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Grand Junction Off-Road preview: Climbers vs. daredevils

Spencer Powlison previews the second round of the Epic Rides Series, the Grand Junction Off-Road.

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You can win the Grand Junction Off-Road two ways: with raw climbing talent or fearless bike-handling skills. Just ask Howard Grotts and Katerina Nash, winners of last year’s race.

The second round of the Epic Rides Series is set for Sunday in Grand Junction, Colorado. Unlike the first round of racing at Whiskey Off-Road, this mountain bike race isn’t a pure test for the climbers. That should make it a little more tricky to predict winners for the rocky, technical 43-mile race.

Grotts (Specialized) remains a clear favorite in the men’s race. Geoff Kabush (Yeti) ended up second in 2017, and he remembers how the young Coloradan launched a blistering attack on the course’s six-mile Windmill Climb.

“Grotts did a ridiculous attack on a steep section,” Kabush said. “He’s pretty ridiculous going uphill.”

Kabush rode the long, undulating final descent with Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar), letting it all hang out to try catching Grotts on the ledge-strewn trails of Western Colorado’s high desert. For 2018, the Canadian is hoping to use his skills, which he perfected over about 20 years of pro racing, to beat the young climber.

“It’s got a lot of rough power moves where you can use technique and fitness to gain time and be efficient,” Kabush says of the course. “It’s a fun one — I’m looking forward to getting a head start on Grotts going into the climb.”

Kabush sits second in the Epic Rides Series, 1:50 behind Grotts. The four-race overall is tallied based on cumulative time, not finish places. Riders must complete all series races, which leaves a number of World Cup athletes, like Whiskey Off-Road winner Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes), out of the mix.

Sitting second in the overall at 2:37 behind, Finsterwald has a similar plan to challenge Grotts.

“I need to have him in sight or be with him at the top of the Windmill Climb. That’s sort of a decider in the race,” said Finsterwald. “There’s still plenty of pedaling left. I think it’d be realistic to bring back a decent amount of time, but I can’t be giving him three or four minutes.”

Larissa Connors
Larissa Connors leads the women’s standings of the Epic Rides Series. Photo: Brenda Ernst

In the women’s race, Nash (Clif Bar) is planning a strategy similar to Kabush’s.

Nash made her move early last year, in the first 10 miles of racing as the course climbs out of Grand Junction and into the “Lunch Loops” trail network. She got onto the difficult Butterknife singletrack first and proceeded to ride alone to victory. It wasn’t easy though.

“I just feel like I’m a decent descender and climbing’s always been my weakness,” said Nash, who didn’t race Whiskey this year. “I was feeling like I was being chased because it’s this big open fire road climb. The girls could definitely see me.”

Perhaps one rider who will be hunting down Nash on Windmill will be the woman leading the overall, Larissa Connors (Sho-Air Cycling).

“I have no idea how the race will shake out, but I do know it’ll be crazy fun tearing up the desert,” said Connors who has never raced the Grand Junction Off-Road before. “Hopefully my technical skills will save me from having to gut myself on the climb — those other girls are strong climbers!”

Coming off a disappointing third-place finish at marathon nationals, the Californian will have something to prove. She’ll also want to pad her slim 25-second lead over Sofia Gomez-Villafane (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes), who was third here in 2017.

Like Villafane, Evelyn Dong (Spry Cycles) was tuning up her form at the Soldier Hollow, Utah ProXCT race May 5-6. They were third and second, respectively, in the cross-country.

“Definitely try and get out before Butterknife. Once you get clogged up on Butterknife it’s hard to pass, can get pretty frustrating there,” says Dong, who is 36 seconds behind Connors in the overall.

The top favorites are pretty straightforward. The X-factors are less predictable at Grand Junction Off-Road.

Kabush says that course’s rough, rocky terrain forces riders to make more conservative choices to avoid flat tires or mechanicals, and that full-suspension bikes are a clear advantage.

“I was pretty excited when I got to Grand Junction last year,” he said. “It’s definitely one of the more technical events.”

Dong agrees that an element of mental focus comes into play on the narrow singletrack.

“It’s pretty fun,” she says. “It’s more interesting — I think you can’t really zone out at all.”

And then there’s the matter of nutrition and hydration. Grotts won the 2017 race in a little less than three hours. This year, with a new stretch of singletrack included late in the route, Finsterwald thinks the race will run about 20 minutes longer.

While she’d ordinarily rely on bottles from the feed zones, Nash opts for a hydration pack to more easily drink in the Grand Junction Off-Road.

“Hydration is sort of important,” she says. “I’ve ridden with my Camelbak the last few years. You have this 45 minutes after the initial climb — it’s hard to drink, you’re on the singletrack with the rollers.”

Oh, and there’s one more wildcard to consider, at least for the men’s race. Two-time national cyclocross champion Stephen Hyde (Cannondale) will join the fray Sunday. Although he could only manage 14th at the Soldier Hollow ProXCT, it would be foolish to underestimate him.

Though she won’t have to worry about Hyde, Nash knows that the Epic Rides Series can be unpredictable.

“I don’t underestimate anybody,” she says. “Sometimes you get a good local or regional rider. It’s always a little bit of an unknown at these Epic Rides.”