GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado (VN) — Wearing his freshly minted marathon national champion’s jersey, Russell Finsterwald (Clif Pro Team) rode to victory Sunday in the Grand Junction Off-Road, round two of the Epic Rides Off-Road series.
“This is my first Epic Rides win, first win in the jersey … A lot of firsts! My first time leading the [Off-Road] series too. It’s awesome,” Finsterwald said.
Geoff Kabush (Yeti), winner of Friday’s fat tire criterium in downtown Grand Junction, Colorado, was second in the technical, rocky, 43-mile backcountry race. Stephan Davoust (Giant) was third.
Coming off his win in USA Cycling’s Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals last weekend in Texas, Finsterwald was the rider to watch. He didn’t waste any time asserting himself, riding away from the field before the start of the Butterknife singletrack trail, about 10 miles in.
“From the start I just kind of rode my own pace, just hard enough to separate it so we wouldn’t be like 15 people going down Butterknife,” he said.
Finsterwald wasn’t alone though. CZ Racing’s Fernando Riveros was right on his wheel.
“Part of the strategy of this race is the decision of where you are when you get into the singletrack,” Riveros said. “I need to put myself in the top five because I know that if you’re in top 10 and somebody screws up, the guys are already gone.”
However, their sortie was merely a step toward thinning out the group. In fact, the duo decided to ease up on the descent to allow a group of four to catch them. The windy conditions were partly why they chose not to press their advantage.
“I was actually kind of hoping they’d come back together,” said Finsterwald. “It’s so hard to create a separation on Butterknife.”
After a few miles of sandy, rolling doubletrack along the Gunnison River, the group of six, which now included Kabush and Davoust, reached the steep first pitch of the Windmill Climb. Right away, Finsterwald made his winning move on the course’s longest climb, about 20 miles in.
“I just hit it as soon as we started climbing and got a gap,” Finsterwald said, “I was kind of surprised I dropped them, but just decided to put my head down and go for it.”
While Riveros tried to follow Finsterwald and later launched a few attacks on Windmill, Kabush rode within himself.
“I was kind of blowing up and wanted to be a bit conservative,” Kabush said. “It always feels like you should be going faster up Windmill. I was hoping Finsty [Finsterwald] would tire out in the wind there but he’s going super-strong.”
Kabush also admitted that Finsterwald’s technical skills left him little chance to chase back to the lead on the last sections of singletrack on the Gunny Loop trail.
“I knew I wasn’t going to catch Finsty on the descents,” Kabush added. “I know he’s super strong technically, I just tried to keep it in check. I’m psyched, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the podium in an Epic Rides event.”
On the other hand, Davoust used the final miles of singletrack to lock up his third-place result.
“I was just trying to be conservative wherever I could and then lit it up on the last descent and put some time into Fernando [Riveros] and was able to hold off Ben Sonntag,” Davoust said.
“I knew they were chasing hard, and I was just like ‘okay, we’re just going to have fun riding down this descent and make smart moves, don’t do anything you don’t need to do’. I was able to hold it all together, and I’m super pumped to come through in third.”
Sonntag (Clif Pro Team) snuck past Riveros by riding the stairs off the bike path bridge over the railroad tracks, only about a mile from the finish, to take fourth. Riveros finished fifth.
Finsterwald said that consistent training has been paying off with his string of good results, including a second-place finish at the Whiskey Off-Road in April, the first event in the four-event Epic Rides series.
“It’s just been steady hard work at home I guess,” the Coloradan said. “I had a really good winter down in Tuscon [Arizona] as well.”
1. Russell Finsterwald (Clif Pro Team), 03:10:03
2. Geoff Kabush (Yeti-Maxxis), 03:12:40
3. Stephan Davoust (Giant), 03:14:10
4. Ben Sonntag (Clif Pro Team), 03:15:18
5. Fernando Riveros (CZ Racing), 03:15:30
6. Ryan Standish (Summit Bike Club), 03:16:32
7. Alex Grant (Cannondale), 03:17:01
8. Nic Beecham (Trek), 03:17:11
9. Zach Calton (Summit National Team), 03:20:13
10. Samuel Elson (Muddy Bikes), 03:20:21