This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Steamboat Springs, CO, for the Steamboat Gravel (SBT GRVL) race, as part of a Bike-On.com delegation to this expo and race weekend. This is the second year there has been a handcycling division available for this event; last year I had wanted to do it but didn’t yet have a gravel handcycle to use.
This year, I have a brand new TiArrow gravel handcycle, thanks to a grant from the Kelly Brush Foundation, and a GoFundMe set up by my local bike shop (West Hill Shop, Putney, VT). I have had the bike for half a year now, but have barely ridden it as I have been totally focused on training and dialing in my Carbonbike (road handcycle) in preparation for World Cups and World Championships. The road race season ended for me in Scotland, just in time to fly home, spend a couple of days at home, then fly out to Steamboat. My TiArrow was driven to Colorado by my colleague Kyle, who had a trailer packed full of Bike-On demo handcycles and other gear for our booth. It was a huge relief to not have to fly with a handcycle and a rare experience!
Going into the weekend, I had zero expectations for myself. I had ridden the TiArrow for about 4 miles total since getting it, and I knew from those 4 miles that there were all kinds of seating/positioning issues that were problematic, that I hadn’t had time or know-how to deal with. Fortunately, Ryan Barnett, the US distributor for TiArrow (which is based in Sweden) was going to be at the SBT event. I let him know my bike was going to require some attention, and packed a random assortment of velcro, gorilla tape, pieces of foam, straps, etc., for the inevitable modifications I was going to have to figure out before race day.
Friday was our first full day there and day one of the Expo. It was heartwarming to see our little Bike-On tent amidst what felt like miles of big name cycling brand booths lining both sides of the street. Kyle held down the fort with several demo handcycles, including a TiArrow gravel handcycle. I wanted to be there too, absorbing the scene and chatting with whoever might stop in, but I was single-mindedly preoccupied with getting my bike in some sort of shape where I could race it that Sunday. Steve Chapman and Patti were there from Bike-On as well, and Steve was busy at work on his TiArrow. Unlike myself, he had been riding it, so was at least in a reasonable degree of functionality with it. Where was Ryan? I grew grumpy in the hot sun, with my huge bag of supplies, worried about how, and even if, I could get comfortable and functional in this thing. My mind focused on all the unknowns, the things not working, and the task grew in size and complexity in my imagination as I waited. Meanwhile, I hadn’t ridden since Scotland, and was antsy for a workout. I knew Steve wanted to ride too, and I didn’t want to hold him up.
Finally Ryan showed up. Chatty and chill, Ryan holds a laid back perspective on things, no doubt in part from the fact that he lives in Thailand. I had to contain my impatience and re-calibrate my expectations – having just been at the road World Championships with the National Team, I was geared towards efficient and focused bike work; this was a different vibe, with plenty of conversation and interruptions, not to mention a curious resident whose driveway we were occupying, who joined the fun with his hacksaw and hammer to lend. Steve and I never did get in a ride that day, but progress was made and a good time was had by all. I was looking forward to tomorrow, the last day to get things fine tuned, do a shakedown ride, and be ready for Sunday’s race.
Saturday morning we all camped out around our Bike-On tent, working on our bikes and absorbing the scene: a non-stop flow of cyclists of all shapes and sizes riding past and wandering the Expo. With the help of Chris Wiegand from Adaptive Adventures, who was joining us in a sort of partnership for the weekend, I managed to get my legs reasonably positioned and secured, hydration pack mounted, and a few other bolster pads here and there to approximate a decent riding position. Joe Pomeroy and Mike Sales, along with Steve and myself, were the TiArrow crew and there were two other handcyclists riding as well, on bowhead bikes. The 4 of us, along with Chris and Patti, headed out for our shakedown ride. I felt the altitude (Steamboat is at 6700’), the lack of exercise, and the strange new bike and position, but I was just happy to finally be out there, riding! My mood and energy lifted immediately.
Sunday morning was an early awakening, 5 am. Our race start was 8 am and we needed to be there early to get a decent parking spot and do last minute bike stuff. All of us handcyclists were doing the 37 mile course, which was the shortest of the 4 possible courses. Given that this would be my first gravel race ever, and practically my first gravel ride, I was grateful not to be doing anything longer; as it was, 37 miles felt like a lot. I had no idea what the terrain would be like and hoped I had the gears I’d need. Chris and Patti had both registered to ride with us as “support”, if we needed it so that took a load off my mind. Chris is an ex-pro cyclist and has lots of experience with handcyclists, as a Cycling Manager with Adaptive Adventures. On top of this, he has a ton of energy, positivity, and humor, so I knew I’d be in good hands with him nearby.
We all lined up near the back of the mass of cyclists at the start line. As we rolled over the line, we quickly formed a paceline, Steve leading. When he pulled off, I took a turn, then I pulled off and Joe led. Up the first significant climb (¼ mile, 6% gradient), I felt good, and could sense that it was harder for the heavier guys. I decided to go early, and put some effort in, up the rest of the climb. Chris was alert to my move and led the way through the pack of cyclists for me. At the top, he let me know we’d gapped the guys, so I continued the harder pace, hoping to make it stick. The race was on!
The course was a combination of pavement (40%) and gravel. Early on, I was descending over a washboard-y gravel section and my foot flew out of the footrest, and dangled over the edge. I yelled for Chris, who was quickly to the rescue, repositioning my foot and tightening the strap more securely. I was glad he was there – there would have been nothing I could have done except to wait for Patti and the guys, otherwise. Chris mainly cleared a path through cyclists for me, alerting them I was coming through, and picking the smoothest lines for me to follow. With the amount of riders out there, this felt like a good strategy for safety. We climbed and descended through ranchland, about 2000’ total elevation for the 37 mile course. There was nothing too tricky, terrain-wise, until we came to a section called Cow Creek, at about mile 26. I had no advanced notice of this section, and I was glad I didn’t, because it required an open mind. I was well warmed up and in the “flow” by now, so when I found myself barreling downhill over large rocks and ruts – needing to look sharp and pick lines quickly – I thoroughly enjoyed the adrenaline rush! My only fear was that my feet might come flying off the footrests again, as I was catching air here and there. Fortunately they held (though it turned out my footrests had come loose and had fallen downward so that my legs were awkwardly splayed apart) and Chris and I bombed our way through.
The last stretch was pavement, and just a few more miles to the end. I was starting to really feel tired, but kept pushing hard. Through the last mile the spectators lined the course cheering, and that helped boost my energy across the line. Smiling ear to ear, I fist-bumped Chris and thanked him for his support. It was an incredibly fun, epic ride, and I loved every minute of it!
At the end of the day, we all gathered at the Bike-On tent for a huddle. It had been a bonding experience for all of us: Amy, from the Kelly Brush Foundation, did a celebratory headstand, and we all shared a personal highlight from the weekend. We did some brainstorming for how we would want things to go next year – what worked, what could be better/different, etc. Chris voiced his vision of 100 handcyclists for next year’s SBT GRVL race.
A lofty goal, but why not shoot for the stars?!