Carson City Off-Road set to be an old-school MTB throw-down

Sunday's race will take riders on a 52-mile loop that reaches 8,600 feet above sea level.

Old school. That’s how a few top riders have described Sunday’s Carson City Off-Road, the third round of the Epic Rides Series.

Held on one massive loop, starting in front of the Nevada state capital building and climbing up to 8,600 feet on the mountains rimming Lake Tahoe, the 52-mile race will be a climber’s delight. And the field is stacked with talented mountain bikers, many of whom are fresh off the latest World Cups in Europe.

Race returns to big, 52-mile loop course

Last year’s Epic Rides event in Carson City was not quite so epic — record snowpack prevented the race from climbing to the peaks above Tahoe. Instead, racers faced a three-lap course in the valley in the desert heat. Fortunately, the Carson City Off-Road returns to the high mountains this year.

The singletrack comes early with the Ash to Kings trail at mile 4, so the riders will be jockeying for position on the initial climb out of town.

Marlette Lake Road should be the toughest climb of the race, a grind of about four miles out of the first aid station, all above 7,000 feet. There will also be a tough kicker of about a mile on Tunnel Creek road before the fun begins on the Sunflower Hill trail.

With roughly 15 miles of descending to the finish, it’s not a given that the first rider over the course’s high point will ride back to Carson City victorious.

“I think it’s probably one of the hardest races on the [Epic Rides] circuit in terms of physical fitness,” Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar) told VeloNews. “Definitely not as technical, but there’s tons of climbing.”

World Cup talent spices up women’s race

Chloe Woodruff (Stan’s Notubes-Pivot) led Kate Courtney, Annika Langvad, and Erin Huck up one of the switchback climbs at Whiskey Off-Road. Photo: Dave McElwaine

A few key stars are back in the mix after racing two World Cup rounds in Germany and Czech Republic last month. That means the women’s field will be one of the strongest you’ll find at any mountain bike race in the U.S.

National cross-country champion Kate Courtney (Specialized) is arguably the top favorite, ranked 13th in the world by the UCI and with two top-10 results at those recent World Cups. After her race at the Whiskey Off-Road was spoiled by a flat tire, Courtney is likely hungry for redemption this weekend.

“There’s no conflict with the World Cup. Chloe [Woodruff] will be there, Kate Courtney, Katerina [Nash],” Amy Beisel (Orange Seal) told VeloNews. “The competition this year is just going to be massive.”

Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes) also had a good run in Europe with two top-15 finishes. Plus, she’s coming off a win at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado Saturday.

“It was good training, a good confidence builder,” Woodruff said of her win in Vail. “This next weekend at Carson is a pretty different ballgame. We’re on the trails that Katerina trains on … Who knows what’s going to happen.”

Nash (Clif Bar) was third in last year’s Carson City Off-Road behind Beisel and winner Rose Grant (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes). Grant has been recovering from an injury all spring and will not take the start Sunday.

Woodruff also pointed to Evelyn Dong as a threat. The Spry Cycles rider was second to Nash at Grand Junction and leads the Epic Rides Series overall.

“Evelyn Dong had a really solid ride at Grand Junction and she always performs well at altitude once she starts to build a little bit of confidence,” said Woodruff. “I will never count her out. I think she will be a player.”

Going into round three, Beisel is second overall, 6:40 behind. Crystal Anthony (Liv) is third, 7:35 behind. Epic Rides calculates series overall on cumulative time — in order to be in the running, riders have to finish all four races.

Men’s race: Another Grotts/Swenson showdown?

Swenson out-sprinted Grotts to take the win after catching Grotts on the final descent. Photo: Dave McElwaine

Two months ago, the Whiskey Off-Road had perhaps its most exciting finish when Keegan Swenson (Stan’s No Tubes) chased down Howard Grotts (Specialized) on the final descent and sprinted to victory. Will Grotts get his revenge in Carson City on Sunday?

The Carson City course is similar to that of Whiskey, with a long climb to the race’s high point before a descent to the finish. Swenson says the climb might not be so selective in this race though.

“I think it’ll be a good fight. It’s a little bit of a different course,” Swenson told VeloNews. “The climb seems to be a bit longer, but it is also a bit faster. It doesn’t look as steep. My guess is it’ll stay together longer, and it’ll probably break apart over the top. Honestly, I’m not sure how it’s going to play out.”

Grotts says the combination of long climbs and high altitude will work in his favor.

“The climbs should suit me quite well. Keegan is going be there — we’ll be able to push each other on the climbs,” he said. “It’s kind of like an old-school course. I’m looking forward to that. I think the altitude also helps.”

Like Woodruff, Grotts is coming off a win, but his was at the Missoula ProXCT. However, he isn’t comfortable with his Epic Rides Series lead of 5:15 over Finsterwald.

“Five minutes seems like a lot but one bad mechanical, and it can be a race like we saw with Kabush last year,” Grotts added. “He had some flat tires in Carson City and he lost a lot of time there. Nothing is secure.”

After winning the men’s GoPro Games XC race, Finsterwald also carries momentum into the weekend.

“Russell just won the GoPro Games in Vail, and Ben Sonntag got second — those two guys are obviously riding well, and GoPro is even higher altitude,” Grotts added. “All those guys are climbing well at altitude. I think we could have a really solid group to battle it out.”

Finsterwald said his win in Vail was a good sign heading into Carson City.

“Wins are always good for the morale. I’ve been getting in some good training at home,” he said, adding jokingly, “Hopefully my sprinting abilities have improved.” The last time he raced Carson City, in 2016, he lost a sprint for second to Geoff Kabush (Yeti) and Todd Wells.

Kabush may also be a threat in Carson City, but it remains to be seen how he has recovered from his third-place finish at the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race, two weeks prior.

After Carson City Off-Road, there is one final event on the Epic Rides Series, the new Oz Trails Off-Road race in Bentonville, Arkansas, October 5-7.