We set out with a goal to show those who follow High Fives Foundation a different and unique perspective on the lives, thoughts, and feelings of our Athletes as they tackle and engage in life as passionate and talented individuals.
These blogs don’t focus on disability. They do the opposite; these blogs show us how important it is to follow your heart. These Athlete’s disabilities are a secondary thought while we read these blogs; the disability even acts as a springboard to fuel the passion and heart that come across in their words.
For the fourth installment, we asked High Fives Athlete Jim Harris, to take some photos and write some words about his time in Nevada for the Stetina Pay Dirt event. This is the second year that the long-distance gravel race has had an adaptive category, and High Fives had Five Athletes in attendance –Jim Harris, Jocelyn Judd, Tyler McKenzie, Andrew Bernstein, and Meg Fisher who were all thrilled to compete with some of the best gravel riders in the world.
You all made High Fives proud.
Words and photo by Jim Harris
Back in the late summer of 2019, pro cyclist Pete Stetina hosted a weekend gravel ride in Carson City, NV to drum up support for a bike race that he was planning for the following springtime. He intended the race to be a fundraiser for High Fives Foundation and so I was invited to join the ride as a representative of the para-athletes that High Fives supports. So, I borrowed a friend’s gravel bike, traveled to Carson City, hopped on the bike… and almost immediately got dusted by the much faster riders that Pete had invited. So, I was eager for redemption.
After two years of delays, the inaugural Stetina’s Paydirt gravel race took place on a crisp, clear and windless morning last weekend. 500 racers spun out under the start line arch as The Who’s Teenage Wasteland blared on the PA system.
Our crew of para- and quadriplegic riders took up the tail end of the pack. Someone forgot a crucial piece of their adaptive equipment back at the car and the rest of us opted to wait in the name of sticking together. Within five or six miles we caught up to the end of the pack who were bottlenecked at sandy, technical crux. Soon the High Fives team had passed a few dozen folks, moving us out of dead last.
The event sponsor, Canyon bikes, had loaned three of us demo bikes, a model named Grail:ON that includes a small electric motor and battery built into the frame. These ebikes can be cranked up to offer more power than most riders’ legs can generate – but at the expense of battery range. In order to ration the electric assistance over the duration of the +60mi course, I set the power to its lowest setting – just enough to give my disabled legs a little added oomph – and left it there. Even in low-power Eco mode, the bike made a huge difference. Without it I would have almost certainly been walking the difficult parts with the racers we’d passed.
Stetina’s Paydirt was organized so that there were two different timed sections with untimed “transfer” riding in between. The first competitive section started with a steep and loose 4×4 road climb. I imagine the front of the pack racers zipped right up, but when we arrived we wove between people who were off their bikes and walking. The downhill that followed was sandy, steep and peppered with rocks and potholes- spicy riding on a rigid bike with drop bars! And MUCH spicier for Jocelyn Judd and Tyler McKenzie, both of whom have limited hand function and grip strength due to their injuries. My strategy was to hang on and let er buck, countersteering with light touch through high-speed soft sand. I was blown away at the bike handling skill and willingness to push their limitations that Tyler and Jocelyn showed!
The second stage of the race took us up a singletrack mtb trail. It was a gradual climb on decomposed granite grit that gleamed white in the mid-day sun. While the first half of the race had been doubletrack 4×4 road and frequently technical with rocks, ruts, and deep sand, this section was perfectly buff, but with a tread that sometimes narrowed to a foot wide. We climbed out of the shadeless sagebrush and into the coolness of a sugar pine forest.
Team High Fives had spread out a bit by the final leg- Tyler had thrown in the towel due to the limitations of his hand function and Bernie had continued ahead when I’d stopped to wait for Jocelyn. And pro cyclist and para rider Meg Fisher was way out front, since races like this are her forte. Rather than pushing to be fastest- our borrowed ebikes already disqualified us from serious competition – I set my sights on not walking any of the obstacles, wanting to ‘clean’ the entirety of the 63.5mi course. Some of the deep sand had felt touch and go, but the ebike motor had helped me keep momentum when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep rolling. Three decades of mountain biking practice helped me in navigating occasional rocky ledges, creek crossings, and also with the subtle art of pedaling tight switchback corners, front tire tracking the soft outside shoulder of the trail. Somehow I made it until the very final few feet of dirt, just a toss from the pavement, when I put a foot down… and then toppled over into the sand. Womp womp. Guess I’ll need to try the course again next year, maybe ride it without any dabs next time.
It was fulfilling to finish the race and fun to have (almost) cleaned the technical challenges, but for me the biggest reward is the chance to ride alongside other High Fives Athletes and to take on the big challenge of a long day riding together.
Thank you to Pete Stetina for organizing the race and earmarking the proceeds for High Fives Foundation. Thanks to High Fives Foundation for their support over the years since my spinal cord injury and for the invite to participate Stetina’s Paydirt. Thanks to Canyon Bicycles for trusting us with your demo fleet. And thanks for Dolan Toyota for a souped up Tundra that turned heads even before we stacked $40,000 of race bikes over the tailgate pad.
-High Fives Athlete # 66 Jim Harris