This is a very belated write up on the Grand Junction Offroad race that took place at the end of August. It’s taken me a while to get around to putting pen to paper since the last three weeks have been chaotic! I’ve been settling into life as a normal person, rather than pretending to be a full-time cyclist that I had the privilege of this summer. The Grand Junction offroad was a new event run for the first time, but by an experienced crew of people. I’ve raced the Whiskey 50 before, in Prescott AZ, and loved it. The Epic Rides team put this race on to be a compliment to the Whiskey at the other end of the season. They succeeded.
Along with the anticipation of a long weekend of fun in the desert, I was pretty excited by camping with the teammates Sam and Deidre, and riding some fun trails. We loaded up the sprinter van and headed towards the KOA in Grand Junction. KOA campsites are organised allotments of huge campervans, normally in convenient locations near towns. They offer the economy of camping without the inconvenience of wildlife, nature, or any of those other pesky ‘outdoorsy’ aspects of sleeping in a tent. On top of that, when it’s 35 degrees celcius in the shade, they have the great luxury of airconditioned bathrooms!
After checking in at the race and receiving a personalised briefing from the race director himself, we met up with a couple team sponsors in the expo area, then starting getting ready for the evening entertainment, which we’d be providing for the assembled throng of spectators. All the racers wishing to start the pro race on Sunday morning were required to line up in downtown Grand Junction for a 30 minute criterium around the restaurant districts. We duly obliged, and set out with the goal of helping Sam win a couple of the intermediate sprints (or Primes, in cycling parlance). We succeeded, and my disorganised but reasonably effective leadout for one of them earned me a free dinner afterwards. Bonus.
After the Friday night entertainment, we had very little to keep ourselves occupied with on Saturday. The 40 mile race consisted of one big loop, so there was no chance we could head out and pre-ride the whole thing. Instead we settled with hitting the parts we’d been warned about. My previous experience of riding around here had told me to be wary of what was on offer, and I was proved right. Rocky, hot, dusty and exposed. The singletrack clung to the edges of meandering canyons; seemingly endless diversions into gullies, and multiple points where you could swear you’d taken a wrong turn. After 2 hours of baking ourselves in the sun, and a quick detour across some private land to avoid a long slog home, we settled back into our KOA campsite exhausted and concerned for what was on tap the next day. We’d averaged 6 mph for our little section of riding, and suddenly the estimation of how long the race may take went up and up. To releive our worry, we settled into a relaxing game of minigolf. It was warm.
Race day. The fun and relaxed atmosphere had completely dissolved from the campsite in the morning, to be replaced with pre-dawn breakfast, and loading of the sprinter van. It’s times like this that I really appreciate being on a team with people that know what they’re doing. We all seemed to get our own morning routines sorted without fuss and worry, and we were loaded up and driving away from the campsite at the very moment we wanted to. No drama, no freaking out. The same happened at the start. We did our own things, checking in on what time it was, and lined up ready for the gun to go off. It’s at this point I have to thank Lorraine, Deidre’s Mum, for the unending help for the whole weekend. Whether it was shuttling us around our pre-ride, driving us to the supermarket when we were fried from riding, or calmly taking my excess clothing at the startline, it made life simple. I knew that no matter what my performance was like, Lorraine would be at the Feed Zone waiting with my bottle. That reassurance cannot be underestimated when it comes to racing well.
The gun did eventually go off, and the small but enthusiastic crowd on the startline wished us well into the dessert. The ‘neutral’ start out of the city was actually very calm, and I positioned myself on the very front out of harms way. This gave me a great position into the first singletrack – and that’s when I knew it was going to be a good day. You may think that a long race is decided over a long time, but it’s always the first few minutes of racing that matter. People know what their legs feel like, and I knew mine felt good.
I was confident to be at the front, and that’s a feeling I’m relishing this year. With a steep and technical opening section, I led the race through the cacti and red dirt and towards the first feed zone. Like expected, Lorraine’s bottle hit my hand perfectly, and I had made the cut into the group of 6 at the front of the race.
Into the second piece of trail, I relaxed, breathed deep and started to feel like I belonged there. And that’s when the air started coming out of my front tyre. Again, unusually, I didn’t panic, but filled my tyre with C02, waiting to hear that indescribable but distinctive sound only made by tyre sealant doing its job. It did. I could see my lead group sneaking off across the mesa in front of me, now 45 seconds ahead. I’d lost an amazingly small amount of time, but I was worried that it wouldn’t matter; if I wasn’t in that lead group when it came to the 6 mile road climb, my race would be done for. I pedalled hard, focussed on the turns, and blew through the second aid station with less than a blink of an eye. Up ahead the group bunched up; all six people swigging from bottles – it was my only chance to get on and I made it. The pace from here lifted and I was swept up the first slopes of the climb in the group, again feeling relaxed and happy. From here it would just get harder.
I knew someone would make a move on the climb, and sure enough it happened. I’d been staying towards the front of the group – better to pick my lines and avoid getting mouthfuls of sand, but when Sepp Kuss attacked, I knew it would be stupid to follow. As he and Ben Sontag upped the pace, I was happy to be isolated in third place into the next downhill. With the huge towering walls of red dirt on either side, the jeep track dropped nerve-wrackingly close to the edge of the canyon around successive banked turns – over ledges and down drops that I had never ridden before. I held on for dear life as instinct kept me on my bike. I was briefly releived at the bottom, until I realised the next 15 minutes of my life would involve climbing up something very similar. I made it though, and there again was Loraine with a cold bottle waiting for me. I was fading hard, but pedalled hard down the road into the last technical section of trail. The crowds standing atop rocks overlooking our trail was amazing – something that rarely happens in bike races. With two people chasing hard, I tried to focus on the six inch wide trail traversing but my upper body had had enough – each successive drop jarred me, and soon enough I heard the whirring of tyres on dirt, and was passed in a flash of lycra. Still in fifth, I knew I could hold on, and agonisingly pulled my body over short climbs I had no recollection of. As soon as we hit the pavement with 2 miles to the finish, I was confident I wasn’t going to drop further back through the race, but dug as deep as I could anyway. Crossing the line in Grand Junction was more relief than elation, but there is no way I was going to be disappointed with a podium place.