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Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Russell Finsterwald win wet and wild Rule of Three

Both Specialized Off-Road riders are headed to Emporia next, for 200 miles of Unbound Gravel

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The Rule of Three returned to Bentonville, Arkansas last weekend and with it, another weekend of wild stormy weather, unconventional racing, and a race-wide tribute to Moriah “Mo” Wilson.

Specialized’s Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Russell Finsterwald won the 100-mile mixed-surface race, showing that, as Finsterwald told VeloNews, “the diesel tank is full” heading into Unbound Gravel on June 4.

Rule of Three debuted last spring with an unconventional ethos, and a poem:

Can we return to the by-gone
gravel days of old?
With more fun,
and less things bought and sold.

This year’s event was no different, with co-founder Andy Chasteen in fancy dress at the soggy start, reminding people of the spirit of the event and also taking a moment to remember Wilson, who was killed on May 11. Number plates were left blank, and riders were asked to write Wilson’s name or a tribute to her.

Tributes to Wilson withstood the rain. (Photo: Adam Koble)

What if we ignored how everyone else does it,
put the experts on mute?
And started with a really,
really, really hard route

After the race, Gomez Villafañe, who finished 16th overall and first ahead of Kelsey Urban and Katerina Nash, said “I would rename it Rule of Four because I was getting off my bike because of all the wet roots!”

The Rule of Three 100-mile course contains roughly 1/3 each of singletrack, pavement, and gravel. The 50-mile course is similar. Singletrack comes both early and late in the course, so those who made it onto the trail first found themselves with early advantages.

Finsterwald, who finished first ahead of Matt Beers and Jasper Ockeloen, said that getting to the singletrack first was his immediate goal.

“I think all the mountain bikers went into it together and came out as a group of four, [Cole] Paton was with us initially but I think he flatted and had early mechanical within first ten minutes,” Finsterwald said. “It was Bradyn Lange, Matt, myself, and Jasper the Dutch guy. We rolled some hard pulls for a while. I had a feeling that some people who got dropped on the singletrack would chase back on. We weren’t driving super hard, just tempo ’til people came back on.”

Read also: Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Russell Finsterwald form new Specialized Off-Road program

Gomez Villafañe had a similar strategy and knew that Finsterwald, her Specialized Off-Road teammate, would be pushing the pace ahead of her. Fortunately, she found herself riding with multi-discipline legend Carl Decker for the first miles.

“The race started and I knew that the guys, especially Russell and Matt were gonna make it really hard over the first two rollers to make sure nobody was up there that shouldn’t be up there,” she said. “I kinda got swallowed up in the start and kinda had to put in a big effort in the rollers to bridge up to the lead group. I passed Katerina and Raylynn [Nuss]. I knew Lea [Davison] was behind me, and I had seen Crystal [Anthony]. I had no idea where the other women were.

“Carl Decker and I bridged up. On the singletrack it was easy to have natural separation and a few gaps open. I got to ride majority of the first singletrack following Carl Decker which was nice. I knew I could follow him closely and not pay attention to anything because I knew he’d take good lines.”

Gomez Villafañe said that once she and Decker came out on the road, it didn’t take long for a group to form. Stephan Davoust and Cole Paton were among the other riders who had caught up, and a group of 10 or so formed. The Argentine-American said that she had the fitness to keep up with an elite group of men who fortunately were not trying to attack on steep road climbs.

“I was in a very strong group and I think I was doing my fair share of work as well because I had everything to gain by sticking with these guys,” she said. “I was lucky that Cole wasn’t punching it up the climbs, just putting in a hard pace. He wasn’t attacking the field to get away because I think he also realized together we’d be stronger.”

Finsterwald also saw the group he was with swell after the initial singletrack. At one point, he said, he was with 10 riders including Beers, Ockeleon, Payson McElveen, Alexey Vermeulen, and Laurens ten Dam. They had some 60 miles of gravel and pavement to work together.

“It was a lot of drafting and good opportunity for groups to come back together,” he said. “As we approached final singletrack, I wanted to make sure I was first into that. I led into that because there isn’t a lot of passing the last 15-20 mile. We hit it hard and whittled it down to the top four.”

Finsterwald and Payson McElveen strong on the singletrack. (Photo: Adam Koble)

You get a healthy dose of tarmac,
gravel, and singletrack.
But come prepared,
this course bites on the way back.

Finsterwald would ultimately escape with the South African marathon champ.

“Matt and I got away on second to last climb,” he said. “He put down a solid attack, and I was able to go with him. Jasper had aero bars so we knew he could come back, so we fully committed to that move and it came down to a sprint between the two of us.” 

The Dutchman and McElveen followed shortly thereafter.

Gomez Villafañe said that the effort she put in on the road and gravel had begun to take a toll by the time she reached the final singletrack section.

“Once we got to second aid the singletrack, we had caught a Dutch rider. When he got in the group, he had TT bars, and started ripping it. I was like, ‘I need to get back to the singletrack, this is really hard.’ I was like ‘wow, I’m getting tired,’ and I didn’t know why. Looking back at my power I’m like ‘no wonder!'” 

Both Finsterwald and Gomez Villafañe won the race aboard Specialized Cruz bikes paired to the new Fox 32 Taper Cast gravel suspension fork. Finsterwald said he made a night-before decision on Friday after pre-riding to run the suspension fork, while Gomez Villafañe had planned on it.

She also admitted that she and Finsterwald toyed with the idea of “ruining the spirit of gravel” by switching to mountain bikes (not prohibited) before the final singletrack section. They ultimately opted not to cause any drama.

Gomez Villafañe said that the nature of the course — and the bike selection — made for a less heady day of racing.

“It was rowdy and it was super fun,” she said. “In the first hour and hour and half, I knew I was racing but it didn’t feel like it. I was like, ‘this is so fun, just ripping singletrack on these bikes that shouldn’t be riding these trails.'”

Gomez Villafañe with the winning whip, a Specialized Crux paired with a Fox 32 TC gravel fork (Photo: Adam Koble)

Finsterwald described a similar experience on the day.

“It had the tactics of normal gravel racing and dynamic of racing on singletrack,” he said. “It went by so fast because the whole time you’re just doing fun stuff. In a way, six hours goes way faster than XC when it’s seven laps of the same thing.”

Both riders next head to Unbound Gravel for their first appearance at the 200-mile gravel race. Currently, Finsterwald sits in second in the Life Time Grand Prix standings, while Gomez Villafañe is in first after the tragic death of Wilson moved her up a spot.

Full results from the Rule of Three can be found here.

Struggle, encourage, conquer,
and revel in mutual unity. 
If we did all this,
would you join the RO3 community?