Words by Geoff Kabush
The Grand Junction Off-Road is the second stop of the Epic Rides Off-Road Series after last month’s Whiskey Off-Road in Prescott, AZ. Last year was my first time attending the race in Grand Junction and it was really a pleasant surprise. There are definitely still some big climbs but anyone with singletrack skills is really rewarded on the tough rocky trails. Finding a rhythm, flow, and speed is more of a challenge and there is big time to be made on these trails. I was really looking forward to returning to Grand Junction for the second year and here is how my trip unfolded. Wednesday, May 16th. Travel day:
I’m sure thankful not to be dealing with Trans-Continental travel or jet lag these days but it still takes a most of the day to get to Grand Junction from Truckee, California where I was travelling from. It’s pretty relaxed though and Wednesday started with a pitstop at the cycling friendly coffee shop “The Hub” in Reno before flying out. Anyone coming to the Tahoe Area this summer or later in the year for Interbike should look them up if you are a coffee nerd. I brought some of their beans with me to Grand Junction but I was happy to learn there is a new quality coffee nerd joint called The Kiln downtown which now has a star saved in my Google Maps for future reference. After a few visits to Grand Junction Café Sol also has a star for nice healthy lunch option, Bin 707 has a star for a good foodie dinner, and Tacoparty was a nice new establishment I added another star for as well this year. I enjoy everything in moderation and I was lucky to be travelling this trip with my drinking buddy who is on the same page. I’m not going to get shit-faced at a race but why not enjoy a glass of wine on the lay-over in Denver or try a special bomber of local beer at Bin 707? Thursday, May 17th. Pre-ride, bike set-up day:
There is nothing really intimidating on course but a good technical rider can make up a ton of time finding a good rhythm on some of the lumpy and rocky classic trails like Butterknife. The trails are a lot of fun so I squeezed in a good 3 hour ride previewing a good portion of the course and a few new singletrack sections. Maybe it is my new Yeti SB100, maybe it is switching to a stiffer Fox SC34 from a SC32, or maybe it was because I’m running a dropper post this year, but I sure felt confident ripping some of the downhills. After going full XC and high-posting at the less technical Sea Otter Classic and Whiskey Off-Road it was time to switch back to the dropper. Sure, I could ride without a dropper post but it is just a lot more fun to be able to push hard on the downhills and try to take advantage of my SB100’s capabilities. I’m past my World Cup days of counting grams and my priority now is that my bike performs well on the trail. I still want to be competitive, however, and do save weight where I can and I know from experience it is important. This is one of the reasons I’m psyched to work with Stan’s NoTubes and use their Podium SRD wheels; nothing is as light and performs as well in my opinion. I used Stan’s products secretly for much of my career and psyched to be officially working with them now. Besides wheels on the rocky course one of the major concerns is picking tires and dialling in pressure. I was using the 2.25 Maxxis Aspen EXO TR tires and one of the big challenges is pressure drift as the day and tires heat up in the sun. I definitely noticed increased harshness during preride and after a quick check my tires had increased 2-2.5psi midway on the ride after the temps climbed. Race day was going to be a compromise to find optimal pressure hitting the rocky trails shortly after a cooler 8:30pm start and finishing in the heat of the day. I ended up starting one psi lower than target pressure but I could really feel the harder tires by the end of race. Friday, May 18th. Fat Tire Crit Day:
After another hot lap pre-ride of the final backcountry course descent in the morning, it was time to mount up the slicks for the downtown Fat Tire Crit. Grand Junction downtown has a pancake flat course, and it was a windy evening, which meant it was going to be tactical as well as dodgy with a bunch of wide handlebar mountain bikes mixing it up. With the wind the women’s race stayed together with Katerina Nash taking a close sprint victory. I figured the men’s race would play out similar but almost immediately a rider crashed right in front of me on the second lap. It is always amazing to me how the body reacts in an emergency. I somehow managed to grab my brakes, slide into a two-wheel drift, avoid the body, and get safely back in the action. After that incident I decided I was going to stay as close to the front as possible. Luckily nothing serious but I heard stories of several more crashes with bodies flying into bushes and trees on the side of the course. I stayed out of trouble and coming into the last three tight corners I was right on Howard