Mountain

The Nitty-Gritty: Racing the Grand Junction Off-Road

Grand Junction Off-Road is a three-day downtown live music festival, and one of the toughest mountain bike races of the season.

At the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, there was a confluence of worlds: A three-day downtown live music festival, and one of the toughest mountain bike races of the season. Between the rocky trails and rock-n-roll shows, Grand Junction Off-Road was at the high-water mark last weekend.

The basics

Now in its sixth year, the Grand Junction Off-Road was the first younger sibling to the Whiskey Off-Road. The inaugural edition in 2013 was hampered by a tough slot on the calendar — late summer in Grand Junction is broiling hot — but since the move to May, it has been picking up momentum. With about 700 riders registered, this was the race’s biggest edition in its history.

Like the Whiskey, Grand Junction Off-Road kicks off festivities with a pro-only fat tire crit Friday night. On the Colorado town’s flat grid streets, the racing wasn’t quite as animated as it was in Prescott, Arizona, but crowds still turned out in droves.

However, not all the spectators came only for the bike race. Unlike its big brother, which has one day of live music, Grand Junction Off-Road goes big with a three-day slate of concerts and three different stages to hear the tunes. The locals were entertained by the racing, sure, but a lot of them came out for one of five Friday shows, especially headliner Ralph Dinosaur & Fabulous Volcanoes, a local rock band.

Epic Rides promoter Todd Sadow estimates that close to 3,500 people turned out for the three days of music and mountain biking. With everything from the concert stages to the team tents packed into Grand Junction’s revitalized Main Street, it’s easy to see the appeal.

The views are expansive out into the Grand Valley. Photo: Spencer Powlison | VeloNews.com

The racecourse itself might not be quite as welcoming as this “Western Slope” town of 59,000 people. The trails dish out punishment. After just a couple miles of pavement, the 42-mile loop hits the Tabeguache trail, part of the “Lunch Loops” area of Federal Bureau of Land Management property. After a few steep pitches of climbing, the route dives into the Butterknife trail — I can assure you the rocks there are far sharper than the singletrack’s namesake.

After that, riders face a long climb up Windmill road followed by a wild ride down a sandy, blown-out jeep road, then one more vicious climb on broiling exposed slickrock. Even though these climbs might seem like the toughest part of the course, there’s a nasty sting in the tail on the undulating Gunny Loop trail, yet another difficult singletrack strewn with rocks and ledges.

U.S. marathon national champ Amy Beisel (Orange Seal) led the chase group into a rock drop-off. Photo: Spencer Powlison | VeloNews.com

The rollout

As is customary at the Epic Rides races, you wake up at dawn for a 7:30 a.m. start on Grand Junction’s Main Street. With a field that’s much smaller than Whiskey’s, the start is far more relaxed. You don’t have to do much jostling to find a spot in the grid. Everyone seems a bit more focused on their personal battles with the treacherous course, not the races against each other. However, once we rolled out of town on the bridge over the Colorado River, things got nervous and fast. There wasn’t much time to get in position before the steep climb up Tabeguache.

Geoff Kabush (Yeti) squeezed through some rocks late in the Grand Junction Off-Road. Photo: Spencer Powlison | VeloNews.com

Highs and lows

Those Grand Junction trails dished out some punishment. I found the course to be plenty hard and technical. That said, racing on trails like Butterknife and the Gunny Loop is special. The terrain adds a different dimension to XC racing. Pure fitness can’t always carry the day — if you’ve got skills, they’ll make a big difference here. There aren’t a lot of cross-country races in the mountain west that truly test bike-handling. Grand Junction Off-Road is one of them, and damn is it fun.

Of course, these boney stretches of singletrack have to be ridden with respect. I lacked the proper amount of caution on that last trail. Approximately 10 miles from the finish line I smacked my rim so hard that it punctured my tire’s sidewall. Better luck next time.

The winners

Just like last year, Howard Grotts (Specialized) climbed away from the competition on Windmill, and Katerina Nash (Clif) schooled the women’s field with her superior bike handling skills (and excellent climbing). Organizers added more singletrack to the course for 2018, but Grotts still turned in a blazing fast time of three hours, 11 minutes — only a bit slower than last year.

Foggy recollections

Cannondale went big at this round of the Epic Rides Series because it was introducing its new F-Si frame and single-crown Lefty fork. It brought a little bit of cyclocross flair to the fat tire crit with a local high school marching band that urged on riders in the fast downtown event on Friday. Perhaps the band did the trick because Cannondale’s Stephen Hyde won the crit in a sprint finish.

A high school marching band encouraged the riders during the fat tire crit. Photo: Dave McElwaine

If you’re a skier, you might have heard of “snow snakes,” which mysteriously trip you up on an innocuous slope. Well, there’s some equivalent in mountain biking (Trail snakes? Dirt snakes?) and one of them got me bad early in the race. As I reached down to switch my shock’s lockout, my front wheel snagged a trailside rock and I ended up sprawled on my chest. I was physically uninjured, but my ego … well …

In case the line-up of 20 musical acts wasn’t sufficient, the local music venue, Mesa Theater had a Bone Thugs-n-Harmony show Thursday night. I’m sad to say couldn’t get a ticket, but I think I speak for the entire VeloNews editorial staff when I say that I’m glad to see that Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, and the rest of the crew is still touring.

The party

Photo: Brenda Ernst

As I pointed out earlier, thousands of locals turn out for the downtown music festival all weekend long. That means the party isn’t limited to post-race on Saturday night. Late on Friday (or early on Saturday, I guess), I awoke to wild howls of revelers heading home after the show by Ralph Dinosaur. If those party people managed to line up to race on Saturday, I am immensely impressed.

After Saturday’s rocky ride through the desert, the Four Peaks Downtown Music Festival really hit its stride, capped off by Denver band The Motet, a seven-person funk outfit that entertained racers and townies alike.