In March before most of us had even considered hanging up our skis for the year, Joanne LaBelle had already won her first mountain bike race of the season.
LaBelle has raced the True Grit Epic, a 50-miler in St. George, Utah, four times, but on March 9 she claimed her first win on the rocky, technical course. The popular race, which is the first event in the National Ultra Endurance mountain bike series, saw 850 participants toe the line. LaBelle finished in just over five hours, first of the seven women competing in the masters 50+ category, seven minutes in front of second place. She would have placed in the top five in the larger sport category.
LaBelle is no stranger to the podium; she regularly places in races around the region, but was especially excited to stand on top of the box at the True Grit. The first time she attempted it in 2013 she didn’t finish. She said that this year she benefited from some time spent working on technical features with Jackson racer Cary Smith, who won the True Grit 100 Mile in the masters category. In the week leading up to the event, heavy rain hit the venue and the race directors had to reroute the course in a few spots to avoid peanut butter mud. At one point on the course LaBelle remembers riding up a usually dry ravine that had become a rocky creek. Rather than the usual balmy 70 degree conditions, the race started in 40 degree weather. Predictably, that wasn’t too much of a problem for a Teton Valley cyclist.
She admitted it can be hard living here and competing in early season races against riders from Utah, California, Arizona, and southern Colorado who have been riding on dirt for months. To keep her fitness and skills sharp through the long winter, she relies on the Spin Cave and on fat biking, which has gotten even better in recent years with the development and grooming of the Southern Valley Trails near her house in Victor.
“Fatbiking makes all the difference,” she said. “It helps maintain that core strength and arm strength you need for trail riding.”
LaBelle, who describes herself as a weekend warrior, isn’t eyeing another race until Pierre’s Hole at Grand Targhee in August. In the mean time she plans to do a few organized road rides like the Little Red Riding Hood 100 in Cache Valley, and to travel to find good dirt until shoulder season finally comes to an end here. She explained that she registers for races in order to have a goal to strive for each season, to help get her off the couch if she’s feeling unmotivated.
She likes distance, and she likes climbing--the more of both a race has, the better she performs. Although she does appreciate having separate categories for masters racers, she doesn’t think a lot has changed for her through the years, except perhaps that it takes a bit longer to recover from big efforts.
“As we get older, the mental advantage is what we have over young people,” she mused. “I know it’s not going to kill me to ride for five hours, so I can keep going.”
She started mountain biking in 1988 in Salt Lake City and has seen bike technology and popularity improve drastically in recent years. A desire for great riding as well as less crowded trails brought her to Teton Valley and she’s now a realtor at Sotheby’s. Peaked Sports has sponsored LaBelle for over ten years in its loose race team structure, and she said she’s grateful for the generosity and support of the shop. While she does enjoy horseback riding, hiking, XC skiing, and working in the garden (pursuits shared by many Teton Valley residents) she said mountain biking is her first love.
“It’s the variety and the excitement that keeps me going and keeps me motivated,” she said. “I always want to see what’s over the next hill.”