Steamboat Springs Essam Welch traveled halfway around the world, competed in a world-class mountain bike race and spent a month pedaling across one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
All that, and what was the lesson he brought with him last month when he came back to the home he loves in Steamboat Springs?
“We were seeing beautiful place and beautiful place,” Welch said. “We realized Steamboat’s just as striking. … There’s a family character about this community that made me miss home, a character I don’t notice in a lot of other places.”
Realistically, Welch said he already knew that. It didn’t take his trip to New Zealand, his riding in the 2010 Singlespeed World Championships or his pedal-powered tour of that country to realize the home his great-great-grandparents chose more than a century ago, the place he’s called home for 10 years, is the place he loves.
But riding what he termed some of the best trails in the world, meeting friendly residents and making his way across that island nation’s lush springtime landscape, all with his wife, Deborah Improta, reinforced that.
“We came back just refreshed and really happy to be home,” he said.
Maybe part of the reason Welch struggled to forget Steamboat was the way the town and his trip were intertwined.
A singlespeed maven, Welch never has owned a car. Come rain or sun, snow or hail, he rides daily to Orange Peel Bicycle Service in downtown Steamboat Springs, where he has worked for three years.
He first tried to compete in the Singlespeed World Championships last year. Then, it was a considerably less ambitious task. In 2009, the race was 350 miles away in Durango. He traveled nearly 8,000 miles to ride in New Zealand this year.
The 2009 trip ended in disaster, however. On a per-mile basis, Welch surely is far from being one of Steamboat’s most accident-prone mountain bikers. But he rides so many miles that they caught up to him in Durango when he stalled and lost his balance on a tight mountain bike trail at the top of a steep slope. He leapt from the bike and landed without tumbling down the slope, but he hit in a crouching position and his knees were driven into his face. He spent a week in a Durango hospital and underwent six hours of surgery.
Even after he recovered from that accident, New Zealand and the 2010 championships seemed an impossible dream.
That’s where his city stepped in, however.
“J.R. (Thompson, a friend,) had been conjuring up this idea to bring all the town’s cyclists together, a Gear Mashers Ball,” Welch said. “He said he had an idea that he’d like to do something for me, so they gave me a chance to compete in the Singlespeed World Championships.”
The event raised enough money to fly not only Welch and his bike across the ocean, but also Improta.
Wild race, strong finish
The race was everything he’d hoped, Welch said.
The Singlespeed World Championships may be named like a classy, official kind of event. And it is that kind of event, but in its own very unique way.
In years past, a red-hot brand of the race’s logo awaited at the finish line to forever mark the winner’s achievement. They don’t do that anymore. Now they just tattoo the winner as soon as he crosses the finish line.
“If you don’t want the tattoo, you don’t cross first,” Welch said.
The race is filled with 1,000 riders, many costumed, and everyone starts by pedaling around a giant circle with a number of closed gates to the outside. One random gate is opened to signal the start of the race, and all the riders must finish their lap and rush through the portal.
There are two stations during the race where riders can either stay on the trail or take a significant shortcut, but only if they pound a beer.
They don’t keep track of where anyone finishes beyond the tattooed winner, so Welch isn’t sure exactly how he did.
“At first I was in the top couple hundred people, and I raced real hard for the first lap,” he said. “I managed to get up into about the top 15. At the last beer stop, the girl who handed me a beer said I was in 17th, but we did a little more racing, so all I can say is I was in the top 20.”
Whether he was 15th or 20th, he said the day was awesome.
“I raced hard, and I raced fast,” Welch said. “I’m not the champion, but it was a great experience.”
The race was only the start of the vacation.
Afterward, Welch and Improta set off across New Zealand, everything they needed — from camping supplies to food — in a trailer Welch towed behind the singlespeed he rode in the race.
They rode miles and miles and hopped on buses and trains. They even took a ferry, riding between the two main islands.
Two places stood out. The town of Wanaka in the central portion of the South Island stood out for its similarities to Steamboat in spring. Then, a spur-of-the-moment adventure on a New Zealand farm turned out to be hard to forget.
“We were traveling through the South Island and met a family. They heard what we were doing and suggested we visit their farm, that they had a nice place we could camp and that we should check it out,” Welch said. “We almost didn’t have enough information or any reason to be excited, but there was something about this character’s eyes.
“We rode to this farm. It was a fourth-generation family very similar to the family I come from. It was very cool, the most peaceful of all the places we saw there.”
Still, it wasn’t Steamboat, and when the trip ended in November, Welch and Improta were happy to come home.
“We’re not so much travelers,” he said. “We live here in Steamboat and don’t find much need to seek out those kinds of places, but it gave me an opportunity to reflect back on home and on what I do enjoy so much about living in this community.”