Halfway Into the Lifetime Grand Prix: An Update From Hannah Shell

July 19, 2022

In November 2021 Lifetime announced its Grand Prix series. The format promised six gravel and XC mountain bike events where 30 elite men and 30 elite women would compete for the largest prize purse in the history of mixed-terrain racing. While each individual event would follow the now-common mass start format, entry to the series itself would be invitational, based on rider experience, merit, and commitment to growing cycling in the United States. Hundreds of riders applied, and I desperately wanted to be selected. As a relatively new gravel racer, I had grown to love the sport and this series was an opportunity to test myself against the best.

The Selection

On December 10, 2021, I received a call from Lifetime – I was in! My initial reaction was a mix of excitement at the recognition of being selected and panic. I didn’t even own a mountain bike at the time, and in just four short months I was going to be lining up to race one professionally. Then, I saw the full list of women selected to compete and my excitement and panic morphed into pure shock. The depth of field was enormous. National and world champions, Olympians, world cup winners, Iron man icons; the selection included the top of the top from every discipline of cycling.

Read to kick off the season! Photo: Marc AR (@velophoto.tx)

It was an honor to see my name listed among these incredibly accomplished athletes, and reading through the field of competitors helped me set expectations for the season. Previously, I’d lined up to almost any gravel event confident with being able to secure a top 10 or top 5 finish. With this field, top 10 would now mean beating Olympic-level mountain bikers at their own game. That didn’t seem like a tangible goal. As a former road racer, I am no stranger to lining up with power-packed women’s pelotons, so while I was somewhat intimidated, I decided to adjust my expectations and aim for consistency, over single-digit placements. Afterall, the long nature of the Grand Prix calendar and the point system would reward consistency over sporadic high placements.

Sea Otter Classic

The first race of the Grand Prix, Sea Otter Classic, is an 80 km XC mountain bike race in Monterey California. I arrived in Monterey a week before the race so that I could spend ample time pre-riding the course. In doing so, I hoped to gain as much confidence as I could in a discipline where I was completely inexperienced. I felt I was on solid footing going into the race, until my husband and I fell ill to an extreme bout of food poisoning.

When race day rolled around and we hadn’t eaten or drank anything in 24 hours, we didn’t line up. We salvaged the weekend by jumping into the shorter 40k La Gravilla XC race the next day but I was absolutely crushed about pulling out of the first event in the Lifetime Grand Prix series. Fortunately, the scoring of the Grand Prix is somewhat forgiving and allows racers to drop one result each before the final ranking is tallied.

It took me about a month to fully recover from the effects of the food poisoning – a major setback. That left me only four weeks to properly train for the next Lifetime event, Unbound, and its 200 miles of treacherous gravel in the notorious flint hills of Kansas. If there’s one race in the series that suited me, it was this one, but without consistent preparation I lined up with zero expectations.

Film—Gravel: A Love Letter
Hannah Shell (center) riding across the finish at Unbound in 2021.

Unbound Gravel

Despite following a different course from the previous two years of the event, Unbound started out the same as it usually does. At about 30 miles in, the masses broke up into smaller groups to ride out the long day. After the first feed, I was in a good group with fellow PI athlete and Grand Prix racer, Angela Naeth. Then the rain started. A slow drizzle at first quickly turned into a downpour for hours. Road conditions deteriorated, everything was covered in mud and grit. It was nearly impossible to see the wheel of the rider in front of you through the stream of spray coming off their rear wheel. We pressed on, at times alone and at times forming small groups, and surprisingly we started catching other women.

I rolled strong into the finish with no concept of what place I might be in. My husband and support crew, who were waiting on the line, had counted women coming across before me. From them I learned that I was 9th among the Grand Prix finishers. I was (happily) shocked to say the least. I’d just claimed the top 10 finish I’d thought was so out of reach in the most competitive gravel race on the calendar. Because I missed Sea Otter, my Unbound result put me into 18th in the series overall, but now I could reshape my goals for the rest of the season knowing I had underestimated my abilities at the start.

Crusher in the Tushar

Named for Utah’s Tushar Mountains, the third stop of the Grand Prix—Crusher in the Tushar—is a beast of a gravel race. While Crusher is shorter at 69 miles, it includes over 10,000 feet of climbing on steep, unmaintained mountainous gravel roads.

In 2021, my biggest mistake in this race was going too hard to stay with the group on the first climb and blowing up 15 minutes in. This year, I decided to pace myself from the bottom knowing I would catch women towards the top. The race went hard from the bottom of the first climb as usual. I settled into a high tempo and held it through the top of the climb. I did catch several women, but not enough to put me back into contention for the top 10. Because I didn’t over exert myself on the initial climb, I was able to catch more women on the second climb—even as the temperature soared to over 100 degrees—and ride to 16th overall. In retrospect, I think I would have benefited from more middle ground effort: I needed to push to stay with the group longer on the first climb, but not dig so deep that I couldn’t hold a high tempo.

While it’s not the best course for me, given that I don’t consider myself a climber, I had trained hard for Crusher in the month following Unbound and lined up aiming for another top 10. I missed that goal, finishing 16th overall and 14th in the Lifetime Grand Prix. That moved me up one spot to 17th in the series’ rankings. With 39 points total, I’m now just 11 points outside the top 10 overall.

On a training ride, close to home.

The Rest of the Season

The last three stops in the Grand Prix include the Leadville 100, Chequamegon MTB, and Big Sugar Gravel. At the start of the year, I was afraid to set a goal of top 10 finishes for myself, thinking it was unrealistic and unattainable. However, what I’ve learned through the first three events is that even Olympians have off days. The season is long, and while my early illness was a major setback, the down time I was forced to take means I can push harder in the back half of the series.

My goal is to race the next three events to my peak ability and try to get into the top 10 Lifetime Grand Prix ranking. With a 9th and a 14th in the two races I’ve completed so far, I now think top 10 is in reach. More importantly though, I’ve learned not to count myself out because the start list is intimidating. I’m still finding my strengths and the limits in the world of dirt, and after Unbound I’ve learned I might just be better at this gravel game than I originally thought.

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