Groad Trip: Becoming a mountain biker, and then breaking my wrist at the Life Time Grand Prix

I invested a lot of time and effort into improving my MTB skills. And then, alas, I went down just minutes into the first Grand Prix race.

Photo: Courtesy Orange Seal

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Once the Life Time Grand Prix was announced last year with its three mountain bike races and three gravel races, I knew I’d need to hone my flat-bar skills further. In cycling, like anything really, one masters what they practice and while I’m plenty competitive in drop-bar off-roading, mountain biking is a different animal. The subtle differences of riding with flat bars and suspension become stark realizations at the professional level where small percentages make a world of difference.

So, as I set about building my 2022 race calendar, I came across the Moab Rocks MTB Stage Race, conveniently 1 week before the Sea Otter Classic. I know Moab well and if there is any terrain to hone technique, it’s Moab with its chunky ledges, exposure, and harsh desert landscape. To boot, Moab is one of my happy places and has been the scene of my FKT attempts. A head fix and three days of race-speed intensity on that terrain sounded perfect.

The courses are what Geoff Kabush eloquently calls “down country” riding. We raced down enduro-type trails but had to climb up to them as well. Thus it was an old school cross-country race loop, using fast bikes to tackle terrain where one usually shuttles to the top on larger sleds. It was an eye-opening experience, to see how some of the savviest mountain bike racers utilize their body and momentum across the rockiest stuff to find speed.

I relied on fitness and strength to smash over harsh terrain, whereas these riders are able to flow with the rocks much more efficiently, thus saving precious energy. It’s almost an entirely different discipline and I ate a daily slice of humble pie.

I went to Moab Rocks to hone my MTB skills for the Life Time Grand Prix. (Photo: Courtesy 1000% Studio)

It was also frustrating at times; I am a professional racer, so it’s hard not to be proficient at something that’s your job. It was a fresh lesson that no matter the mastery, there is always more to learn. I ended up a distant sixth overall, but I did gain respect from other competitors for even showing up; apparently Moab Rocks is known as demanding enough that many pure cross-country racers avoid it.

But my main objective of skill building was achieved; upon arriving at Sea Otter and pre-riding the course, it felt so easy. I was riding those trails faster than I had before and was hopeful that, in terms of points, I might be able to limit my losses against the best cross-country racers and score ahead of other gravel specialists. I continued to hone in and actually pre-rode the race course three times.

Sea Otter is first and foremost a gigantic industry show with lots of sponsor activations, but with the Fuego 80 XC race kicking off the Life Time Grand Prix, things became more of a balancing act. I visited as many sponsor booths as I could but still kept my legs in consideration. I’d scored an amazing camp spot overlooking the race track and was able to entice at least three media projects to come to me instead of finding them in the expo scrum below.

Home base at the Sea Otter Classic — camping right alongside the Laguna Seca Raceway. (Photo: Pete Stetina)

Everything went to plan until the race started.

Ironically, I was taken out by another rider on pavement in the first mile of the race — before we even hit the dirt! By the time I got moving again, I was near the back of the pack. My wrist really hurt as well but with all the years of WorldTour racing, it’s built into my programming to always remount and pedal unless I absolutely can’t.

I could hold on tight and steer, but I was struggling to brake, shift, and pull up on the bars. This made descending slow and excruciating. I shouted in pain on every berm. I warned other riders around me that I’d hurt my hand and was riding cautiously on the descents.

I thought it might be broken but figured it was probably a bad sprain given I could still ride. The legs were OK still and I began to pick off a few Grand Prix competitors in the second half of the race. When I crossed the line I was 21st in the race, and 15th in the GP points. Not what I came for but still salvaging something.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions as to why I continued: Simply put, this series is long, and bad luck, mechanicals, and illness can happen at any moment. We get to drop our single worst score of the six races. I hope it’s this Sea Otter result for me, but should the trail trolls stroke twice, I’d rather have these 15 points than two scratches.

I promptly made my way to the medical tent and then to Urgent Care, where the X-ray confirmed a broken radius. It’s stable but goes into the joint, meaning that if I don’t care for it properly I have arthritis in my future. I was hurting emotionally and physically, so I drove straight home to my family to lick my wounds and hatch a rehab plan.

For those following my road career, you’ll remember the career-threatening broken leg I suffered in 2015 while racing for BMC. I’ve kept in touch with the all-star medical team and rang them on my way home, pleading to get the band back together. Doctor Max Testa and orthopedic surgeon Eric Heiden happily agreed and set about scrapping together a plan of treatment on a Sunday.

It’s not lost on me how privileged I am to have worked with some truly amazing folks during my career, and to be able to call them friends and rely on them in times of need. The diagnosis for a pro athlete looks a bit different than a doctor might traditionally prescribe, we tend to push the limits in terms of timing and rehabilitation. The fact my break didn’t get worse was a bit of an accidental test in it’s stability; it handled 50 miles of MTB racing without getting worse. This means we will let pain be my guide throughout recovery. I will need to listen to my body and delineate normal pain from a ”this bone is cracking more” type of pain. It’s a balancing act I have done before during my knee recovery.

I visited a hand therapist Tuesday with a replica of my gravel cockpit. She broke out some lightweight moldable material and created a splint to the exact shape of my handlebars. I’ll begin to venture outside, but stick to smooth pavement for a while. In addition to that my sponsors have come through with some special The Feed Formulas supplement sachets specifically targeting injury and inflammation, as well as heaps of Floyd’s of Leadville CBD cream which I prefer over Ibuprofen.

I am frustrated to have broken my wrist, but am also grateful to have the resources to get a custom carbon splint — that’s molded to my GRX shifter, no less! (Photo: Pete Stetina)

Normally I need to be splinted for four to six weeks. Belgian Waffle Ride — another big target of mine — is three weeks post-injury, so in the days before we will need to decide, a) if the bone looks like recovery is going well and, b) if I can handle the demanding trails that comprise the BWR with this brace.

Being the reigning two-time champion, I really don’t want to miss it but I also have to think big picture. I should be able to ride Gravel Locos Hico in five weeks with the brace and Unbound Gravel hopefully without the brace as that is still seven weeks away.

Just don’t social shame me for installing some aero bars to alleviate my sore wrist!

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