Standing on the top step of the podium at the 2016 Steamboat Stinger was a great achievement for me. I’d been in pursuit of the illusive first-place cowboy hat for a few years, and I’d watched as Russell Finsterwald and Alex Grant took the prize instead. After winning last year, I felt like I’d validated myself a little bit, and the pressure was off my shoulders this year. Nevertheless, I wanted to win again to defend my title, and I also wanted to get Christa a cowboy hat to match mine. She’s much more of a cowgirl than I am a cowboy anyway, so it seemed appropriate.
The race has an agonising start. Climbing up past the ski jump on Howelsen Hill is a shock to the system, but it gets you up and away from the town quickly, and from then on its just you and the trail. The race strung out quite quickly, and I took the lead into the new singletrack through the meadow, closely followed by Andy Clemence. Andy is new to the MTB scene, and I knew he would have some strong roadie power on the climbs. It was good to have him with me to gauge my effort on the first climb, and I kept everything in check, cresting the top of emerald mountain just a handful of seconds in front of fast locals Brad Bingham and Peter Kalmes. Brad quickly caught me as we descended the ridge trail. I thought I’d ridden this trail fast before, but Brad was absolutely pinned from top to bottom, and ended up going over 30 seconds faster than I’ve ever ridden it before.
By the time we started climbing Beall trail the first time, I ended up out front and quickly moved ahead of Brad. With just me and the overgrown trail, I finally felt comfortable and could get into a rhythm. That ended as soon as a huge bull elk jumped across the trail about 10 feet in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and shouted “Holy SHIT” really loudly. Then looked around and was half disappointed and half relieved to see that no one shared my experience. I got back into the groove a bit, then came across a herd of cows on the trail. The first couple responded to a slap and a “YA” by moving out the way, but I got stuck behind a steer that was running along the trail. He wouldn’t get out the way, and I ended up chasing it for about a mile. Poor thing. It eventually dove off the end of a switchback into the trees, and I was alone again. The rest of the lap was decidedly less exciting, but it meant I could settle into my own pace. Knowing I had 7 days of racing after this, I thought the most detrimental thing would be having to follow any attacks or accelerations, so I kept my pace high and just chugged along.
I came through the lap after 26 miles in just over 2 hours. I realised at that point that I was actually going really fast. Finsty’s course record is 4:04, so a two-hour lap put me right on target. With a 2-minute cushion over second place already, I was conflicted – do I try to push the pace for the record, or stay steady and think about Breck Epic coming right up? I chose the latter, and found my groove instead.
The second lap always drags on, and by the time you get to the final climb it feels like you’ve been out there for days. With such limited visibility, I had little idea of where other races were on course, and knowing I was being chased by locals, I felt like they could catch me on any descent. I rode the final downhill through the quarry really scared, trying to be smooth and forget about the win. It’s at this point in the race that I began to lap riders still completing their first lap. The people I’m lapping can be split into two groups quite cleanly – there are the super prepared riders who know they’re in for an 8 plus hour day, and are slowly and happily chugging along the trail. These are the best. They’re normally expecting you and are enjoying the experience. The second group is made of those who had no idea how hard this race was going to be. With other 50 milers comprising a good deal of road and dirt road, it’s sometimes a shock to people when they realise Steamboat is all singletrack. And all windy, tight singletrack at that.
A note on the organisation at this race: It’s sublime. Some races are well organised enough that you are satisfied. Some are efficient. Very few races are so well organised that it’s actually pleasurable. This one is. I don’t know who the volunteers are that stand out on course all day handing me bottles, but I’d love to meet them and say thank you. The one person I do know who makes the day happen is Nate Bird. He’s the force behind the event, and it’s amazing to see the amount of work he puts into the day. Knowing that he’s been up in the middle of the night marking the course makes you relish the experience even more.
By the final short climb, I was in cruise mode, trying to save my legs for Breck Epic. This is the first time I haven’t cramped during the Stinger, and it made the last 5 miles vastly more enjoyable! The finish runs you along next to the rodeo ground, and gives you a good half mile of sporadic cheers from spectators. It’s a feel good finish to the race for sure!
I ended up with a comfortable buffer of five minutes over second place, and was entertained to see Alex Pond and Peter Kalmes drag racing into the finish for a sprint. That’s a tough way to finish a 50 miler! As always, the day was capped off with beer and a BBQ at the base of Howelsen Hill. The atmosphere is so friendly and positive, and Larry Grossman continues to impress with his knowledge of so many racer’s names. He can recognise and cheer the vast majority of the field on site. It’s impressive!
All things going well, I’ll be back again next year. I haven’t missed a Stinger since they began, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon!