Skarda wins women’s title at Bighorn Gravel

Grand Junction cyclist was also victorious at the GoPro Mountain Games earlier this month

From left: Leah Van der Linden, Alexis Skarda and Caroline Tory stand atop the Bighorn Gravel Ram's horn podium last year in Gypsum.
Leya Nicolait/Courtesy photo

Alexis Skarda might have to consider getting a place in the Vail Valley.

The 33-year-old Grand Junction rider not only loves the high-Alpine riding and remote forest roads, she also has a knack for winning races in the area. Then again, no matter where she rides, chances are good she’ll cross the finish line first.

At the inaugural Bighorn Gravel event on Sunday in Gypsum, Skarda rode away from the pack on Red Hill Road and never looked back, sneaking under six hours for the 85-mile Ramshorn Escape women’s title.

“The first climb I kind of just took off, I guess. I was feeling good,” Skarda said.

“Alexis was gone — we didn’t see her the rest of the race!” laughed Aspen’s Caroline Tory, who finished in third in 6 hours, 18 minutes and 3 seconds. Leah Van der Linden of Boulder was the runner-up in 6:11:59 while Skarda sailed through in 5:59:10.

Support Local Journalism

Though each podium member is accomplished in the mountain bike and endurance scene, the 2022 season represents their first forays into the gravel world. Skarda was victorious in her debut at the WildHorse Gravel in De Beque, Colorado, in May, where Van der Linden came in third in her own gravel debut. Both ladies also raced at Unbound — formerly known as Dirty Kanza — in early June. The famed Kansas gravel grind’s mixed start had them prepared for Sunday’s opening miles and rowdy dispersal of the men’s and women’s peloton coming off the initial Cottonwood Pass climb.

“This was so much better than Unbound,” Skarda said of the rollout.

“Once we hit that parking lot, it was just mayhem,” Van der Linden said of the race’s real starting point four miles in, the course’s wheels-to-gravel point of contact. “You went from a downhill with the group and then it was like, ‘let’s charge.’”

Van der Linden was situated near the back of the group early on, but used the bumpy, steep switchbacks to maneuver her way through the field. On the ensuing descent, she pulled alongside Caroline Tory, passing on the left before four ladies regrouped heading into the 16-mile, 3,000 foot Gypsum Creek climb.

Van der Linden, Tory, fellow Aspen rider Jessie Young and former pro triathlete and Unbound podium-finisher Kristen Legan of Black Hawk stayed together along the shaded, smooth 4-6% grades of Gypsum Creek as well as the final, steeper push to aid station 1 at 32 miles. Van der Linden took off on the sketchy Power Line Road descent that followed, which, race director Jake Wells accurately predicted at the mandatory rider meeting the previous evening when he said “this road could beat you up.”

Athletes came to the 10-mile Brush Creek road climb next, taking riders from Sylvan Lake at 8,500 feet to the 11,000 foot Peter Estin Hut summit. Van der Linden was well aware of Tory’s intentions to capitalize on the narrow forest road’s climb.

“I knew Caroline was going to catch me,” she said.

Tory, who started the climb with her friend, Young, took off and created a gap just minutes before the climb’s summit. Then, disaster struck.

“I dropped my chain and stopped for about 15 minutes,” the advantageous climber said.

She went from second to fifth.

“I knew the climbs were when I was going to put a gap on anyone, so it was a heartbreaking spot,” Tory lamented. “I was super frustrated with the mechanical stuff — mostly because I felt so good.”

“But it was a good lesson in ‘stay calm, fix it, it’s not over, just put your head down,” she added, noting that her descent was faster than normal because “I had nothing to lose at that point.” Tory wound up passing everyone but Van der Linden.

Meanwhile, alone and ahead, even Skarda needed a rare pit stop at the 47-mile Peter Estin station.

“You always have to be more aware of your hydration and nutrition on races like this. It will actually help in the long run, versus just riding through it,” Skarda said.

The course gained 7,500 feet in its first 47 miles, followed by 18 miles of downhill. The final 20 miles of the race, however, proved to be the most mentally and physically challenging component for nearly every competitor. Skarda agreed that it was the hardest part.

“I didn’t realize it was going to be that slow when we got on that single track,” she said.

“Even the descents were slow. So I would look at my computer and it would say 60 miles and 20 minutes later I was at 62 miles. I was gauging my nutrition on almost being done. So, on the last 5 miles I was bonked because I didn’t really prepare for how slow that would be.”

BigHorn Gravel 85-mile women’s top 20
1 Alexis Skarda Grand Junction CO 33 5:59:10
2 Leah Van der Linden Boulder CO 28 6:11:59
3 Caroline Tory Aspen CO 32 6:18:03
4 Jessie Young Aspen CO 39 6:20:00
5 Kristen Legan Black Hawk CO 37 6:28:07
6 Hillary Allen Boulder CO 34 6:30:07
7 Hannah Shell Longmont CO 31 6:38:42
8 Grace Williams Bloomington IN 22 6:46:32
9 Nora Klingfus Longboat Key FL 28 7:02:57
10 Amy Charity Steamboat Springs CO 46 7:08:40
11 Lauren Zoerner Highlands Ranch CO 19 7:12:29
12 Caroline Mani Colorado Springs CO 35 7:12:39
13 Rebecca Gross Golden CO 42 7:12:52
14 Courtney Knott Aspen CO 34 7:13:59
15 Sarah Flamm Nederland CO 33 7:15:00
16 Katie Lindquist Steamboat Springs CO 57 7:18:06
17 Amelia Durst Avon CO 31 7:37:23
18 Haley Dumke Minturn CO 30 7:49:20
19 Ruth Razo Avon CO 44 8:54:01
20 Michelle Van Sickle Arvada CO 46 9:05:19

To top it off, a final, hike-a-bike section greeted the athletes roughly ten miles from the finish.

Straining to regain her race, Tory almost came to a physical breaking point on the 20% pitch.

“I was lucky that I worked hard to get back up there and my legs somehow came through, but I was little bit like, ‘this climb might ruin me,’” she said.

Tory held on for the $1,000 third-place prize, with Van der Linden grabbing $1,500 and Skarda going home with the $2,500 grand prize. Aside from the cash, though, the event was worth it for the trio.

“I loved the course,” Tory said. “I felt like my mind was very engaged the whole time. Definitely excited to come back. And, for a first-year race, they did an amazing job.” 

“It was a mentally challenging race,” said Skarda, putting the loop’s toughness factor right up there with her White Rim FKT and Unbound experience. “Surprisingly, yeah,” she said when asked how it compared in terms of pushing her limits. “I was feeling great for the first 60 miles and hit that last steep and was like, ‘never mind.’” 

Mike Brumbaugh, who, along with Jake Wells, spearheaded the race’s creation, said the feedback he received from everyone who crossed the finish line — from the first to the last — was “pure stoke.”

“Everyone said they were stretched and felt a huge sense of accomplishment — whether they challenged themselves on the Gravel Curious, Ram’s horn Escape or Little Bighorn,” he stated, noting that 95% of the field had never ventured onto some or most of the course.

“Being able to just go on these OHV roads that are red, green trees, mountains in the background — it’s pristine,” added Van der Linden.

“And you know, the downhills, they get rowdy, but that’s the fun of gravel.”

“I think the two word answer is humbled and proud at the same time,” Brumbaugh stated. “We are absolutely blown away by the turnout, support and success of Bighorn Gravel, year one.”

In addition to thanking the Town of Gypsum, Alpine Bank and the numerous other partners who made the event and expo possible, Brumbaugh said the organizers have “bigger and better plans in place for next year,” which will include improving their focus on a cycling pre-ride prerequisite: coffee. For the riders, the other essentials — an adventurous course and community — were good enough.

“These events that bring all these people to ride the area and have the ability to go up those mountain roads all the way up to 11,000 feet — would you ever do unless you did the race?” Van der Linden rhetorically asked.

“So, for me, gravel is all about venturing out. It’s about not knowing what you’re getting into. And, this race totally provided that.”

Support Local Journalism