Locals open bike-racing season in Mesa Verde with good showing

Legs tired… from stepping up on podium 

by Than Acuff

Here we go again, it’s bike-racing season and every year it kicks off with the annual 12 Hours of Mesa Verde held outside of Cortez, Colo. And every year a local contingent of riders head there and return with a ton of hardware.

This year was no different as the local pain train was led by solo rider Mike McAuley winning the men’s solo race and the team of Tiff Simpson, Kaitlyn Archambault, Christie Hicks and Brynn O’Connell taking the women’s 3-4 person title. In the end, 15 Gunnison Valley riders eventually stepped onto the podium.

The 12 Hours of Mesa Verde is the inaugural race event of the summer season and is held in an area called Phil’s World, one of the premier early season biking areas for riders of the Gunnison Valley. With its mix of flowy singletrack and the occasional techy move, Phil’s World provides the perfect reintroduction to bike racing.

“Part of it is the time of year, May,” says Team Griggs Orthopedics (Team gO) member and Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association executive director Dave Ochs. “It’s usually an opportunity to get into the desert, wear some shorts—let alone it’s some pretty amazing singletrack.”

Mother Nature did threaten to douse the event once again. Last year, rain and snow made the course unrideable, forcing organizers to call off the race after a couple of laps. This year it almost happened again.

“At 8:30 it started snowing, hailing, it was nasty,” says Ochs. “Luckily, 15 minutes later it shut down and turned into hero track.”

While there are numerous categories for racers, the question is always who from the Gunnison Valley is going to jump in and ride all 12 hours solo. Team gO athlete Jari Kirkland has racked up a couple of solo titles over the years and Jefe Branham and Team gO rider Neil Beltchenko have saddled up for the full ride as well.

This year, McAuley jumped into the solo fray once again. McCauley placed third in 2014 and won the 2015 race that, due to weather, was limited to just two laps.

This time, McAuley won the full race hands down, riding eight laps for a total of 136 miles over 12 hours. Though McAuley admits he had no idea what would happen since he had yet to really ride his bike this spring.

“It was my first big ride so I didn’t expect too much,” says McAuley. “I just thought I’d show up and ease into it and see how it went—and it went well.”

McAuley hit an early low point during the second lap when the skies opened up, spurring flashbacks from the race last year.

“I was thinking it would be a repeat of last year and that zapped me,” says McAuley.

After spending the first lap on the rear wheel of the leader, McAuley fell off the back during the second lap but used the third lap to refuel and reel the leader back in, eventually passing him.

“He broke his chain and I caught him on the third lap and passed him and never looked back,” says McAuley.

Everything was working for McAuley through the next five laps but with an eighth and final lap on the horizon, McAuley started feeling the burn.

“On the eighth lap I started bonking again but I got some pizza and other food in me and managed to pull it off,” says McAuley.

But he wasn’t the only one as Team gO rider Sean Riley clipped in with just one gear to ride a total of seven laps and take second place among solo men.

O’Connell, Hicks, Archambault and Simpson teamed up to take the women’s four-person title, riding a total of eight laps over 12 hours, all the while wearing fluorescent leopard print shorts, “Really short shorts,” according to O’Connell.

The team’s plan for the race was fairly simple.

“We knew Tiff and Kaitlyn would go first because Christie and I didn’t arrive until 1:30 in the morning,” explains O’Connell.

It wasn’t until later in the race that they found out where they were in the standings. While the news was a surprise, their momentum remained the same.

“When Kaitlyn came in off her lap they said we were in first place and we were like, ‘Really?’” says O’Connell. “We just kept riding as fast as we could.”

Meanwhile, Team gO rider Sarah Stubbe joined forces with Carbondale rider Esther Blom-Geiser to place second in the women’s duo race with Angela Vitulli and Zoe Smith right behind them in third place. And the men’s four-person team of Ochs, Bryan Dillon, Jon Brown and Beltchenko teamed up to place third with nine laps. CB DEVO was in full force as well, with several teams racing in a number of categories.

“The group part of it is what makes it so fun,” says Ochs. “Going down there with a big group and lots of teams, the Crested Butte community rocking out down in Cortez.”

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