Grit and gratification: The Grand Junction Off-Road

Gratified, satisfied, fulfilled: I’m searching for a word that can describe the emotion I experienced upon crossing the finish line of Epic Rides’ Grand Junction Off-Road this past weekend. This was my third time racing the 40-mile event, and after winning the women’s amateur category last year, I made the decision to line up with the pros for Friday’s fat tire crit and Sunday’s backcountry race.

12 or-so miles into the race on Twist and Shout and Butterknife. I'm confident riding technical terrain, and this part of the race was an absolute blast. Image by Brian Leddy.

12 or-so miles into the race on Twist and Shout and Butterknife. I'm confident riding technical terrain, and this part of the race was an absolute blast. Image by Brian Leddy.

For those who haven’t had the opportunity to race the Off-Road, it’s, simply put, tough. With well over 5,000 feet of climbing, miles of chunky singletrack, an abundance of technical features, and seemingly relentless uphill road, it’s a race that challenges the mind as much as it does the body. Mental fortitude is something I’m still working on when it comes to racing, but I knew the course well going into the weekend, and hoped that with a clean race and strong legs I would be able to meet my personal goals for the course.  My objective was to crack four hours, take nearly 30 minutes off my race time from 2015, and maintain a pace of over 10/miles an hour on some incredibly physical terrain.

The pro roster for the race was intimidating. More than 30 incredibly fast women – women I’ve looked up to for years as riders and racers – were signed up, and Epic’s Todd Sadow made note of the competitive field during Friday’s pre-race meeting. I let this get into my head a little bit, but was determined to focus on my own performance, and hoped that by doing so I’d finish satisfied, regardless of how I placed.

I was excited to race Friday night’s crit around downtown Grand Junction – 20 minutes plus three laps on the same bikes that we’d race for Sunday’s backcountry event. It was my first time racing a crit, and the most common advice I received was, “Stay with the lead group. Let them do the work for you the whole race and then use that saved energy to attack at the end.” It sounded simple enough, but I was unprepared for the pace put down by those at the front of the pack and they quickly got away. I could have stayed comfortably in the chase group, but spurred on by the wild energy of the crowds and loud cheers of friends and family, I decided to make a break for it and spent most of the race working by myself. While I ended up getting caught at the finish by three ladies, I snagged a 12th place finish, $50 for my attempt to bridge to the lead group, and a little more confidence in my ability to “hang” with the fast chicks for Sunday’s big event. 

Following a 2+ mile rollout on pavement and an extended climb up the Tabeguache trail, the race drops into part of Gunny Loop. The Off-Road is technical and challenging, and that's what makes it such a unique race. Image: Dave McElwaine.

Following a 2+ mile rollout on pavement and an extended climb up the Tabeguache trail, the race drops into part of Gunny Loop. The Off-Road is technical and challenging, and that's what makes it such a unique race. Image: Dave McElwaine.

Sunday dawned with perfect temperatures and a strong breeze. I cheered Noah across the line and wheeled my Pivot Mach 429SL up to the start. I wasn’t the only one on this bike – Rose Grant went on to win the event on the Mach 429 – and it handled like a dream throughout the day. The chunky terrain necessitated a full suspension setup for me, and having 29” wheels, a dropper post and wide bars instilled confidence in my abilities to tackle the tough trails.

The women rolled out on the road at a moderate pace, which quickly turned fierce and fast as we hit dirt at the Lunch Loops. A steep, technical climb up the Tabeguache Trail was on order for the first 20 minutes, and, feeling fresh, I was able to pass quite a few women on this section. By the time we were six miles into the race, I was riding comfortably in a group chasing Alexis Skarda (who went on to take 2nd) and Rose Grant. The pace was quick as we entered Butterknife – my favorite trail of the race – and I was eager to lead on this technical, uber-fun desert terrain. I was riding in third place by this point, and even passed Alexis when she stopped at the Third Flats aid station, but my podium aspirations ended there.

Windmill Road, seven miles of relentless uphill, was where I lost sight of the ladies with whom I’d been riding. For the next hour, I pedaled into a furious headwind, working by myself to maintain a little breathing room. While I’m disappointed that I couldn’t ride this climb with the speed and tenacity of the podium finishers, I’m equally pleased to identify an area in my training and riding that needs work – a lot of it. I suspected that I’d give up some time here, but having proof that non-technical, extended climbs are my weakness will lend some definition to how I prepare for races in the future and also motivates me to improve.

Despite vicious leg cramps for the last five miles of the race, I managed to crack a smile for my sister Ilana on Andy's Loop. The spectators were amazing all day!

Despite vicious leg cramps for the last five miles of the race, I managed to crack a smile for my sister Ilana on Andy's Loop. The spectators were amazing all day!

After bombing down to the Hot Tomato Aid Station, I willed my legs to pedal up two miles of steep sandstone to the Bangs Canyon Trailhead. A quick road descent allowed for a moment’s recovery before swinging onto the amazing Andy’s Loop. Spectators, friends, and family lined the course here, and their cheers made for a truly special moment during an otherwise fatiguing time. Vicious leg cramps slowed my progress on the last two climbs, but by the time I crested to Eagle’s, I knew I had it in me to maintain my place, and cruised down the last bit of singletrack before hitting the road to the finish. I nailed my sub four-hour goal with a time of 3:52:07, 7th place for the day.

As I mentioned, the mental aspect of racing is something I’m still working on. I’m fresh to racing at the pro level, new to training, and I have yet to stack up the results at events of this caliber, especially endurance or cross-country events. These factors all contribute to some lack of confidence in my own abilities on the bike. Regardless of placing, I know I would have been happy had I only managed to make my own time goals for the Off-Road. However, snagging a top-ten finish at an event of this caliber, with fierce and strong competitors, was a truly special feeling and instilled in me not only some fresh motivation to keep training hard, but a ray of confidence that I’m on the right path in racing at a higher level. 

Gratified. Satisfied. Deeply fulfilled. I was exhausted crossing the line, but the core emotion I experienced was one of deep, all-encompassing gratitude to have performed with strength and grit, to have a bike that handled the terrain effortlessly, and to have the support of my fiancé and so many friends and family on the course and on this racing journey.

That smile says it all: I was thrilled to meet my personal time goal and take home a solid result on my home turf. 

That smile says it all: I was thrilled to meet my personal time goal and take home a solid result on my home turf. 

I took 7th place for the day, but more importantly, I took home a fresh dose of confidence in my abilities and a desire to try even harder. I can't wait to see how the rest of the summer plays out as I switch between enduro and endurance. Next up: the GoPro Games in Vail! 

Thank you to Pivot Cycles, Enve, MRP, and Ergon for your support; thanks to Ryan Geiger for the coaching; thanks to my family for the on-course hand ups, cheers, and love out there. And then an even bigger thank you to my fiancé Noah, for your confidence in my ability, and for encouraging me every step of the way. 

I'm lucky to have such a supportive fiancé and awesome training partner. Noah had a great race as well: recap here. Image: Eric Landis

I'm lucky to have such a supportive fiancé and awesome training partner. Noah had a great race as well: recap here. Image: Eric Landis