Dirt Dispatch: Down but not out at Grand Junction Off-Road

Spencer Powlison /

Editor’s note: News director Spencer Powlison is racing all four of the Epic Rides Series mountain bike races this summer to cover the pro racing and experience the events from a participant’s standpoint. This coverage is sponsored by Fezzari Bicycles, Smith, and Mavic. Powlison will ride Fezzari’s new Signal Peak cross-country bike, wear Smith’s Session helmet and Attack Max sunglasses, and ride Mavic’s new Crossmax Elite Carbon wheelset.

It takes a certain level of desperation to pick up a stray energy bar on the side of a trail and wolf it down. Yes, I’d reached that point, in the middle of the Grand Junction desert, with eight miles to go and a disabled bike.

I probably should have seen the warning signs early in the Grand Junction Off-Road.

Surely I was a bit overconfident on the rocky course, a challenge that suits me way better than long steep climbs. But I ignored the fact that I had a stupid crash early on. I wasn’t bothered by a few bobbles on the singletrack descent of Butterknife trail. When I pinched my tire, smacking the carbon rim of my Mavic wheels, I scoffed.

I was riding on the ragged edge of control and paid the price with about nine miles to go on the Gunny Loop trail’s narrow, sidehill singletrack. Rattling through an awkward combination of rocks, I hit rim again. Then there was the horrible hiss of a flat tire.

Photo: Brenda Ernst

No matter how many flats you fixed, there’s a special awkward urgency to making a fix mid-race. It helped to have a little encouragement from a few of the pro riders who were pre-riding the course, Evelyn Dong and Sofia Gomez Villafane. They would make great elementary school teachers with that degree of calm patience in the face of my idiocy.

Unfortunately, they could only do so much. In the frenzy of my repair, I made a big mistake, rendering my Fezzari Signal Peak unrideable. It’s too embarrassing to go into details here, but suffice to say, I had a long hike/coast/scoot ahead of me.

I considered rolling down the short-cut road to get home sooner. I called my buddy Matt who’d already finished. He offered to drive up and rescue me.

Don’t worry man. I just ate a protein bar I found lying in the dirt. I got this.

Evelyn Dong (Spry-Stan’s No Tubes) was nice enough to stop and help me fix my flat tire. Photo: Brenda Ernst

Now at a considerably slower pace, I had plenty of time to take in the views. Grand Junction isn’t as wildly scenic as Moab, but the view into the green valley that’s dappled with orchards and vineyards, framed by the dusty Book Cliffs and massive Grand Mesa on the eastern border is pretty exceptional. And anyway, I had to stop a bunch of times to let people with functional bikes get by.

I reached Monument road for one final, slow coast back to town. Thank God it was mostly downhill. By this point, I’d also been passed by the nice couple on a tandem. I have no idea how they negotiated all the rocky ledges and tight turns on this difficult course.

After rolling over a pedestrian bridge spanning the train tracks and onto Main Street, I was on the home stretch. It could have been worse. When I was pre-riding I met a guy from Phoenix named Rick who had dislocated his shoulder last year, popped it back in, and finished the Grand Junction Off-Road despite the pain. Broken bike? Bah, try a broken body!

A few more kicks to scoot through the last intersection, and one last indignity — a very dirty, grizzled man came whizzing by on one of those bikes retrofitted with a little two-stroke motor, the kind someone might get after a DUI. At this point, I just had to laugh.

Before the fun started. Photo: Brenda Ernst

I’d ridden in Grand Junction before, but it had never bested me quite like it did in the Off-Road race. I thought I knew the town, but once I’d taken off my Smith helmet, the event opened my eyes to the cool little neighborhood on Main Street, where the event is based.

This was the first time I got a taste of Grand Junction’s growing restaurant scene. There are some cool upscale New American spots like Bin 707 and a great new burger and beer spot called Handlebar that was perfect post-race.

You could see by how the town turned out for the three-day Four Peaks Brewing Co. Downtown Music Festival that this isn’t the old Grand Junction, the town once defined by the oil and gas industry and maybe some good roadside fruit stands for Palisade peaches.

Close to 3,500 people turned out all weekend for 20 different acts on three stages right there on Main Street. Crowds packed in to see The Motet, a band out of Denver that headlined the weekend. But this funky group that blends in touches of Afrobeat and jazz wasn’t the only reason the town turned out.

Photo: Brenda Ernst

People were mingling on the narrow downtown streets from Friday onward, watching the pro-only fat tire crit, checking out the high school marching band that Cannondale had hired to set the mood for the racing, and especially checking out local act Ralph Dinosaur & Fabulous Volcanos on the main stage.

Based on the wild yipping and howling in the early hours before my race on Sunday, I’d say the locals who came for the music and the party had almost as much fun as we racers did.

At least they didn’t have to fret over any broken bikes — that much is certain.

Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com