Senior Cyclist Wins State Championships

story and photos by Jim Flint
Donna Smyers of Adamant (left) gets ready to start the 5k time trial at the
Vermont Senior Games Cycling Championship.

CASTLETON ‒ For the first time since 2018, the Vermont Senior Games Association held state championships this year in bicycling. Men and women age 50 and up vied for medals in a 5k time trial and a 20-mile road race. Twenty senior athletes tested their speed, riding skills, and endurance at Castleton University.

Donna Smyers answered the call to compete. The 64-year-old is a swimmer, runner, and cyclist. In 2012, she started Fixer-Upper Physical Therapy in the scenic village of Adamant. She was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2018.

Smyers has won her age group at multiple national and world triathlon events, including the Iron Man world age group championships. While cycling is an integral part of a triathlon, Smyers had never competed in a standalone bike race. The Vermont Senior Games 20-mile venue would be her first road competition. 

Donna Smyers finishes the 5k (3.1 miles) time trial in eight minutes and 58 seconds. Smyers won the gold medal for the women’s 60-64 age group.

Sunday, Sept. 12, offered near-perfect weather for bike racing. Skies were clear in Castleton with an absence of morning fog. Temperatures were in the low 60s. Low humidity and a slight tailwind from the south made for a cooling effect.  

The morning kicked off with a 5k (3.1 miles) time trial. The mostly flat course was out and back, with a turnaround at the halfway point. A new cyclist started every minute. Volunteers held bicycles upright as cyclists locked into their toe clips. After several riders started, the first racers began finishing. 

Smyers used her triathlon bike for the time trial. Triathlon bikes have aero bars, which are handlebar extensions. The aero bars are mounted close to the center of the handlebar. They cantilever out over the front wheel. This allows a rider to lean forward on their elbows and aim correctly into the wind. The rider sticks out from the bike for maximum speed. 

Smyers’ triathlon bike has 20 speeds, with two sprockets on the front crank and ten gears on the back wheel. Her bike uses an electronic shifter instead of a mechanical cable pulling on the derailleur. This allows for fast and precise shifting. During the time trial, she used just four speeds. Her goal was to finish in nine minutes or less.

Once in motion, Smyers can pedal at 100 revolutions per minute. At the 180-degree turnaround, she timed her braking and shifting to make the corner safely and accelerate quickly. Smyers averaged 21 miles per hour on the 5k time trial. She crossed the finish line in 8:58, which was the fastest time among the four women cyclists. 

“The 5k time trial is anaerobic,” said Smyers. “It’s like running a mile at maximum effort.”

After cooling down, Smyers warmed up for the road race on a bike borrowed from her friend, Amanda Tucker. Tucker’s road bike has 18 speeds, with two sprockets on the front crank and nine gears on the back wheel. During the 20-mile road race, Smyers used 12 of the 18 gear combinations. 

Donna Smyers crosses the starting line on Main Street in Castleton at the beginning of the Vermont Senior Games 20-mile road race.

A road racing bike has curved front handlebars rather than aero bars. Since cyclists can draft in a road race and ride in packs, aero bars are not allowed. When racing, a cyclist rides down on the lower handlebars most of the time. Riders switch to the higher handlebars occasionally to give their hands a break. Smyers wore gloves to provide some cushioning.

The 20-mile road race began with a rolling peloton start from the university down Main Street. The route was level to gently rolling for the first two miles, followed by a 7.5-mile climb to the Hubbardton Revolutionary War Battlefield. Smyers began the race conservatively in the third to last position. Her strategy was to let the lead pack go then try to catch up.

“Being my first road race, I was nervous about being in a pack,” said Smyers. “An advantage of riding with people is that you can draft and rest when it is level or downhill. But if you overdo it to stay with the group, you drop like a rock.”

Dee Barbic was Smyers’ main competition at the Vermont Senior Games. Barbic is ten years younger. She bikes up to 10,000 miles per year compared to Smyers’ 3,000 miles per year. At the 2019 National Senior Games, Barbic was the women’s bronze medalist in the 20k road race. In the 40k road race, she won the silver medal for the women’s 50-54 age group. 

Donna Smyers passed Dee Barbic in Hubbardton at the halfway point in the Vermont Senior Games road race. Smyers went on to win the 20-mile contest in one hour, four minutes, and 20 seconds. She and Barbic won gold medals for their age groups.

Barbic started the Vermont Senior Games road race with a pack of ten male cyclists. She stayed with the group long enough to get a hefty lead on Smyers. On the long climb to the Hubbardton Battlefield, Smyers started to close the gap. 

“There was a sense of relief when I reached the top,” said Smyers, who had not driven the course ahead of time. “When I hit the ten-mile mark, I knew where I was on the elevation profile, well past the top. Dee went out a little fast. I’m better at climbing.”

From the crest at the battlefield, the racers sped down a long cruising hill at 35 to 40 miles per hour. Smyers caught and passed Barbic on a short uphill stretch near the Hubbardtown Town Office. The steepest downhill section lay ahead with a sharp left turn at the bottom.

“As we approached Route 30, Dee was drafting and tucked in behind me,” said Smyers. “After we turned onto Route 30, she asked me if I wanted to work together and draft behind her. When we turned off Route 30 and went up a long hard hill, I went ahead.” 

Smyers sailed down the final descent to the finish line at Castleton University. Her time was one hour, four minutes, and 20 seconds. Barbic finished second in 1:05:16. Both women won VSGA gold medals for their age groups, Barbic (50-54) and Smyers (60-64). They also qualified for the 2022 National Senior Games scheduled in May in Fort Lauderdale.

Smyers average speed over the 20-mile route was 18.7 miles per hour. Her top speed going downhill, as measured by Strava, was a mind-bending 41.2 miles per hour.  

“You want to feel totally safe while you are going that fast and watch for surprises,” said Smyers. “If the bike doesn’t feel stable, I lighten up the grip on the handlebars and squeeze the top tube with my knees to stabilize the bike. If I brake too suddenly, I could go over the handlebars or into a skid. I brake like crazy down windy hills, but if I can see ahead a ways, I let ‘er rip and tuck tight.”

Cyclists in the 20-mile Vermont Senior Games road race climbed a 7.5-mile hill to reach the Hubbardton Battlefield. The Vermont state historic site commemorates the battle on July 7, 1777, between British forces and a rear guard of American soldiers retreating from Fort Ticonderoga. This was the only Revolutionary War battle fought on Vermont soil.