BENTONVILLE, Arkansas (VN) — From thunderstorms to slippery rock slabs to tire-shredding gravel, Sunday’s Oz Trails Off-Road was less a battle between riders and more a fight with the elements. Keegan Swenson was up to the task and won the final round of the Epic Rides Series in Bentonville, Arkansas.
“It was mainly just trying to stay smooth and stay on your bike and be fast,” said Swenson (Stan’s-Pivot). “It was so slippery.”
Luke Vrouwenvelder (LukeVCoaching) was second, out-sprinting Howard Grotts (Specialized), nearly four minutes later.
After a fast seven-mile start out of town on roads and bike paths, the pro men’s race charged into the wet singletrack. Right away, it was apparent that the rolling 50-mile course would be deceptively difficult.
Epic Rides Series leader Grotts (Specialized) crashed early on, cutting his right elbow deeply. He was well outside the top-10 at the first aid station, 15 miles in.
“It was a rough day I crashed, punctured. It just wasn’t my day,” Grotts said.
Perhaps it wasn’t up to his high standards — Grotts won round two of the Epic Rides Series in Grand Junction, Colorado — but he was in good company. Nearly every top rider in the men’s race was setback by a puncture at one point or another, no matter the tire brand or sealant type.
The trail surface on the Back 40 loop, up through Bella Vista, is primarily small sharp flint rocks. Some compared it to the maddeningly sharp gravel found at the Dirty Kanza 200.
“It was like riding through a glass factory,” said Carl Decker (Giant) with a laugh. He was one of the few pro men to avoid puncturing.
Swenson was one of the few riders to avoid flatting, putting him alone off the front.
“I honestly wasn’t sure,” said Swenson, who won the first Epic Rides race, the Whiskey Off-Road. “I kept looking back and didn’t see anyone I just tried to ride my own race.”
Over the course of his race, Vrouwenvelder stopped three times due to a puncture.
Riding in the lead group, he was having trouble with his front brake. Coming into a corner a bit out of control, he flatted, losing touch with the leaders.
“I got passed by a few guys the first time I stopped,” he said. “I felt it go flat again so then I was like s—t, I CO2-ed it again.”
Finally, Vrouwenvelder stopped a third time to plug the hole and caught Grotts in the closing miles of the course.
“I just sort of found flow, this sort of thing suits me,” Vrouwenvelder added. “All of a sudden there was Howard.”
He considered attacking on the final climb up to town but instead waited for the sprint.
“He was playing tactics, sitting up there at the end,” Vrouwenvelder added. “I came around just soft-pedaling, punched it — it turns out I didn’t even need it because he slipped a pedal, unfortunately.”
Although Grotts was disappointed and a bit shaken by the injury immediately after he finished, he sewed up the overall win in Epic Rides Series. Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar) kept his second-place overall standing despite dropping as far back as 18th due to a flat. He was fifth on the day. Orange Seal’s Ryan Standish moved up to third in the final series rankings because Benjamin Sonntag (Clif Bar) dropped out due to flats.
Swenson was the biggest winner of the day, collecting a $10,000 payout from the $60,000 prize purse on offer. He thought about it as he was soloing to victory but was careful not to get distracted.
“Oh yeah definitely I thought about [the payout],” Swenson said. “But I just worried about crossing the line first.”