There are mountain biking trails all over the world where you can ride for hundreds of miles and never worry about blowing out a tire. Western Colorado’s famed Lunch Loops trail system is most definitely not one of those places – a fact that more than 500 professional and amateur racers who competed in Epic Ride’s third annual Grand Junction Off-Road can attest to.
Frequent afternoon rains the week before the May 29 opening of the event helped create hero dirt conditions across the course, which might have contributed to some of the record-breaking times that were turned in during both the professional and amateur races. It might also account for the epidemic of blowouts and mechanical issues that seemed to plague riders all weekend.
Men’s 40-Grand Pro Race
“These are technical and demanding trails, and there’s no doubt they can take their toll on your body and your bike,” said Alex Grant (Ridebiker Alliance), who won the men’s professional 40-Grand race with a time of 2:58:58 – marking the first time anyone has completed the 40-mile course in less than three hours.
It certainly wasn’t an easy accomplishment.
Early in the race, Grant was riding fourth behind USA Champion Todd Wells (Specialized), the defending GJOR champion Fernando Riveros Paez (Raleigh Clement), and Jeremiah Bishop (Topeak Ergon). One by one, Bishop, Wells, and finally Paez were struck with flat tires, leaving Grant alone at the front of the pack.
“I knew from the beginning that this was going to be a tough course and if I wanted to get in front I had to be smooth and consistent and not make any mistakes,” Grant said.
Although it was Grant’s first time competing in in the event, the Salt Lake City resident who spends much of his time riding on similar trails in southern and eastern Utah also knew he needed to get his bike ready for the brutal conditions he would encounter in Grand Junction. From the 110mm extension on his front fork, to riding on tires with thicker casings and running with higher than normal tire pressure, Grant came to the event ready for the rocky, desert trails that wreaked havoc on even the most prepared riders.
“You have to know how to ride those kind of trails, but sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do or how prepared you are,” Grant said. “Sometimes, it’s just bad luck.”
For Ben Sonntag (Cliff Bar) who won the inaugural Grand Junction Off-Road and finished second behind Paez in last year’s competition, it wasn’t a lack of preparation or bad luck that dropped him out of the lead pack early on in the race. It was just one of those days.
“I wasn’t riding like I can ride, or like I needed to ride,” he said. “I just kept making mistakes.”
One of those mistakes caused Sonntag to crash on an especially difficult section of the course. As it turned out, that was exactly what he needed.
“The crash was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me at that point,” Sonntag said. “It made me change my mindset. It made me re-focus, and after that I started riding the way I can and everything just started to click.”
Sonntag had a lot of ground to make up, but without the mistakes that hurt him early in the race, he started chipping away at the lead with enough momentum to force Grant to kick it up a notch.
“When I looked back and saw Ben chasing me, I definitely got nervous,” Grant said. “I know how strong he finishes, so I really had to push it.”
By the time the two hit the pavement of Main Street that served as the final stretch of the race, Sonntag was in striking distance, but Grant refused to give up the lead he had fought so hard for and crossed the finish line nine short seconds ahead of Sonntag.
“I had a mistake-free day, and that made all the difference,” Grant said. “Obviously not having a flat was huge because I had no time to spare.”
Women’s 40-Grand Pro Race
Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) wasn’t quite so fortunate. During the women’s professional 40-Grand race, the three-time Olympian from the Czech Republic jumped out to an early lead before blowing a tire 18 miles into the race. Like so many other racers, her first flat wouldn’t be her last.
“I had to stop three other times before my tire finally re-sealed,” she said.
Each stop cost Nash precious minutes of her lead-time until Rose Grant (Stan’s NoTubes) was seconds away from Nash’s problematic back tire.
“I knew I had to make some time up on the descents because Rose is such a strong climber,” Nash said. “But I also had to be somewhat conservative because my back tire wasn’t in the best shape and most of the descents were pretty rough.”
Even riding conservatively, Nash found a way to navigate the technical descents with enough finesse to make up the time she had lost and cruise to a first place finish nearly six minutes ahead of Grant with a time of 3:33:47.
Amateur 30-Grand Race
While Nash proved that a flat tire – or three – isn’t necessarily an automatic death sentence for a racer’s lead, when a field is as competitive as the Grand Junction Off-Road, it’s often a few seconds that determine a rider’s place on the podium. And when those seconds are wasted on the side of a trail fixing a flat tire, they’re often impossible to get back. It’s the harsh reality of racing and one Robb Parsons understands all too well.
The Grand Junction resident and member of the infamous Endoholics riding group won the amateur 30-Grand race last year by nearly seven minutes. This year, however, Parsons was bit by the same bug that brought down some of the top riders in the pro race.
“I can’t even remember the last time I had a flat, and that day I had two,” Parsons said.
And, just as they did with the pro riders, Parsons flats exacted a heavy toll. He managed to shake off the first one and had nearly caught up to the lead group when his second tire blew and took with it any chance he still had of defending his title.
“It’s so hard to regain your energy and your momentum after a flat,” Parsons said. “I tried to power through it and catch up to the lead group again, but I just didn’t have enough in me by that point.”
Parsons still managed to finish in fifth place with a time of 2:37:18, and like the majority of other racers who found themselves on the wrong side of the flat-tire epidemic, he also managed to keep a positive perspective on the series of unfortunate events.
“That’s just part of racing,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen on any given day.”
It’s exactly that kind of unexpected excitement that brought masses of residents and visitors into downtown for the three-day event, and the Grand Junction Off-Road certainly delivered. The event kicked off Friday with the 15-Grand Fun Ride followed by the festive Clunker Crit that never fails to turn children into racers and adults into children. On Saturday, fans got to cheer on local favorites and out-of-town guests during the 30- and 40-Grand amateur races before heading back downtown to watch Shakey Graves light up the desert night with a concert every bit as epic as the races it followed. The festivities were capped off on Sunday with the professional men and women who made even the most challenging sections of the technical course look easy – despite a flat tire or two.
“I think this is one of the best races we have in the U.S.,” Sonntag said. “All weekend long there was a great atmosphere everywhere – the people, the race, the town, all of it. It was amazing. I’ll definitely be back next year.”
Because flat or no flat, some parties are just too damn good to miss!