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Finsty or Swenson? Nash or Grant? Riders to watch at Saturday’s Oz Trails Off-Road

On October 15, 100 pro mountain bikers will duke it out for $62,000 on Bentonville's famed singletrack.

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This weekend, the Oz Trails Off-Road cross-country mountain bike race kicks off in Bentonville, Arkansas. Historically the Epic Rides Series season-closer, this year Oz Trails is the only race in the series to go amid COVID cancelations. As such, it’s attracted a star-studded list of pro riders, who are hungry for one last throw down — and a bite at the $62,000 prize purse.

The pros race the event’s Ozark 50 backcountry route, which covers 50 miles and nearly 4,000 feet of climbing. True to Bentonville’s character, the course is almost entirely singletrack. Short, punchy climbs, and long rolling descents make it a full gas race from start to finish.

Also read: An epic ride for MTB race promoter Epic Rides

Andri Frischknecht won the 2019 Oz Trails Off-Road and was followed by Keegan Swenson and the late Ben Sonntag on the podium. Sofia Gomez Villafañe won the women’s race; Rose Grant and Kate Courtney came in second and third in a sprint finish.

From national champs to Leadville podium finishers to Olympians and cyclocross royalty, the 100 pros slated to line up for Saturday’s backcountry race should make this the most epic ride yet.

Women’s contenders

Katerina Nash — Nash is on a roll. Still! The Clif Pro Team rider is rolling into Oz Trails fresh off a top-ten finish at Wednesday’s ‘cross World Cup down the road in Fayetteville. It’s just one of the 43-year-old’s excellent finishes across distances and disciplines this year. From first at BWR San Diego to second at the Telluride 100 to fifth at Leadville, the 50-mile Oz Trails course just might be Nash’s sweet spot.

Rose Grant — Grant is always a favorite at the Epic Rides races. In 2019, she missed the win at Oz Trails by seconds, and she also finished second in the overall series standings. Furthermore, the Juliana-SRAM rider has had an excellent 2021 season. In July she finished third at nationals, in August, she repeated her 2019 win at the Leadville Trail 100, then headed straight to the Breck Epic (and finished third). In September, Grant was the women’s champion of Rebecca’s Private Idaho.

Alexis Skarda — If Skarda isn’t on your radar yet, the Santa Cruz rider should be. Hot off a win at last month’s Pikes Peak Apex, Skarda has been quietly racking up wins at some of the nation’s toughest races. Early this summer, she placed second at nationals, not far behind champion Erin Huck. Then, she edged out Katerina Nash to finish first at the grueling Telluride 100. In August, she dominated the Breck Epic. Unlike some of the other female MTB pros, Skarda doesn’t dabble in gravel, so she’ll be hungry for another singletrack victory.

Moriah Wilson — Wilson crushes both the gravel and the trail. And in 2021, this California-based rider made it to the podium at a handful of both types of marquee races. At BWR San Diego, Wilson raced neck and neck with Nash and Hannah Finchamp until cramps forced her into third position. Later in the summer, Wilson rode to amazing second-place finishes at Leadville and RPI. Could Oz Trails be the W that Wilson’s been gunning for?

Hannah Finchamp — Finchamp is another rider who has come close in 2021. Her most notable result was second place at BWR San Diego where she rode an incredible race with Katerina Nash. Finchamp then spent much of the summer bouncing to Europe for World Cup races. In August, she narrowly missed the podium with an excellent fourth place ride at Leadville. In addition to writing a training column for VeloNews, Finchamp is an accomplished coach; she just might have a trick up her sleeve for this final race of the season.

Other riders to watch include hometown favorite Crystal Anthony and U23 national champ Savilia Blunk.

Men’s contenders

Keegan Swenson — Hard to go wrong betting on this guy. Swenson has stitched up a banner 2021 season, beginning with his July national championship win. Since then, he’s nabbed victory at multiple marathon distance mountain bike races — first Telluride, then Leadville, and then stage races wins at the Breck Epic and Pikes Peak Apex. Swenson is recently home from marathon MTB worlds where he finished a jaw-dropping seventh. Will Oz Trails be too short for the cross-country-turned-endurance guy? Probably not — in 2019 he finished fourth, and in 2018 he won the race.

Riley Amos — In June, Amos did something no other American had done — the 19-year-old won a U23 World Cup. Then, he came home to become the U23 national champion. In September, he placed second to Swenson at the Pikes Peak Apex. Amos may be young, but he comes from a town that breeds mountain bike royalty — Durango. In other words, Amos is very used to riding — and holding his own — with the best.

Russell Finsterwald — “Finsty” rounded out the podium with Swenson and Amos at the Pikes Peak Apex. The Colorado Springs rider is a stalwart on the Epic Rides scene. He’s finished fourth and fifth at Oz Trails and in 2019, he nabbed the Epic Rides Series overall.

Luke Vrouwenvelder — Vrouwenvelder is a consistent racer who is often on the podium in domestic races. He finished top ten in both of the U.S. Cup races this spring, and in July he raced an excellent national championship in Winter Park, finishing third in the cross-country race.  Vrouwenvelder also had some solid results at the 2021 World Cups and world champs.

Other rides to watch include Kyle Trudeau (CZ Racing), Orange Seal’s Cole Paton and Payson McElveen, and Geoff Kabush (Yeti).