, “live and breathe biking.”
“It’s fun, and supportive, and an opportunity for those of us who aren’t elite or super hardcore to hang out with those people but still in a really comfortable space,” de Percin said.
There are few races, in any sport, that can claim categories from “Pro” to “New Mom,” but the Beti Bike Bash goes there. At the race’s second edition in 2011, Georgia Gould and Katie Compton battled for the win in the pro category, alongside Rebecca Rusch and Erin Huck.
In recent years, the Little Bellas girl’s programming during the event saw the highest participation numbers. No matter what category you race in, or in what place you finish, “everyone is so psyched,” Barbour said. “It’s like a giant hug from a bunch of other women.”
Why then, after 10 successful years of encouraging women to show up and ride, was the Beti Bike Bash in jeopardy of disappearing?
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “There’s so many positive things going on in women’s racing, but maybe not everyone sees the value.”
The push for sponsorship
Race promoters across the globe issue the same lament: it’s expensive to put on an event. In the burgeoning gravel scene, organizers of mega-popular events like the Dirty Kanza claim to have not earned a cent until they were at least 10 years in. Nevertheless, Thomas felt like getting the bike industry on board, in the form of sponsorship dollars, was never really an issue for the Beti Bike Bash.
“The race took off,” she said. “Getting sponsorship cash was easy. We made it through the recession – all these things that should have made a negative impact but didn’t.”
At the end of 2015, things were going so well that Thomas and Rawley decided to add a second Beti Bike Bash, in Arizona. When Thomas approached sponsors during the summer of 2016, she asked for double the spend. It worked. Although the Arizona event was a one-off, Thomas gained something valuable from the experience: the confidence to ask for more.
“With Arizona I’d pushed the envelope of how much I asked for,” she said. “When we went back to one event we had great partners who were giving us enough.”
According to Thomas, 2017 and 2018 were the event’s best years financially; consequently, the team met their target number of 400 participants. Yet the sponsorship checks began to shrink in subsequent years. In 2019, one of the event’s title sponsors offered to pay 75 percent less than they’d offered in years past. Other sponsors ghosted her altogether.
Thomas, who also has a full-time job as a research manager for HIV clinical trials, found herself ready to call it quits.
“I just put zero’s into the budget,” she said.
Fortunately, Rawley was adamant that they not throw in the towel before their 10th anniversary. According to Thomas, Rawley backed her off the ledge of early race-promoter retirement. Although the race could operate on auto-pilot in some ways, Thomas said, the financial pressure to do it right—in light of significantly less funding—was becoming unsustainable for her.
The duo pulled it off in 2019, despite wet, snowy weather and less money to put back into the event. With less sponsorship cash, they had to rely on registration fees, and those were down by about 100 participants. That, and four inches of snow fell during the pre-ride. The team squeaked by in the end, making “a very small profit,” but after the race, Thomas said, both she and Rawley agreed that they were done.
“We were drinking margaritas at 10 in the morning, the next day,” she said. “No one else knew that this was possibly the last Beti Bike Bash.”
After they’d recovered from the hangover of possibly having to shut down their beloved race, the team started reaching out to people in the industry, thinking that perhaps it was sell-able. Thomas approached other race promoters; no one was interested. Others seemed to question the race’s overall value, and Thomas realized she couldn’t answer that question.
“Events are so fickle that even though the Beti Bike Bash made money, I didn’t know what kind of valuation it might have,” she said.
Saving the Bash
The downtick in registration numbers in 2019 also made her question whether the Beti Bike Bash had simply run its course. In August, Thomas was at a Rockies baseball game with her friend Jen Barbour of Team Evergreen, and she spilled her guts.
To her surprise, Barbour had a strong response.
“It can’t go away!” Barbour said.
They left Coors Field that night with an assurance from Barbour that she was going to pitch the idea of taking over the Beti Bike Bash to Team Evergreen’s board. With the assurance that Yeti Cycles was in it for the long haul as the title sponsor, Barbour thought she had a good case. The event had longevity and proof of success, and the women’s-only space was one that she thought Team Evergreen should be firmly planted in. The sell wasn’t as easy as she thought.
“There was a little bit of ‘well, when will men get to be involved?’ And I said, ‘never, and that’s the end of it.’”
For Barbour, the importance of keeping the Beti Bike Bash firmly in the hands of—and for—women has to do with the fact that, for many female riders, that structure is the key to making them feel included. It doesn’t always work when there’s a “women’s division or something,” and there’s men passing them on course, Barbour said. “Sometimes it just needs to be women only.”
Fun, supportive, camaraderie—these words come up ad infinitum when participants discuss the Beti Bike Bash. Barbour used similar language when describing the event to the Team Evergreen board. Although the Beti Bike Bash doesn’t seem to inspire anything but a laundry list of positive stories, something was clearly amiss in the background that threatened its very existence. Again, why were sponsors pulling out of an event that had done so well and inspired so many?
Fortunately, for women on the Front Range and beyond, Team Evergreen decided that the answer to that question wasn’t relevant. “Our job,” said Barbour,” is to get more women out there on bikes.” For Thomas, who will stay on with the Beti Bike Bash as race director, the stresses of asking for, and sometimes not getting, funding for the event will take a backseat to the more meaningful work of putting on a great bike race. After so many months of doubting the Beti Bike Bash’s value in the eyes of sponsors and the bike industry, Thomas gets to focus on the impact it has on the target customer. And, if the packed-house turnout at last week’s kick-off party in Golden was any indication, the future of the Beti Bike Bash looks brighter than ever before.