By Ryan Newill, VeloNews Correspondent
Aussie rider Mary Grigson (Subaru-Gary Fisher) upped her tally to five straight NORBA National victories Friday morning, showing her versatility as a rider who can excel in the tight, rooty West Virginia singletrack as well as the open and dusty western courses. If Grigson can hold her outstanding form to take the next National at Deer Park, Utah, she would tie the seemingly unassailable record of six straight NORBA victories set by Juli Furtado in the early 90s.
“It’s something that’s been put in my mind, and I feel the pressure. It’s just one of those things, even though it might be different, you just have to go out and do the best you can do, because everybody wants to win,” said Grigson.
Grigson is clearly both daunted and flattered by the comparison to the queen of cross country. “When I think of Juli Furtado, I was just starting mountain biking when she was on top of the world, and that woman is awesome. [To be mentioned with her] is just an incredible feeling,” she laughed, adding, “Well, I don’t think I’ll ever be a world champion downhiller like Juli.”
Grigson led the race from wire to wire, tearing up the start hill and entering the first singletrack descents with the advantage of a clear trail ahead of her. Teammate Chrissy Redden jumped Grigson’s wheel to form a break that was a sponsor’s dream, with two valued riders aboard flagship bikes all alone on the front. The two quickly powered to a 30-second lead on the technical sections at the bottom of the course, chased by former world champion Ruthie Matthes (Trek-Volkswagen).
Despite looking stronger than the dual-suspension equipped Subaru-Gary Fisher riders on the long fire-road climb to the finish, Matthes could never quite close enough time to threaten the leaders, and the front three remained static from start to finish.
The real surprises were the names on the bottom two steps of the podium. Local mainstay and emerging talent Sue Haywood (Trek-Volkswagen Factory East) of nearby Davis, West Virginia, rose to the occasion in front of her enthusiastic home crowd, jumping into fourth place while still in the start straight and holding that position just behind the leaders throughout the first lap.
“I thought a lot of people would be more aggressive getting into the singletrack the first time, considering how important it was…. I was surprised that a lot of people weren’t up there really going for it. Right after that, the places were pretty much set,” said Haywood, who as a seasoned rider in this area obviously did realize the importance of getting to the singletrack ahead of the group.
Ultimately, Haywood would have to give up her fourth position, as she was passed on lap two by Trish Sinclair (Ford-Divinci). Like Haywood, Sinclair was on her way to a best-ever performance in a NORBA National event. Also like Haywood, the Victoria, British Columbia, native is also clearly no stranger to rocky, slick technical trails, and used that familiarity to gain her first top-level result.
Due to a thunderstorm that rolled through at 1 a.m. the night before, knocking over the podium stand among other items, the course was at the “average soggy” level for West Virginia during the women’s race.
However, that storm was a mere sunshower compared to the act-of-god style rain that the pro men were treated to. In abysmal conditions that can only be described as “epic,” the seemingly invincible Roland Green (Trek-Volkswagen) took the lead on the first lap and held on through hell and high water to add another victory to his already stellar season.
A brief shower between the two events lightened up long enough for rider introductions, but by the time the gun went off, it was back to pounding, heavy drops which severely limited visibility once the riders hit the first muddy section of fireroad. Over the four-lap, 2-hour contest, this sort of weather, interspersed with equal periods of blazing sunshine to add just the right level of steaminess to the day, became the norm.
“It was an incredible race. It was amazing, but it was a lot of running, and if you weren’t prepared for that, I think you were having a tough time,” observed Green from behind a thick mask of accumulated grime.
Indeed, a number of riders fell victim to the conditions and the course, including American podium hopes Kirk Molday (Sunrace-Santa Cruz), winner of the first NORBA national event at Big Bear and crowd favorite Tinker Juarez (Volvo-Cannondale) who both abandoned on the second lap of the race.
As in the women’s race, the ability to excel in these weather and terrain conditions seems to be regional in nature, as British Columbia-reared riders raced to four of the top five steps on the podium. Ryder Hesjedal of Subaru-Gary Fisher followed his Victoria friend and training partner into the finish several minutes back to take the number three spot. Hesjedal was trailed in by newcomer Chad Miles of Whistler, who rode an emotionally charged race to earn a well-earned fourth place spot in only his second NORBA professional event. A third Victoria man, Geoff Kabush (Kona-Ford), rounded out the impressive BC performance, edging out Ontario’s Seamus McGrath for the fifth spot.
The lone spoiler to the British Columbia dominance at the top was Australia native Paul Rowney (Yeti-Pearl Izumi), who proved to be the only true challenge to Green in the sloppy conditions. Rowney took incredible risks to keep the Canadian in check, bombing down rutted, rocky and rooted descents that were flowing with rainwater, while Green would pull away again on the running sections and fire road climbs leading back into the start/finish area.
“I’m not too much of a runner,” Rowney admitted. “We don’t get too much mud in Australia like that.”As the sun came out, the mud had begun to turn to paste, clogging gears and chains and reducing brakes to speed regulators rather than guaranteed stoppers.
Fortunately, relief was on the way, at least for Rowney, “Actually, the rain halfway through the race was really good because it effectively made the course a little better. It started getting really bad in the second lap, so it kind of worked in my favor.”
In the end, Rowney ran out of time to reel in World Cup leader Green, and happily settled for the second step, recognizing the role of fate on days like this, “I’m just happy to finish today,” summarized Rowney. “I took a couple spills, and you never know, drivetrains and stuff go….”
Pro Women Cross Country
1. Mary Grigson (Aus), Subaru-Gary Fisher 1:43:47
2. Chrissy Redden (Can), Subaru-Gary Fisher 1:46:32
3. Rutthie Matthes (USA), Trek-Volkswagen 1:47:05
4. Trish Sinclair (Can), Ford-Divinci 1:47:34
5. Susan Haywood (USA), Trek-Volkswagen Factory East 1:49:17
Pro Men Cross Country
1. Roland Green (Can), Trek-Volkswagen 2:03:14
2. Paul Rowney (Aus), Yeti-Pearl Izumi 2:04:48
3. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Subaru-Gary Fisher 2:06:46
4. Chad Miles (Can), Roach 2:08:14
5. Geoff Kabush (Can), Kona-Ford 2:09:09