There are perks, but most are small — members of the Team Honey Stinger/Trek mountain bike racing squad can recoup some of their race entry fees. They don’t pay anything for the black and gold honeycomb jerseys that have become ubiquitous on Steamboat Springs trails. They get nice discounts on products offered by some sponsors.
“There’s a huge discount on Big Agnes products,” said Len Zanni, a part owner of Honey Stinger and one of the driving forces behind the company’s two-summer-old racing team.
That’s all nice, but the real reason is simpler.
Being a sponsored athlete is pretty sweet.
“There’s a ton of pride associated with being on a team,” rider and Honey Stinger employee Nate Bird said.
Riding in the Rockies
Bird should know. He said he never expected to be a sponsored athlete, but earlier this month he reached his pinnacle in that career.
Bird moved to Steamboat nine years ago, eager to spend his first years after graduating from the University of Colorado skiing. He quickly started coaching freestyle skiing for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club — a job he said still is an absolute love — but after several years found his way to the young startup company, Honey Stinger.
Along the way, mountain biking went from hobby to obsession, especially after he began to use the sport to rehabilitate after five knee surgeries.
“I might love it as much as skiing now,” he said.
He’s certainly gotten more serious about it, and he took it to a whole different level when he raced in the TransRockies mountain bike stage race Aug. 8.
Bird had dabbled in Town Challenge races and then Mountain States Cup events. He rode a 24 Hours of Moab once, but with a group of four where the focus was as much on fun as it was on the podium.
He was joined in Canada by Dax Massey, a friend from that Moab team, and the pair went on to an experience neither will forget, blazing a trail through the Canadian Rockies fueled and sponsored by Honey Stinger.
The race demands that teammates be within two minutes of each other at every checkpoint. “A couple seasons’ worth” of mechanical failures ruined the team’s chances to make the podium in its first attempt, but it was fourth.
“It was awesome. It was one of the best and hardest experiences of my life,” Bird said. “I’ve never done a race longer than a day. I knew it would be challenging, and it was as hard as I thought it would be.”
Team Honey Stinger/Trek had an official start — it began summer 2009. But that designation was the product of hours of idle comments and years of grass-roots work until its creation was a “well, duh!” moment for those involved.
Bird has long worn the jersey in every race. Zanni, one of the top racers in the state, also wore it any chance he got.
In 2009, though, it became real, and the Stinger stable expanded from whoever felt like pulling a jersey to a collection of diverse riders.
“Used to be I’d be the only person I saw wearing one of our jerseys,” Bird said. “Now, it’s really cool because there will be 15 of us in the same race.”
The Honey Stinger/Trek crew now is at 25.
The company doesn’t ask a lot. Riders must be good, of course. There’s little marketing value in last-place finishes. They can be regulars in the Pro, Class 1 or Class 2 races, and they must, in fact, be regulars.
They must represent the company and its sponsors — Big Agnes or Trek locally, for instance — well and with respect.
“We are certainly looking for fast, solid riders,” Zanni said. “But we’re primarily looking for people who would be good ambassadors for us and our sponsors.”
The 25 are strong. They hail from all corners of the state but are focused mostly in Steamboat, where Honey Stinger is headquartered, and in the Roaring Fork Valley, where Zanni lives.
“It’s who we know in the region and what we wanted to bring to the team,” said Bird, who helps manage the effort with Zanni at Honey Stinger. “We do a good job representing races all through the region. We go to a lot of big races.”
Locally, Kris Cannon is as accomplished as anyone in the region with her dominance on the 24-hour race scene. She’s won the past three 24 Hours in the Sage races in Gunnison and will look to build on her second-place finish at Moab in 2008 in October when she returns to the event.
The company is looking to expand beyond its current ranks next year, potentially turning Team Honey Stinger/Trek into a presence across the nation instead of just in the Rocky Mountain region.
Bird’s big ideas
Bird too sees his future as more than just one of the company ambassadors to Team Honey Stinger/Trek.
It’s been an important summer for him, the first in which he’s decided to chase podiums in the sport’s big races.
So far, so good.
He has big plans that will next play out in Moab, where there could be as many as five Honey Stinger/Trek teams.
Bird plans to compete in the men’s duo category, again with Massey.
“Moab is the 24 Nationals this year too, and they give stars and stripes jerseys to the winner,” Bird said. “Those are the goal.”
He also is envisioning a return to the race that defined his summer and proved his biking mettle. He’ll join Massey again at next summer’s TransRockies race. And they fully intend to make the podium that narrowly eluded them.
“We have some unfinished business,” he said. “I need to stand on that box.”