At the start of September every year, hundreds of ultra runners and bikers descend upon the towns of Crested Butte and Aspen, ready to tackle an incredible mountain challenge. In between each town they face over 40 miles of trails, traversing the mighty Rocky Mountains of Colorado, racing at altitude for Grand Traverse glory.
Returning this year to take on the bike race was our very own #TeamMontane athlete Jessica Yeaton (find out her reasons why in our pre-race Q&A). Keep reading to hear how her race unfolded…
Overview of the race
Yesterday I competed in the Grand Traverse bike race, which is a 42-mile race in Colorado that goes from Aspen to Crested Butte. It has 7,800 feet of climbing- 3,300 of which are in the first 5 miles as you ascend Aspen mountain. From there, it is mostly climbing until about mile 22- the high point is at the top of Star Pass at 12,300 feet of elevation. There are tons of techy hike-a-bike sections , creek crossings, and a ripping, fun descent down Star Pass that always puts a smile on your face despite the suffering.
This was my second year competing in the GT bike race, and it was my favorite event of the summer- yet again. It was perfect weather - not too hot, partly clouding, and no rain- which always makes things more enjoyable when at high altitude. Although I packed my lightweight Montane rain shell and buff, I didn’t have to use either, luckily!
This year boasted a more stacked women’s field than last year, with a few MTB pro racers. This made for an awesome fight from the gun. The female competitors included 24-hour world champion Sonya Looney, Lifetime Grand Prix racer Caroline Tory, and the GT bike record holder Jenny Smith.
Jenny Smith was the women’s race winner, with a time of 5 hours and 6 seconds, setting a new course record for the GT bike. Jenny is a legend of endurance MTB and has her own coaching business. She rode a gutsy race from the gun and it was inspiring to see! The men’s race winner was Logan Greydanus, with a time of 4 hours and 18 minutes.
Jessica’s Race Highlights
As mentioned earlier, the race starts with a big climb up Aspen Mountain right out of the start. Normally I love a good climb, but for whatever reason I wasn’t feeling like my normal self for those first 5 miles. It made me question both my warm-up (normally I don’t warm up much for races over 4 hours, but I think with the tough start it may be a good idea to go a little harder) and my breakfast (might try to wake up a little earlier to eat next year!), but I started to come around about two hours into the race. Maybe it was the beautiful views once you get up above tree line- or maybe breakfast finally digesting- but I started feeling much better and started to hit my groove.
Once I was riding above the tree line towards the high point of the course, I made sure to look around and take a minute (split second, realistically) to enjoy the absolutely breathtaking views. There was still quite a bit of climbing up to the high point of the course, and I started picking off other athletes gradually. The course changes from double track to techy single track around 17 miles in, which I personally love, but it also comes with a decent amount of hike-a-bike.
I probably pushed my bike for about 30 minutes total throughout the entirety of the course, and a good chunk of that is at the high point – around 12,000 feet of elevation. I made sure to stuff as many gels and Oreo cookies down as I could during this section - often at high elevations I lose my appetite, but from my experiences with longer races, I know how important it is to fuel well and eat often to maintain good energy throughout.
Once the course goes over Star Pass, there is a long, fun, single-track descent back down into Crested Butte. This was probably my favorite part of the entire race; it’s a great trail that feels like the icing on top of the cake after climbing for 3 (ish) hours straight. It has a perfect mix of rocky and flowy sections with a few creek crossings thrown in; you pass through meadows and have great mountain views the whole way down.
After this descent you hit a road section, where I tried to hammer and be as aerodynamic as possible, but with tired legs and a sore back, that’s easier said than done. There were plenty of people cheering on the road, which helped, however- and is also a testament to the incredible community of people in Crested Butte.
The last aid station is 7 miles from the finish line, right before you hit more single track that takes you to Mt Crested Butte. Luckily, I had done this race last year and knew what to expect- but in my opinion the last 7 miles is the hardest of the entire race. You climb back up another 1500 or so feet before hitting a more technical single track, which again involves a lot of hike-a-bike.
At this point in the race, I was dreaming of the tacos and beer awaiting at the finish line, so despite how tough it was at the end the thought of the incredible catering put on by the race organizers got me to the end. I must have been motivated, because I passed another two riders, which put me in 10th place overall, and 3rd female.
Lessons learned on the trail
Finally arriving at the finish line was an incredible feeling. The GT bike race is one of the toughest races I have ever competed in if not the toughest. The amount of elevation gain in a race that length is what makes it such a challenge- when combined with the fact that it's at high altitude, it an a league of its own. I think that’s what I love so much about it though; I genuinely enjoy and appreciate the challenge the race presents, and completing it is an accomplishment on its own.
That being said, my biggest takeaway from this race is how incredible all the other athletes are. It’s so impressive that so many people not only participated in the bike portion of this race from Aspen to Crested Butte but also ran 42 miles in the other direction the day before! These are individuals with jobs, families, etc… I think it's amazing that a race so challenging can bring so many people together to share a common goal.
Seeing so many people do the races back to back and compete in the ski-mountaineering race over the winter (from Crested Butte to Aspen) has inspired me to do all three next year. At the end of the day, it’s a combination of the challenge and awesome community that keeps me coming back to these races- and I hope I can accomplish my goal of competing in all three events next year!
Jessica took on the Grand Traverse Run & Bike in Colorado, USA. Discover more about this race on our official GT Event Hub.