The Grand Junction Offroad is perhaps the most technically demanding race in the US. Relentless desert riding under a beating sun slowly wears you down. If the rocks don’t get you, the sun will. The climbs are steep and rough, the descents grin-inducingly fun. The trails are the leveler in this race. Once the support crews have melted away and the photographers are jettisoned at the trailhead, it’s all down to the rider.
So how do you beat a full time cyclist that earns a salary, has a mechanic and bikes that magically clean themselves? It’s tricky, but you start by driving a sturdy 1990’s Toyota 4runner across the mountains, borrowing a floor to sleep on, and arriving with lots of motivation. It’s the motivation that matters.
Having raced the GJ twice before gave me a distinct advantage. I knew that lots of water would be key. The race rolled out of town behind the police motorbike and I moved to the front – preferring to stretch my legs rather than sit in the pack. I sprinted for the singletrack with everyone else, and was a little surprised to get fourth wheel into the trails. Here the suffering started. Todd Wells hit the front, pushing the pace so hard that the pack split up. I tried to stay on board, but didn’t quite manage it, instead trailing the four leaders by about 30 seconds by the time we’d done the opening climb. I had Ben Sonntag for company and we did a little bit of work together going into the longest section of trail for the day: Butterknife. I wasn’t riding smooth. After the XC race pace effort on the opening climb I was struggling a little, and had to back off. A couple of deep breathes let me relax, and I let go of Ben’s wheel in the process. I was annoyed with being solo, considering the long climb ahead, but I figured that with 30 miles left to race, I shouldn’t beat myself into the ground. By the end of Butterknife I could see Ben ahead by about 30 seconds, the leaders strung out another minute ahead of that, and Bryan Alders slowly reeling me in from behind.
Descending to the banks of the Gunnison river has to be one of the great undiscovered pleasures in mountain biking. The cottonwoods this year were luminous green on the riverbank, creating a seemingly unnatural oasis just a few hundred feet from the trail. But we wouldn’t be going to the river. Instead the course started the climb of Windmill road: eight miles of uphill from the river to the middle of canyon country. I rounded the corner to see a dusty Jeremiah Bishop fixing a flat. He jumped back on just behind me, and I decided to ease back a little – expecting him to pass me I wanted to take the opportunity to eat enough before trying to hold his pace. It was a wise move, and I quickly went through a full bottle, leaving me with only half a bottle of Carborocket til the top of the climb. I suffered. I stopped sweating. I held on to JB for as long as I could before giving in and retreating to a safe pace. I slowed down a lot. I saw Todd Wells stopped and prying a tyre of his rear wheel. Another flat. The desert was not happy today.
A sign said “shut up legs” at the top of the climb. But it wasn’t the top. Another pitch, and then another. 10 more minutes of immense suffering. I’d ridden the climb twice before but still couldn’t believe it kept winding out in front of me. The final “End” sign almost brought a tear to my eye, but I had no water left inside me to sob with. I sucked down a gel on the rolling road before the rocky descent into Rough Canyon. It was foul. Thick, warm and artificially sugary. I had no water to wash it down with and it glued my mouth together. I rode down the descent cautiously – nothing to gain from going any faster and barely enough concentration to stay straight. I saw Fernando Riveros Paez fixing a flat just before the aid station in the bottom of the canyon. I took a bottle of water and a bottle of drink mix. The water pouring over my head and down my back was transformative, dropping my body temperature and straightening my gaze. I saw JB stopped under the tent: another flat. I was now third: attrition having gained me three places in the field. Fernando was nearly on my wheel and there were people close behind too. I had work to do.
Hamstring cramp kills me in nearly every race. It didn’t fail to deliver today. The first twinges had me out of the saddle, mashing my quads up and down to avoid pulling up on the pedals. I pulled away from Fernando, riding the climb smoothly out of the canyon. Metering my effort between not getting caught and not cramping. It worked enough to get me onto the road. The absence of air hit me hard – the dark black surface reflecting sun at me from every surface. Even the breeze as I descended down to the start of Andy’s loop failed to quell the dessication.
Flash backs of last year started – I was in third then, too – and cramped all the way to fourth at the finish. I rode smoothly through the canyon, cramping up the climb so hard I nearly fell off the cliff. I dismounted and steadied myself, only just staying ahead of Fernando. I knew that to beat him I would need to descend on top form. No mistakes. I made no mistakes. I took a gap of 15 seconds onto the road, and held it. All the way. Smooth steady pedalling. No reaching down or drinking. Just pedalling. It paid off with a third place.
I fell over at the finish. My hamstrings seized so hard that I couldn’t even stand. It was so worth it.