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Photo: Dave McElwaine
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Hanging with the pros at Grand Junction Off-Road

The Epic Rides Off-Road Series allows amateurs and pros to battle on much the same course. In Grand Junction, Spencer Powlison tries his hand at "going pro" and hangs tough to tell the tale.

With about 10 miles to go in the Grand Junction Off-Road, a trailside spectator told me where I was placed in the field of 70 pro riders. He didn’t give me a place number — no, instead it was three simple words that told me all I needed to know:

“Hang in there.”

After the route’s fast, rocky Butterknife trail, and its punishing, wind-swept Windmill Climb, that was about all I could do. No need to worry about my specific place. I was clearly pack-fodder.

Admit it, we’ve all compared our race finish times with those of the pro riders. It’s especially easy at Epic Rides Off-Road series events, where amateur riders race essentially the same course as the pro riders. So, after riding all four events in the series last year in the amateur category, I decided to give the pro field a shot, to see how I’d actually stack up.

To be fair, about 10 years ago I raced in the pro fields at regional mountain bike races, with generally middling results. This wasn’t completely foreign to me. In fact, as I lined up to start the 43-mile race on Sunday, 2018 series winner Evelyn Dong ribbed me for taking so long to upgrade, calling me a sandbagger. Her dry sense of humor always has a kernel of truth.

Maybe I was a sandbagger, to a certain extent, but that didn’t make me any less nervous ahead of the Grand Junction Off-Road.

I had plenty of time to think about what it would take to get through this race, given that it’s the final event of the weekend, on Sunday. Fortunately, that also meant more time to pre-ride some of the course’s rocky, technical singletrack. Compared to my experiences at other Epic Rides events, I felt far more prepared for all of the weird rock ledges and technical moves that are abundant on this course.

Riding the pro category also meant I had to survive the Friday night fat tire criterium, something I was far less prepared for. I’ve watched a few of these. I’ve raced conventional road criteriums. But, still, the pandemonium of 70-odd riders, fighting for position into the first corner of the short downtown course, was overwhelming.

In truth, my only goal was to stay out of trouble. I hadn’t even bothered to swap out my knobbies for slick tires. No one wants to be pulled after only nine minutes of a 20-minute race, but I was happy to leave the course with my skin intact. Seeing a few of my friends go down on one of the sharp corners a few laps later further reinforced my conservative approach. But with the crowd of spectators lining the course, I could easily imagine how fun it would be to ride into the bell lap with the lead group.

I wasn’t here for that fat tire crit though. I was here for Sunday’s backcountry race because I knew I could use the course’s technical trails to my advantage.

From the gun we ripped through town and reached the trails far quicker than I’d anticipated. It soon became clear that I’d have few chances to really press my advantage on the trails. As is the case at all of these races, the field is deep with talent. Any placing you want to take is hard-fought. Relative to the rest of the riders, my technical skills were average at best.

We came flying into the Butterknife trail, a group of about five riders. The corners, rocks, and other obstacles were coming at me faster than I remembered from last year. Unfortunately, this was the one key trail I did not have time to pre-ride. I paid for it on an awkward, dusty corner, where I clipped a scrubby bush and came a cropper. I landed on my hand, which I’d been nursing from a previous injury. While my confidence was shaken, I felt okay and did my best to regain my rhythm.

To my surprise, I began to pick off other riders in an unexpected place: the Windmill climb. Perhaps it helped that the day was cool and cloudy, making this exposed ascent less of a struggle. Either way, I kept my pace steady and found myself on the final singletrack stretch with a nice lead over the riders I had caught. Sure, this was a pro race, but as is often the case in marathon mountain bike events, steady, consistent pacing paid off.

Remembering my ordeal from last year, when a flat tire forced me to hike back to town on the final Gunny Loop singletrack, I rode the last few miles a bit conservatively. It didn’t help that cramps were threatening on each steep climb.

Out of the gauntlet, flat-free and onto the road, with the finish in sight, I looked back and realized I wasn’t alone. Sam Vickery, a friend of mine from Durango, had snuck up. We were in for a sprint finish.

I tried to jump him before the final two corners in town, knowing they were tight and the finish straight was short. He had a little more in the tank though and sprinted up the inside. It felt like we were battling for the race’s rich prize purse, maybe even a podium result. No, in fact, the sprint was for 49th place, and I lost.

After dusting off my face and shrugging off the knocks to my confidence, it was time for the opposite results comparison. How would my time of 3:43:35 stack up in the amateur field? It would have been fast enough for a top-10 overall. But that’s not the point.

Instead, I was completely happy with a 50th place finish after a relatively smooth and consistent ride. I avoided flats when many did not. I minimized my mistakes, rode smooth, and paced myself carefully. Plus, it was special to be part of the “show” for this one weekend. There isn’t a ton of glory when you’re just “hanging in there,” but there’s plenty of satisfaction in it.

What I rode: