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Gravel Road, Full Force Ahead

Park Hill Champion Cyclist Justin Little Credits Success To Vigilance and Luck 

Story and photos by Reid Neureiter

For The GPHN

As the winter turns to spring and the snow starts to melt in the high country, many Park Hill residents turn to cycling for exercise. But for one Park Hiller, the advent of the cycling season means serious two-wheeled competition. 

Justin Little, 45, lives on Cherry Street and is the reigning over-40 Colorado state cycling champion in the time trial – an event he has won for the last two years.

Little, pictured above leading on the pink bike, also has won Colorado state cycling championships in the road race and hill climb events. In 2017 he had top-four finishes at the Masters Cycling National Championships in both the road race and criterium events.

On April 6, Little added another podium finish to his long list of cycling accomplishments, taking third place in what is one of Colorado’s most grueling cycling road races, the 75-mile long Boulder-Roubaix race, which only occurs every other year.

Named after the celebrated 161 mile-long Paris-Roubaix race, which takes place on the infamous cobbled and dusty paths of northern France, what the Boulder version lacks in cobblestones it makes up for in gravel. 

For top riders like Little, Boulder-Roubaix consists of four laps of a punishing 18.7-mile, hilly circuit north of Boulder, more than 60 percent of which is dirt. The transition from smooth pavement, where the top riders can reach speeds of up to 45 miles-per-hour, to rocky and bumpy gravel is challenging. This year, like every race year, witnessed numerous flats and crashes. 

 “Racing on gravel is unique,” Little says. “The changing surface conditions mean one has to be constantly vigilant when in a group. The rough surface wears riders down, so this vigilance becomes more important as time goes on. On top of that, luck plays a big part. Hitting a stone in the road you never saw can give you a flat tire, and crashes by yourself and others can take you out of the race, or worse.” 

Little previously won the race in 1998, as a lower level Category 4 rider, but has crashed or flatted every time in the event in the many years since. 

In a bicycle road race, riding in a group is essential for success. Because of reduced wind resistance, riders who “draft” behind one another can conserve energy. A group of riders (called a “peloton”) is almost always faster than one or two riders riding alone. This feature of bicycle racing adds a team element to the sport, and also adds a tactical element such that the strongest rider does not always win. 

This year, Little flatted on the first lap, requiring a tire change as the group raced on ahead. For most riders, that normally would mean the end of the race day. Not for Little. 

“After fixing my flat, I encountered a friend in my race who had also flatted a mile later, and we decided we had a chance to catch back to the main field and set to work. It was a gamble because we had to ride at an effort that was the hardest we could sustain for 30 to 40 minutes before totally falling apart. 

“We were pretty pessimistic about our chances as the group was moving fast and the two of us were having to do the work of 40 riders. Mercifully, the group slowed enough after about 35 minutes that we made contact.” 

Exhausted from his chase, Little had nothing left for the sprint finish, yet he finished just two seconds behind the winner after three hours and 17 minutes of racing – a 22.7 mph average.  

Little, who by day is a family man and groundwater hydrologist with Montgomery and Associates, devotes 10 to 12 hours a week to training, much of it done on a stationary bike in his basement. For Park Hill residents interested in improving their cycling or their ability to ride long distances, Little recommends finding a group that matches your skill and interests. 

“Cycling in general is a great way for people to be active and challenge themselves,” he says. “The low impact nature of nature of it make it accessible to folks that couldn’t tolerate something like running.” 

Locally there are rides that leave from Cake Crumbs in Park Hill, Adventure Cycling and Bicycle Village in Aurora, plus many rides out of the REI store in central Denver. For anyone interested in watching (or participating in) local bike races, the website of the Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado, coloradocycling.org, lists a full schedule of races for the spring and summer.  


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