I must have been 10 years old when I first heard about Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was in a Warren Miller ski movie, with images of skiers floating through waist deep powder in aspen forests. While it has been on my list of places to go throughout childhood as a winter destination, I can now check my bucket list off for being there as a world class summer destination.
It all started out as a 12 day trip to Colorado so that I could acclimate to the higher elevations of where we would be racing. I arrived the week before so that I could ride the Leadville 100 MTB race, with the idea that by the time SBT Gravel race came around the following weekend I would be feeling half-way decent at altitude. I suffered through Leadville just below the 8 hour mark. In as few words as possible – I rode a decent pace for 6 hours through amazing scenery and a jaw dropping high point of 12,400 feet, then really struggled the final 2 hours in an altitude daze.
A pleasant surprise about Steamboat was that the city was only at 6,800 feet. From sea level it all seems pretty high over 5,000 feet, but the difference between 10,000+ and 6,800 is enormous.
It was the second weekend in a row that I was lined up at 6:30 AM to do a very long timed bicycle ride. The race stats were: 140 miles and 9,000 vertical feet of climbing over varied terrain. We set off just as the sun was rising and the air was a very chilly 42 degrees.
The course suited me quite well, with some long and gentle drags uphill, and some short punchy climbs in the valley. It was the first year of this event, so there was no history of what normally happens or how hard it was.
As soon as the road pitched up the pace lifted and the mood of the race established. In this case an aggressive mood. In the first hour the road narrowed with steep pitches and dust as the speed increased. The splits started happening early, but they were usually too big and it was too soon for enough riders to commit to the move and open the gap. The cycle of surges and rest continued on. Being overly aggressive is not smart at this point, but missing a split and having to chase hard would be catastrophic.
We approached the first main climb of the race that went up to and around a lake at 8,500 feet. The pace was moderate and I was comfortable into the last kilometer of the climb, that is until one of the top guys pushed the pace. At altitude it only takes one click higher pace for a few moments to go from comfy to redlined. All of the sudden I was breathing like crazy in a group of 10 with the rest of the group littering the climb. More surges came as I hung on for dear life. Only 110 miles to go…
In the end, all of that effort was for naught, as nothing stuck and the group swelled again. There was time to recover as there many miles of gentle downhill to go until the next big climb. The group was still quite big, but the mood was changing. Short pulls, less cooperation, tired looking bodies. As the climb pitched up, a few strong riders pushed the pace and an elite selection was made. 5 of us pinning it up the gentle climb, including Ted King, Payson McElveen, Colin Strickland and myself. The race was on with 40 miles to go.
By the top of the climb there were 4 of us left and it was clear that this was the selection of the day. Colin was on a tear and seemed unstoppable, with Ted and Payson looking good too. I, on the other hand, was going through some difficult moments. My legs were twinging and my energy levels starting to go low. After having mishaps at the Belgian Waffle Ride and Dirty Kanza, I was stoked to have a clean race and make it to the end. I hadn’t been in a situation this year where I was straight up dropped, and I had a feeling this would be the day.
20 miles to go and we all hear that awful sound of a flat tire – Colin’s rear wheel. The guy that was riding the best gets a flat. We keep going as flats are an unfortunate part of gravel racing. We ride to the last short climb which tops out at mile 124. 4 seconds into the climb and I know that I won’t be with Ted and Payson at the top. Double leg cramps! Hamstrings! My legs are giving out, but I can still talk. “See you guys later” I say. They pedal away at a completely reasonable pace, and I look back down the hill and see Colin chasing after me.
I do all that I can those last 15 miles. Head down, pedaling with all my might as I fight the cramps over every roller. I knew Colin was back there and I knew he was close. I get to the last 500 meters where there are a few turns and I look back to see that he is 10 seconds behind me. I know I have it, but he was getting awfully close. In the end, I take the final spot on the podium for 3rd place overall.
It was hot. The altitude and the intensity caused me not to know what to do at the finish line. My body was well out of its comfort zone. I downed whatever fluids people handed me and stumbled over to the river to get in and cool off. The crisp water brought my core temperature down and made me feel human again. While it was quite different than the deep powder snow experience that I dreamed about as a child, it was still a world class experience overall and I will take it.
Written by Jacob Rathe- Ottolock Adventure Squad p/b Sage Titanium Bicycles