Ben Sonntag chases down Howard Grotts and Keegan Swenson and out-foxes them in sprint finish to win Epic Rides round three.

CARSON CITY, Nevada (VN) — It was shaping up to be a rematch between Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes) and Howard Grotts (Specialized), but Ben Sonntag (Clif Bar) swooped in and stole the show, winning Carson City Off-Road Sunday.

From the start of the third race in the Epic Rides Series, Swenson and Grotts took the lead, riding onto the first singletrack together after a steep road climb out of town.

After riding through a brief bout of cold rain and hail, they reached the first aid station at Spooner Lake, 20 miles into the 52-mile loop. Clif Bar teammates Russell Finsterwald and Sonntag had joined Grotts and Swenson by that point.

As the long fireroad stair-stepped up to the Marlette Flume Trail, overlooking Lake Tahoe, Grotts and Swenson again got a lead.

However, Grotts flatted on the twisty singletrack, losing about 45 seconds while he plugged the puncture.

Then alone in the lead, Swenson was unsure how hard to push the pace, opting for a conservative approach as the course climbed to Tahoe Rim Trail, 8,600 feet above sea level.

“I was just on my own,” he said. “I kind of kept pace, because I didn’t pre-ride that section so I wasn’t sure how much climbing there was, and I didn’t want to do too much.”

After his mechanical, Grotts, the high-altitude climbing specialist, blasted past the Clif Bar duo and rejoined Swenson.

“That descent there was a bit of a headwind so we were working together, but it’s kind of sandy and rocky, so there’s only so much you can do,” said Swenson, who beat Grotts in a sprint finish at Whiskey Off-Road, the first round of the Epic Rides Series.

The two leaders suspected that Sonntag was breathing down their necks as they approached the course’s final singletrack descent.

“We were working together on the last bit of Flume Road, and then Ben, he’s just riding incredible right now — obviously super motivated — closed the gap,” said Grotts. “It was just crazy, super tactical racing today.”

When it came to tactics, Sonntag had the upper hand. His teammate Finsterwald was not far behind, forcing Grotts and Swenson to ride hard to keep their lead.

“I could see that Finsty [Finsterwald] was only 30 seconds behind, so I knew that I just needed to sit on, and if they don’t work, Finsty closes the gap, and if they work then I save energy,” Sonntag said.

Swenson did all that he could to put pressure on through the route’s fast final singletrack section.

“Keegan [Swenson] pushed really hard on the descent, he made us go much faster than I probably would of,” said Grotts. “That was kind of nice — it was a little scary.”

Sonntag had no trouble hanging with Swenson on the descent, but Finsterwald came unglued, crashing on a high-speed compression.

However, it didn’t matter to Sonntag by that point. The stage was set for a three-rider sprint finish. And he, of all people, knew how to play the final three 90-degree bends into town. After all, Sonntag had out-sprinted Todd Wells and Finsterwald for second-place in the first Carson City Off-Road in 2016.

Swenson took the inside line on the penultimate corner, allowing Sonntag to hold his speed on the outside and take the inside on the final right-hand bend to the finish. The first rider out of that corner was sure to win the day.

“That finish line comes really quick, so once I went first into the right turn, with all the adrenaline you have, I kind of knew I had it,” Sonntag added.

Caught up in the excitement of his win, Sonntag crashed right after the line but was uninjured.

“I crashed right here at the finish,” he said. “I was a little bit too stoked. … I was too excited crossing the finish line.”

Swenson took second, and Grotts was third. Finsterwald held onto fourth despite his crash on the final trail.

Grotts extended his overall lead in the Epic Rides Series ahead of Finsterwald with one race remaining, the Oz Trails Off-Road, October 5-7 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Fernando Riveros (Construction Zone) had an off-day and dropped out of the top-three overall. Geoff Kabush (Yeti) now occupies third-place overall. The series is based on total time for the four Epic Rides races.

Carson City Off-Road pro men’s results