Austin towels off for Mellow Johnny’s race

Steady rain — road-closing, trail-soaking, river-swelling rain — kept anyone from getting an early taste of the singletrack at Lance Armstrong's Juan Pelota Ranch on Friday.

Armstrong's ranch.
Armstrong's Ranch

Steady rain — road-closing, trail-soaking, river-swelling rain — kept anyone from getting an early taste of the singletrack at Lance Armstrong’s Juan Pelota Ranch on Friday.

But if you managed to find your way through the detours and around the flooded roads out to the ranch, the rain gave an opportunity to chat with two of the Austin area’s most knowledgeable mountain bike racing experts on the eve of the weekend’s racing at the ranch.

Tobin Behling and Derek Russey are part of the team that came together to put on the race, which will come off just over nine weeks after Armstrong first floated the idea (Another team member is Armstrong’s Leadville 100 rival Dave Wiens, who came to the ranch for a few days last month to advise on course layout and other logistics).

Behling and Russey weren’t hard to find Friday – they had ducked out of the rain in Armstrong’s “bike garage,” one of the few places you could stay dry on the 400-some-odd-acre ranch (its owner, spending the day in town, having not tossed the ranch house keys our way).

The garage was fine, if you like that sort of thing. There was a javalina head on the wall, capped with a blue aero helmet Armstrong wore to win one or another of his Tour de France time trials. But – it was dusty.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the garage.
We weren't allowed to take pics inside the garage. But it kept us dry.

There were, by my count, 22 bikes. There was a rare Trek road frame with rear suspension, made for Armstrong to use in the 2005 Paris-Roubaix. It was a mate to the one George Hincapie used to finish second that year. It was cool — but it was missing some parts and hardly rideable. And, Armstrong didn’t start the classic that year, anyway.

There were a handful of Discovery TT bikes hanging on the wall, and a bike with the wheels, I was told, that Armstong used to win the Alpe d’Huez time trial stage in the 2004 Tour de France. But the tires were flat, and, although there appeared to be almost as many floor pumps as bikes in the garage … it was raining out.

The Trek that Armstrong rode at this year’s Leadville race was there, in the corner. It still had the rear wheel, with a carbon Bontrager rim, that Armstrong rode on a flat to the finish. It was leaning against a Rotwild hardtail that Wiens left at the ranch. But — neither were my size.

So, despite the inelegant conditions for an interview — a garage? Really? Is a shed next? —it was, inarguably, a chance to greatly increase my knowledge of the Texan mountain bike scene and the genesis of this weekend’s Mellow Johnny’s Classic.

Learning more about the hotbed

Behling, the race director, is the vice president of the Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association and promotes and officiates at many events.

My first question: In most of this hemisphere, mid-November is late-late-late mountain bike racing season -it’s two weeks after the Ice Man Cometh race. But Texas is like a whole other country — what season is it here?

“The race season here is February through May,” Behling said.

Ah, so this is early season, then? I looked from Behling to Russey, who smiled.

“The season gets going again from September to November,” Russey said.

So then, this is late …

“The marathon racing season is just getting going — that runs November to February,” Behling said with a shrug.

Texas has a marathon racing season? There must be a lot going on here.

Yup. Behling chuckled over a recent Singletrack article in which Wiens said Texas is “one of the areas of enthusiasm for mountain biking.”Lotsa black and yellow things out at the ranch.

“It’s more than that,” he said. “I think it is a hotbed. It’s number two in mountain bike racing licenses after California.”

We chatted a while longer and Russey told how he called Behling as soon as he read Armstrong’s Sept. 22 tweet about a race on the property, and the two began making plans. We talked about the future of the event, and Behling and Russey said it all depends on how this weekend’s race goes.

“Nothing would surprise me. I used to tell people there was no way Lance would ever have a race out here …”

Drop everything

The rains let up a bit and a few of us slogged out to see Dead Man’s Hole, a 45-foot limestone cliff over a deep river pool on the edge of Armstrong’s property. Already soaked from the rain, none of us saw the need to take the plunge.

While we couldn’t ride the trails, we saw bits and pieces as we drove around the ranch, and it looked tasty — narrow and twisty, with frequent drops off limestone ledges and tricky climbs up similar sections.

Saturday and Sunday, we’ll all get a chance to get out of the garage and onto the trails. The 700 registered racers will give thanks, this week and next, for Armstrong’s generosity in opening his property. But if we get it right we’ll be joyfully oblivious, for at least a few magic moments, of who owns the land underneath, as we live in the timeless moment of singletrack.