Grotts wheel. I had a little extra momentum and made a last-ditch effort for a pass on the inside into the last corner. I was able to just get my bars in front as we made the turn but unfortunately wasn’t able to set up to exit the turn with enough speed. Stephen Hyde, American Cyclocross Champ, watched as Grotts and I battled, set up for the corner, and flew by both of us in the last meters for the win. It was definitely an exciting finish and I was still happy to end up on the podium putting on a show for the enthusiastic crowds. It is always a bit surprising for me to look at the power data after these races; they are always pretty intense, but I often hardly feel the effort in the moment during the event. It was a pretty tactical race without a lot of attacking but I still managed to average 367W for around 26min during this one. Saturday, May 19th. Rest, Recover and Hangout Day:
I didn’t even manage to get out for a ride but somehow the day seemed to fly by. It is still pretty cool to see how Epic Rides events really take over the downtown core at these events. Grand Junction Off-Road is combined with a Music Festival which takes it to the next level and it is pretty awesome to see so many people hanging out while a bike race is going on. I spent some time visiting and catching up with a few sponsors at the expo while watching some of the Amateur’s finish off their big race day. By the time I cleaned my bike, switched tires, updated some wheel decals, and made sure all my gear was sorted for the big race the day was almost done. Walking through downtown on the way to dinner it was wicked to see a couple blocks covering the race finish line completely jammed with people watching the headline act, The Motet, play on the main concert stage. The community feel at these races is strong and it makes the weekends really enjoyable. With the number of people hanging out and participating it is easy to see why so many sponsors are engaged at these events. Sunday, May 20th, Backcountry Race Day:
Going into the race the clear men’s favourite was Howard Grotts who can light it up on the climbs like no one else. On the far side of the course is the long, hot, and exposed Windmill climb which comes after a long section of rough and rocky singletrack. To have a chance at winning the game plan was pretty clear; try to gain a little bit of an advantage before things tilt upwards. After Grotts put some pressure on the first early climb I was able to find my way to the front of the race and enjoyed pushing the pace with Russell “Finsty” Finsterwald down the technical undulating Butterknife trail. It was hard to gain a large advantage with everyone riding smoothly and a group of five came together at the far end including Fernando Riveros and Alex Grant. As expected Grotts attacked and everyone else soon went to their limit. Unfortunately, my rev limit wasn’t as high as hoped I went straight into the hurt locker for the next hour suffering back to the high point on course. Compared to last year on this long physical segment of the race I was down about 20W averaging just over 300W and trying to hang on took its toll. I was able to enjoy some of the extended singletrack back towards the finish in town my body was cooked and my back really came undone the last twenty minutes. I haven’t been that crippled in a while and I struggled to get off my bike at the finish. At the food tent I had to request some help from a volunteer to get my water bottle off my bike as I couldn’t even bend over. Grotts who ended up holding on for the win this time graciously grabbed it for me and I started the process of rehydrating. In the women’s race Katerina Nash doubled up on the weekend and took home the most oversized of the oversized cheques. My friend Mr. Barry Wicks, aka Wicknasty, only lasted 9min in the Fat Tire Crit so I was impressed that riding a freak show drop bar full-suspension bike he was able to finish this big day in the backcountry. It is always a humbling experience to suffer like this weekend and really makes me appreciate the good days on a bike. It was probably one of the slowest bike packing jobs I’ve done but with the early morning race there was still plenty of time to shower, pack up, have a nice lunch, make it to the airport, and back to bed in Truckee by 10pm. It was a long day but there is nothing better than waking up to a nice cappuccino at home on Monday.
It was a tough race but I’m looking forward already to the next Epic Rides event at Carson City Off-Road in June. With the snow pack cooperating we are heading back up to the beautiful Tahoe Rim and Flume trails overlooking spectacular Lake Tahoe. It is also really cool when you can drive to a local race. Before that I’m doing this silly event called the Dirty Kanza; not sure how I got convinced to ride 200 miles on gravel. Hopefully, I survive but if not it has been a good run. Hopefully, I’ll see some of you out there at the next event.