Steamboat Springs Carl Howelsen probably never imagined that someday bicycles would be tearing down the downtown ski area that in 1917 would be named after him.
Howelsen built ski jumps — not bike jumps — for competitions such as the one during the first Winter Carnival in February 1914, where he took the first-place prize of $40 for jumping 108 feet. The same jumping events were taking place Friday night during the 98th annual Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, along with a few newer ones. A few hundred feet to either side of the ski jumps, snowboarders competed in the jam session at the Howelsen Hill Terrain Park, and cyclists weaved through gates on the face of Howelsen for the dual slalom bicycle race.
“I would call this one of the newer traditions,” said Rick DeVos, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s executive director. “This is one of the things that local people do in the winter here, and Winter Carnival is about celebrating winter.”
After 20 years of bike races down the snow-covered hill, it is clear cycling has become as much of a tradition as skiing in Steamboat Springs.
“Steamboat has a long tradition of cycling, as well,” said Chris Johns, owner of Wheels Bike Shop, a sponsor of the event.
Johns said the first Winter Carnival bike race was organized by Ed Crislip, who owned Sore Saddle Cyclery.
“Originally, it was comic relief,” Johns said. “It’s basically like, OK, we’re riding bicycles on the snow, and then people loved it as a spectator thing just like the horses riding down Main Street. It’s been a long-standing tradition, and people really look forward to it.”
The contest has changed throughout the years. The evolution of biking equipment allows some competitors to stay upright and actually race the course.
“Back in the old days, we all did both feet down the whole time,” said Donny Leavitt, a 46-year-old longtime racer who took the championship this year.
Disc breaks enable the racers to slow their bikes to controllable speeds. Some buy studded snow tires, and others make their own by putting screws through the treads.
“More screws, the better,” said Leavitt, who added about 400 screws to his already-studded tires. “There is no such thing as too much.”
The modifications are made specifically for the event.
“This doesn’t work on the street, though,” Leavitt said. “It only works in the deep snow.”
About 200 people attended Friday night’s race, where competitors were eliminated during each round.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Nicole Wilson, a former Steamboat resident visiting from Australia to see friends watch Winter Carnival events for the first time. “I ride a little cross-county in the summertime back home, but I probably wouldn’t be riding a bike on the snow. I think it takes a special breed of people to do this kind of stuff.”
Those special breeds included Mindy Mulliken and Bo Randolph.
Randolph, a Steamboat Springs High School graduate and bike maker at Kent Eriksen Cycles, guessed he has raced in the event for seven years.
“The brakes freeze up, so you don’t have brakes for that first part, so you kind of freak out,” he said.
This is Mulliken’s second year racing.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I don’t fear anything as much as I fear going down this in the snow because I have no control.”
Key strategies shared for doing well in the race were starting out slow, not crashing and rounding every gate.
“I don’t go around them,” Leavitt said. “I drive over them.”
— To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or e-mail mstensland@SteamboatToday.com