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The Nitty-Gritty: Racing the Carson City Off-Road

The Carson City Off-Road delivers with a massive 52-mile course and some stellar views of Lake Tahoe and Marlette Lake

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Carson City is not quite Reno, but it’s also not quite Lake Tahoe. In a similar way, the Carson City Off-Road is finding its identity after three years running, and this edition seemed like a big step forward with about 900 people registered, a return to the massive 52-mile loop route, and a rocking Saturday night concert.

The basics

Last year, the Epic Rides organizers had to contend with a snowpack that just refused to melt off in time for the race to climb up to the trails above Lake Tahoe. Ironically, the snow led to a race in the scorching heat down near Carson City. Fortunately, for 2018, the snow was gone and the race climbed to 8,600 feet above sea level, to Marlette Peak on the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Along the way, the route took on the Ash to Kings singletrack, famous for its numerous switchbacks on the way up (and back down). Then after passing Marlette Lake, riders were treated to the Marlette Flume Trail and its panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.

Is the Flume Trail technical? Not really. But it’s weirdly difficult to ride fast due to the combination of loose dirt, large boulders, and the significant exposure, situated on the side of what is essentially a cliff. And also, the whole time you’re riding this four-mile segment, all you want to do is gaze out on the azure lake and the magnificent ring of mountains around it.

Also of note, this route features a lot of the trail work done by local organization Muscle Powered, such as the reroute of the famous “Secret Trail.” Carson City has committed to supporting area trails, buying property to add to its inventory of public lands. Epic Rides has chipped in as well with its Hail the Trail fundraiser that has contributed thousands of dollars to Muscle Powered.

Clif Bar racers Russell Finsterwald and eventual winner Ben Sonntag chasing the leaders up Ash Canyon. Photo: Dave McElwaine

The rollout

After only a couple miles to get out of the modest downtown, the Carson City course pitches upward on the steep dirt climb of Ash Canyon. Right away, the climbers (or riders who think they’re climbers) turned the screws. We’re close enough to California to attract the hardtail XC crowd — apparently, some riders didn’t get the memo that this was a 52-mile race.

Fortunately, things settled down on the Ash to Kings trail. Between the loose dirt, occasional rock problems, and 18 switchbacks, you could only go so fast.

Highs and lows

I’m having a hard time thinking of a mountain bike race that is more scenic than this one — at least in North America. The wildflowers were starting to bloom. The clear air afforded epic views of Lake Tahoe, Marlette Lake, and the desert valley on the east side of the rim. It’s downright magical.

Were there any lows? Not really. The only one I can think of is probably by design, to keep us racers honest. Just as you think you’re done, descending a playful singletrack along the creek in Ash Canyon, the route turns left and back uphill. It’s not particularly long or unduly steep. But we’ve all had that feeling — you expect you’re going to make it home on time after a long day at the office, and then a little bit of road work forces a detour, making you a half-hour late. But at least we were on singletrack, not behind the wheel of a car.

Lake Tahoe as viewed from the Flume Trail at 7,700 feet above sea level. Photo: Dave McElwaine

The winners

If we could have seen live video of the pro races, it would have been must-watch TV. In the men’s race, Ben Sonntag (Clif Bar) somehow bridged a gap up to leaders Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes) and Howard Grotts (Specialized). And then, the German spoiled the party with a brilliant sprint to win the day.

In the women’s race, Chloe Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes) seemed to have the win wrapped up but she crashed on a fast fireroad, and in a flash, Katerina Nash (Clif Bar) was back in the mix. But Woodruff wouldn’t relent, and she gave Nash the slip on that last bit of nasty climbing on the final stretch of singletrack to ride home alone.

Foggy recollections

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen so many photographers at a mountain bike race, let alone one for amateurs. The Marlette Flume Trail was alight with flashbulbs and clicking like a cloud of locusts. Hopefully, they tag me on Instagram …

When you roll back into town at one of these Epic Rides events, there are often people out on lawns, cheering on the race. Since this third round is in Nevada’s capital city, we rolled past one particularly dignified residence — the governor’s mansion. Sure enough, people were out on the sidewalk to check out the race. Was one of them Mr. Brian Sandoval? I was too cross-eyed to check.

The party

Photo: Brenda Ernst

Like any town in Nevada, Carson City has plenty of seedy casinos that draw the usual party crowd. But on this particular weekend, the downtown right outside the state capitol building came to life Saturday night. All weekend long, a Burning Man float right along the final corner to the finish was one of the most popular spots to hang out and watch the racing or the concert.

MarchFourth’s ensemble of 12+ performers put on a show that makes you wonder why anyone would spend money on tickets to Cirque du Soleil. With saxophones, trombones, drummers, and dancers, the Portland group put on a one-of-a-kind performance.