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Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith won the Crusher in the Tushar on Saturday, a victory that nudged her into second place in the Life Time Grand Prix series. Smith now trails Sofia Gomez Villafañe who finished eighth on the day.
It was an emotional victory for Smith, who said upon crossing the finish line, “I didn’t think I was going to win another race ever.”
The 28-year-old has historically focused on XC mountain bike racing, and she represented Canada at the Tokyo games last summer. However, Smith told VeloNews that her time at the Olympics, coupled with the ongoing mental toll of the pandemic, had her in a rut for the past two years.
“I haven’t had a big win since 2019, and the self-doubt I’d allowed to take root was becoming crippling,” she said. “I’ve also been working to heal from RED-S (I was diagnosed in October of last year), and so I’ve been wrestling with my body quite a bit to get it to come back online. I’m feeling more and more like a confident version of myself, and that’s starting to come through in racing. But until today, I think part of me believed that I was ‘washed up.'”
Nothing about Smith’s day on Saturday indicated that the Canadian has passed her prime. After riding with a small group of elite women all day, she went off the front into the loose, sandy ‘Sarlacc Pit’ and never looked back.
“I didn’t really attack, but I recognized that I was feeling pretty strong and I decided to commit to pushing the pace,” Smith said. “Through the Sarlacc section and then up Col d’Crush, I just kept turning the pedals around a threshold-level effort effort. I didn’t know that I had a gap, so I just stayed focused on my own pacing and trying to reel the men in one-by-one to give me a goal to chase.”
Smith rode the final two hours of the race solo, finishing eight minutes before Emma Grant crossed the line in second place.
The Crusher in the Tushar is unique among gravel races for separating men and women at the start line. Women start five minutes ahead of the pro men, and Smith said that the pro women stayed together for the first 16km of pavement before the right turn onto Kent Lake Road, the first dirt sector.
The pro men caught the elite women’s field about 18km into the race, “but they just rolled through on the side and we stayed focused on our own race, which was really nice,” Smith said.
A small group consisting of Smith, Sarah Sturm, Gomez Villafañe, Hannah Otto and a few others drove a steady pace for the first hour of climbing, and then Smith found herself off the front a bit. Gomez Villafañe caught her, and the two descended the rough Col d’Crush together. As the course shifted to fast road miles, Ruth Winder and Sturm caught Smith and Villafañe.
“The four of us spent a small amount of time with some guys, but once we began climbing out of Circleville, it was just us girls again,” Smith said.
Smith made her move shortly after that, and also won the QOM section on the notoriously steep Col d’Crush gravel climb.
Smith’s win comes on the heels of an equally impressive effort at Unbound Gravel last month where she finished sixth. Although she still considers herself an XCO World Cup racer, “I’m really keen to ‘diversify my success portfolio,’ as my husband puts it.”
Before the Leadville Trail 100, the next race in the Life Time Grand Prix, Smith has a massive block of racing that includes three World Cups and Canadian XCO nationals. Nevertheless, she’s happy with the direction she’s headed, whether that’s on gravel roads or on singletrack.
“I’m keen on experiencing a wider variety of events and missions that two wheels can bring,” Smith said. “I guess I now consider myself a bike racer in a general sense, and I’m really enjoying the variety. But, I do love XCO and I always will. I’ve got Paris 2024 in the back of my mind, and I’m using these alternative events to help me progress towards that goal. And honestly, I would even love the chance to branch out into road racing. I just like bikes!”
1. Haley Smith, 4:56:23
2. Emma Grant, 5:05:02
3. Sarah Sturm, 5:05:42
4. Ruth Winder, 5:06:58
5. Crystal Anthony, 5:11:05