Howard Grotts climbs away from the competition in Grand Junction Off-Road to claim round two of the Epic Rides Series.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado (VN) — Just like he did in 2017, Howard Grotts climbed away from the competition to win the 42-mile Grand Junction Off-Road, claiming round two of the Epic Rides Series in Colorado Sunday.

Several minutes behind, Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar) took second to the Specialized-sponsored Olympian. Finsterwald made his move late in the race, attacking the rocky Gunny Loop singletrack to distance himself from Fernando Riveros (Construction Zone-Scott).

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The Grand Junction course is known as one of the most technically challenging races with rocky ledges and tight singletrack. However, Grotts made his winning move on the Windmill climb, a long doubletrack uphill midway through the desert loop.

The 25-year-old attacked early on the 12-mile climb, aided by a tailwind. Finsterwald and Riveros couldn’t respond to his acceleration.

“We had the tailwind so I knew if I was working hard they were going to be working hard too,” Grotts told VeloNews.

“I didn’t want to pull everyone around like I did at Whiskey,” he added, referring to the first round of the Epic Rides Series where he was out-sprinted at the line by a hard-charging Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes). Swenson opted to race the World Cup in Albstadt, Germany this weekend.

Riveros also tried to attack that primary climb to put Finsterwald on the ropes.

“[Grotts] went away, and I put my tempo in and the only one who followed was Russell, and then I went away from Russell, but then he caught me again. “

Finsterwald admitted he was riding at his limit, but it was enough to crest the course’s 6,500-foot high point still in contention.

“I was just suffering all day,” said Finsterwald. “Fernando put in a couple attacks that hurt me but I was able to just slowly bring it back in. … I just wanted to be in front there because I know I was a little bit better descender, he’s a better climber than me.”

The course undulated with one more extended climb up an exposed slab of slickrock. Then, it dropped back to town on the singletrack of the “Lunch Loops” trail system. There, Finsterwald put his superior bike-handling skills to work.

“I was letting it hang out,” Finsterwald added. “Once I got a bit of a gap on [Riveros] I really tried to nail it a little bit to just get that gap. Once you have separation it’s hard to get it back.”

He admitted his chances of catching fellow Coloradan Grotts were slim, but on those rough trails, nothing is a given.

“Anything’s possible I think it would have taken a mechanical or something,” Finsterwald said. “We were getting gaps … four minutes back on Howie on that descent — it needs to be less than two.”

Though he had a handy lead, Grotts wasn’t on cruise control. In fact, he was starting to cramp up toward the end of the race.

“Once I hit the pavement, that’s about when I felt I could breathe a little easier,” Grotts added. “These guys are so technically proficient that I also knew I had to push it to my limit at least.”

He took the win with time to spare, extending his lead in the series, which is calculated based on cumulative time.

Riveros probably had most cause for celebration though. After breaking the humerus head on his left shoulder early this year, he again crashed on that shoulder in the finish at Whiskey Off-Road, fearing another injury. Then, after getting cleared to ride, he was stricken by food poisoning at marathon national mountain bike championships last weekend.

“I’m so excited that I got third, all the bad s—t that happened to me,” he said. “I can’t ask for anything else, right now I’m so stoked to get third. No expectations. When you don’t have expectations, you don’t have stress on yourself.”

Alex Grant (Cannondale) finished fourth ahead of Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak), who was fifth.

The Epic Rides Series continues June 15-17 at the Carson City Off-Road in Nevada.