The last big race of Mountain Bike season! The Epic Rides team did a great job of attracting talent to the race; there were ‘only’ thirty guys signed up. But it was thirty guys who thought they could win. It meant that a compact group of riders rolled out of downtown Grand Junction on Sunday morning, each one with an idea of getting into the lead group and challenging for some cash on the line.
The race funnels quickly from the road into the “lunch loops” trail system, and like last year it was a sprint for the trails. I came out well; fifth or sixth wheel. The race was on. I hung on over the first rocky sections of climbing, knowing that I was digging deep into the energy I had for the day, but it would be worth it to make the lead group.
The racing was feisty: handlebars connecting and shoulders rubbing as we dived into the Butterknife trail. It takes an hour to travel six miles downhill from the top of the mesa to the Gunnison river below. It’s where the bike and body has to stay together to get a result out the other end. I was riding a little ragged, but pulled it together, getting into a rhythm to connect with the back of the lead group. Once I had that rhythm, the pace didn’t seem too bad.
The hour of trail shuffled the pack into a lead group of seven. We re-grouped as we rode along the edge of the Gunnison river. The views were magnificent. I know I’m supposed to be racing and suffering, but descending through the desert and seeing the cottonwood trees lit by early morning light is a real privilege. I sat back for a second and enjoyed myself.
Soon, though, the racing was all consuming. Fernando Riveros, known for his climbing prowess did what was expected and blew the race apart. We formed a chase group, but that wasn’t working well together. I seemed to be pulling people up the road. I put in some pace to try and draw Ben Sontag and others out of the group to go with me, but no-one did. I was alone in chase mode, with Fernando a long way up the road and Barry Wicks dangling just ahead. I maybe went hard too early, but either way I ended up riding myself up to Barry Wicks’ wheel as we crested the top of Windmill road.
From here we were on the edge of the National Monument. Huge exposed red rocks were now rising out of the sage brush. I didn’t have time to enjoy it though, as we descending straight into Bangs Canyon. It’s a rough jeep road that ends with a sandy wash, and is followed swiftly with a slickrock climb back towards Grand Junction.
This was the race deciding climb. Fifteen minutes of steep rock ledges to hop up meant that it was easy to hemorage time. I had Barry Wicks and Brian Matter for comfort at this point, both pretty experienced riders. I felt more comfortable testing myself against them physically than in a battle of wit.
The final descent down Andy’s loop gave me a chance to calm down and work out how to beat them both. My solution was to ride harder. It worked, for a while. Coming out of the trails and onto the agonising two miles of road, I had five or six seconds on Barry, and a good 15 seconds over Brian. I pedalled like crazy, and stopped Barry from jumping onto my wheel. I had no choice now but to commit. It was all out to the line. I could sense Brian catching up on me, and over the bridge of the Gunnison river I stood up to give it one more acceleration. Less than a quarter mile to the line. I got greedy though. My hamstrings refused to do any more work. I went from in control to unclipped and coasting. Brian sailed by me, tucking low, refusing to ceed anything. I finally got my leg to turn what resembled a circle – an awkward mash of movement from the muscles that still worked. I had no chance of catching Brian, so I rode as hard as I could. I was broken to miss out on third, but elated to get home in fourth. One better than last year.
This race is a test. It will challenge you. There are many races where I finish without an ounce of energy left to pedal, but there are few that also give me a headache from the concentration needed to get down the trails. Epic rides has succeeded in creating a true battle in the desert, taking in terrain not found in any other top level race. It’s unique.