SBT is referred to as the “champagne” gravel race and the fastest gravel race of the season. Most of the course is pretty smooth overall, but there are some rocky sections and this year it had some loose/sandy sections as well due to the lack of precipitation. In most recent years, SBT followed Leadville in something affectionately called “LeadBoat” that I participated in last year. 0/10 recommend that approach…. So this year, the women’s field was more competitive and we had a solid week in between Leadville to recover which was really nice.
The scope of the women’s gravel scene is largely dependent on how the men’s race unfolds. I’m learning to be the best in these races, you have to learn how to navigate and surf the men’s wheels to get the upper edge. Every winner of these combined mass start gravel races (especially the high speed ones) generally gets in the fastest group of men. You take risks early on to get in a fast group of guys, or sometimes mid-race you make choices to push the limits to hang onto a faster group. But I cannot emphasize enough how much the dynamics of our race is dependent on men, and positioning in the men’s pack early on. I don’t like that, even though there are times that I also benefit from that too. I hope in time this changes, and having a separate women’s field is really the best way to accomplish this (with large enough gaps between the starts). This change would also only be possible with strong and deep women’s fields - enough strong women to race each other independently of the men. But alas, we aren’t quite there yet and some events may never make the change even if the fields keep growing.
But my goal for this race was top 5, which I accomplished. As many of you know, I tend to be hard on myself and want more but I can truly say I was happy with the result. Sure there were pain points that I learned and things I would change next year, or at the next race but this is part of the process. The start of this race was pretty chaotic, dynamic and aggressive. I didn’t position myself well enough in the men’s field and that seems to be a theme for an early lead in the top women for these mixed field gravel events. Something I can continue to improve on. I did position myself well into some of the technical features like the double track sector and a rocky descent, which was a step in the right direction. I didn’t get dropped on any of the descents, possibly gapped for a few meters but nothing like in the past so that was also an improvement.
For most of the race, I was in a pack with 3-7th place with some men in our group. For the women, it was me, Tiffany, Flavia, Ruth, Sarah and Katie. Eventually Ruth, Katie and Sarah were dropped and the group was dwindling as men fell off too. Entering a section with a lot of strong wind and loose terrain, Tiffany really turned up the pace with punchy attacks and I was close to my max. I tried to remind myself that racing bikes is like being a cat, you have 9 lives and you keep coming back even after you’ve lost 7 lives so I hung on thankfully but I was struggling. After this section, Tiffany put the gas on through the aid station and I quickly followed with 2 other guys. This led to Flavia getting dropped and the 4 of us resuming a steady pace of rotating through and it was smooth - I liked that and wanted to contribute to make up time to Sofia and Alexis. However, 20-30 minutes later, Flavia was pulled back by a group of men and then the punchy pace started back again. At this point, we had about 40 minutes of climbing left and my legs just were not there to respond unfortunately. I had to settle in and try to hold onto my 5th position. I eventually caught one guy who was really positive and having the company definitely lifted my spirits. Plus he pushed my pace on the long dirt descent, so otherwise I would have ridden slower on my own with more caution as my default when I am solo. Shortly after that, he stopped for water and I rolled through and was solo for the entire last section of the race, for the last 90 minutes to 2 hours - time became irrelevant out there. I nursed my last bottle and kept looking back trying to see if another lonely soul would join in my misery. I kept thinking women would be pulled back to me by a group of guys, but that motivated me to push my pace solo to avoid that if at all possible. A lot of that last section was also tailwind, so I really think my aero set up was advantageous here and I was actually able to hold my position and make up some ground. It wasn’t enough to catch 4th, but it’s an effort I can be proud of.
So there you have it, SBT recap for one of the most aggressive and competitive gravel races this season. A lot of painful lessons, but some improvements too. And yes…I did have my trainer/rollers in the warm up shoot. Last year at this event, I tried to enter from the front and side corral but one of the volunteers literally told me “unless you are Lauren Decrescenzo you can’t enter here, you have to go to the back” What a joke…One of my biggest pet peeves in the current state of gravel is the lack of structure when lining up at the front. So instead of being 200 riders back at the start like last year, I was there an hour early warming up right at the line to ensure I was near the front. Yet again, one of the volunteers told me it was a good idea but that “don’t you realize all the pros will come last minute and push you back” And I get it, I am not winning big races yet this year and I am new and unknown (nor am I an influencer) BUT….my point in sharing this rant is that the riders who are doing well get an even further advantage with how things are structured in this wild wild west format. And it’s not just about lining up at the last minute - it’s extra sleep, less stress worrying about getting there in time, etc. So yeah, am I annoyed with the combined field and lack of structure lining up at these mega races - yes, clearly. But, I can only control what I personally do which is why I got there super early and had a better position vs weaseling my way through the front by “earned right of passage” as someone told me. It was an improvement from a lesson last year, but I cannot emphasize enough how much the starting position can impact the start of the race (cue Leadville photos and the women who knew the plan for Tobin’s spicy leadout). Additionally, I also think sharing this is no slight to the organizers but rather a reflection of the growth and current state of gravel and off-road racing with mass starts. It takes time to make those changes and respond to the problems that develop with growth.
So what’s next? My third week straight of 7-8hr races to wrap up my endurance block as I head to the land of oxygen in Lincoln Nebraska for Gravel Worlds. This was my first mass start bike race ever exactly 2 years ago, so I am excited to return and fight for the sword!
Photo Credit: Daghan Perker for Trek Bikes