The Steamboat Stinger – round 4

I raced the Steamboat Stinger in 2011, 2012, 2013, and now here in its fourth edition I’m lining up for the fourth time. I’m proud to say I’ve been here since the beginning; this race and my cycling career started at a pretty similar time. In 2011, I was lucky enough to be handed a green and grey jersey of the Epic Endurance team, and from there on I proceeded to race everything put in front of me. The Stinger fell towards the end of that season. It was about the time I started thinking of myself as a Mountain Biker.

This year was much like last year. Christa and I loaded up the car and headed out of the Front Range heat towards the hills. We stopped in Silverthorne for sustenance and then drove north past the beautiful Green Mountain Reservoir. The colour of the sun had just started bouncing off the hills and clouds. As we crested Rabbit Ears pass and made our descent to Steamboat, the light was turning the green Aspens gold; a glimpse of what is to come in these hills in the next couple months.

We have friends in Steamboat. After racing in the UK last month and knowing no-one, it’s a strange feeling to walk down the street of a wild west ski town and see all my friends. I met up with teammates Sam and Deidre at the Rio, before driving out towards Steamboat Lake to stay with new friend Erik. We were greeted with a view:

 Looking directly west from Erik's house snuggled up against the Zirkle wilderness north of Steamboat Springs

We relaxed with a couple of beers before hitting the sheets. Wake up time: 4:45 am.

The residual jet lag from England came in useful for the first (and probably last) time ever. I was awake with my alarm and enjoyed the sunrise with a couple of poached eggs. I’ve remembered from years past that Steamboat is cold in the mornings, but my early spin along the river with Kalan was just pleasant – the steamy fog lifting off the Yampa river was magical.

The start line was again so familiar. I got there early and sat in the warm sun; the sky over the top of Emerald mountain was completely clear, but looking up and seeing the Aspens at the top of the hill was a scary proposition; knowing I’d be there in just under half an hour, and again two hours after that. As more people rolled up there was friendly banter across the board. Since I’ve missed the last month of racing in Colorado, it was nice to see that not much had changed.

RED ACE and Honey Stinger - pretty good prep for the Stinger course

I was nervous for no good reason. With 5 weeks at sea level and a stubbornly painful finger from my crash at British Nationals, I had no idea if I could hold up to the demands of the course and the competition. I had no intention of starting slowly, and with a lot of the field knowing I was a guy to beat, I put too much pressure on my own shoulders.

The gun went, and I shot out front to avoid any mishaps on the first gravelly corner. As we ran into the wall like hill around the edge of Howelsen Ski area, the lack of oxygen caught me in a bear hug, and refused to let go. I pedaled slowly up the hill, knowing any change of pace would be fatal. Fernando Riveros danced away on his pedals in front of me, but no one came around to resume the chase. Even towards the top of the climb I was alone in the chase for the front. The ridge road at the top of Emerald mountain is a bit of respite among the endless singletrack. Frantically eating and drinking before the start of the 17 minute descent back to the valley below. I soon caught Fernando on the DH, riding the ridge trail in perhaps the best condition it will ever be in. Four of us formed a small group at the head of the race as we rode up Cow Creek. I did a great job of eating and drinking, the heavy legs beginning to fade as the standard back pain became pre-occupation number one.

Photo by Ben Ingersoll from the Steamboat Today

We dived into the bottom of the bell trail to be greeted by cows everywhere. The wet foliage on either side of the trail was a relieve from the intensifying morning sun. The climb started gently, Fernando not willing to take on too much work. As we rode past the “FN Aid station” the revelers were just getting started with their bacon induced partying. The second climb dragged on longer than I remembered, but the top came eventually and I started the long downhill back to Steamboat. I relaxed a little. Half of the work done, and I’m not dying.

Photo via mtbracenews.com by Shannon Bofelli

Lap two. 26 miles done: twenty-six miles to go. It’s hard to come through with more than two hours of racing remaining, knowing you’ve got to suffer through what you just did. I started very steady again, as the bear hug hadn’t let up. I ate a lot. Fernando was now just a distant memory ahead of me. Jay Henry, a veteran Colorado racer caught me toward the top of the climb. I hoisted myself out of the saddle and caught his wheel in time for the descent. We cruised up Cow Creek once more, my body in a weird place between failure and endurance. I fell off his wheel a couple of times before the last time. But I knew when the last time was coming. I slowed and ate as much as I could, knowing that the next 25 minutes of climbing could be the difference between holding third place, and slipping unendingly through the pack of hungry racers behind me. I held on. It worked. I ‘summited’ Emerald mountain for the fourth and last time of the day, and made my way through the star wars effect trails towards the bottom. I didn’t cramp. I didn’t dare get out of my saddle to find out how close to empty I was.

The final four miles of the Stinger course aren’t actually downhill, but you never realise that until you’re there, pedalling over seemingly endless ridges, just wishing and hoping that the next one will reveal the ski jump on the side of Howelsen Hill. Finally, the smell of the rodeo hit my nostrils, and there wasn’t any more climbing to be done. I was finished. I was emotional. Christa stabilised my bike before I had the chance to fall over.

2014 Steamboat Stinger Results

It wasn’t the best race of my life, physically. But it might have been mentally. I’d started the day in huge throes of self-doubt. Pondering whether I had the power and will to get through the day. I proved myself wrong; up until the last little ridge I wanted to quit, I wanted to end the hunt for answers about how strong I was. But I answered myself resoundingly. I made it through; I think this race will come in really useful for later in the season. I am a lot stronger than I let myself believe, and the work I’ve done to gear up for Cyclocross season is going to pay off.

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