Photo Credit: mikeoitzmanphotography
The TDS Enduro in Grass Valley, CA was one of my first races back in 2014. I had little idea of what I was getting myself into and how this race would grow to be one of the most iconic races around. From the top-notch trail system, the Sanchez family has built on their private property, to the crowd of fans that show up each year to heckle and cheer the race weekend at TDS is one of my favorites each year.
While having more experience than most on the TDS trails from racing, riding, and trail workdays, I have always struggled to make it to the top step on the box. A broken wrist in 2015, a bad flu case in 2016 the week before the race, mechanicals, crashing, and so on have all led to 2nd and 3rd place finishes at the race. Last year, I really felt my riding was solid, but Covid caused the race to be canceled. This year the race was delayed almost two months, but I was stoked to have it happen again, even if the weather had highs in the ’90s for race weekend.
Practice day was my last day of school as a teacher. I was conflicted to miss the day, not because so much is taught (lol) but because how the kids love to say their goodbyes and get their yearbook signed and it really is just a fun day as a teacher. However, even with knowing the TDS trail system well, each race sees new connections of trails, and just seeing how something connects is important for setting up potential corners and also the dryness of the trails this late in the season would play a role in feeling on the bike. In a last-minute decision, I got the day off and made it up for practice.
A new change this year was no shuttling. So for 10 stages across the weekend, we would be practicing and racing with a 750 climb after each. They were 4 blind stages, so that left 6 stages to practice and I opted to skip a trial, so 5 total practice climbs. It was hot. I kept trying to hydrate and eat, but it's hard to eat when your body is staying too cool. I was on my newly built Rakan LT, which was feeling great. After a winter on this long-travel 29er, I really came to like its overall ability to confidently go fast and also pedal super well.
Photo Credit: mikeoitzmanphotography
Race day 1: The first stage was a blind stage. I knew the top half well, but the lower half was all new. I took it out strong, however realized the dirt was going to be super loose so I didn’t push too hard. I came up with a 5 second lead on a 3ish minute trail so I felt confident going into the rest of the stages. I fell on a very tough chicaned corner into an uphill on stage 2, Bloody Knuckles. Lost a few seconds there which showed in a 2nd place stage finish behind up and coming young rider Kate Lawrence. I made it clean through the nasty rocks of the stage so was still happy about that. For the rest of the stages for day 1 I was really confident about and really liked the trails. Stage 3 I pulled away with a 10-second gap over 2nd place.Then stage 4 happened. I was about to drop as the last female when the stage was put on medical hold. I heard one of the multiple medics say “we need a helicopter ASAP” and I got goosebumps. All the girls who race become friends and many are already really good friends of mine. Who went down? Where? How? That bad we need a heli? The support crew at TDS is top-notch. The trails are close by and there are so many people around to help. After 30 minutes, the downed rider had been airlifted to the hospital and the course was clear, however, feelings were mixed. We didn’t know the extent of the injuries, just that it was really bad. The initial consensus was to keep racing. I dropped into 4 and smashed a fast stage out without knowing where, how Katie Alton had just crashed so severely. After a handful of riders dropped the decision was made to not keep racing for the day so 4 were ultimately not counted.
Over the course of the evening and the night, hearing the updates from the hospital, it was not looking good for Katie. She suffered 6 broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a collapsed lung, and severe brain trauma. She was in a coma and had brain swelling. The realization of how badly this could turn out for her and at the same time how quickly life can change for any one of us was a hard one to grasp for me. We all take crashes and yet the large majority of the time we are OK - Katie was one of the few that was not.
Race day 2: I wasn’t sure if we would race or if it was the right thing to do (or not to do), but I felt reassured when Katie’s boyfriend sent me a message in the morning saying to go race for her and to smash it in the rock gardens because those are her favorite. I thought about it if it were me and how I’d want everyone to continue riding bikes. It is our passion and Katie’s accident was a reminder that life is fragile and we need to do what we love.
Dropping into the first stage of the day, what I didn’t realize was how deep the emotion was running through me. I fell in a corner and got tangled up in my bike. What probably took about 20 seconds to get untangled and straighten bars seemed like an eternity of thoughts pouring through my brain. Why Katie? Why so bad? Why not me? I’ve crashed hundreds of times… I got to the finish line and after thinking I was collected, I saw Ron Sanchez and asked if I was OK … I just started crying. Thankfully he is like a second dad to me and he knew what to say. I climbed back up to the top and let all the thoughts and feelings coarse through me. I wasn’t upset I crashed and lost time, I was upset that Katie was going through a life-changing event from a crash and I hadn’t given myself time to process it. I thought about quitting the race, about backing it down and just riding like I was following a friend on a new trail. When I got into the start house for the next stage, I thought about how strong and fierce Katie was and how I needed to be strong for her now.
Photo Credit: mikeoitzmanphotography
The next stage came together I rode to a strong stage win, along with 3 other stage wins including a time trap on stage 8 where I hit a top speed of 40 mph, just 3mph off the top guy, and only two guys faster than 40. When I finished stage 9 cleanly I knew I had done it - I put together a winning TDS race. The support crew at the bottom of stage 9 knew I had won and sprayed me as I crossed the line with PBR. Many have watched me raced over the years their excitement for me was so special. The final stage was a winner takes all with some money and a customized Fasthouse helmet on the line. My Dad expressed how cool the helmet was and how he’d love it - jokingly. I had already planned in my head to donate money to Katie and her family and felt if I won this stage that pot of money would definitely be going to them. The stage is the best time you can have on a bike. Like A-line in Whistler - just flows and has 5 wall rides back to back. I raced down it smooth and knew in my head that I had to have won it. I did and I gave the helmet to my dad and the money to Katie.
As I look back on the weekend, there is so much to still process. I’m enjoying the accomplishment and feeling grateful for the biking community I am a part of. Katie is constantly in my thoughts and I’ll continue to live the most I can for her. Stay strong Katie!!
If you want to help Katie get back on the pedals and donate to her GoFundMe click here.