The course at the new Missoula XC, the final stop on the US Pro XCT, received rave reviews from riders after the cross country race was run on Saturday in Missoula, Montana.
"This is my favorite course this year," said Jeremy-Horgan Kobelski, who raced to a second place finish just behind Subaru-Trek teammate and hometown favorite Sam Schultz. He and Schultz flew over the jump each lap, with Schultz comfortable enough to go for style points as he pulled moves in the air.
A brand new course had been cut into Marshall Mountain, a former ski area, for the event, but it was done far enough in advance that locals had worn it in during a series of mid-week, evening races.
The course featured mostly wooded singletrack and doubletrack on property formally used as a local ski hill. While the first half of the lap was generally uphill and the second half was generally downhill, the race had a feeling of going up and down throughout. With tight turns and plenty of sidehill singletrack, good knowledge of the course was an advantage when it came to how to carry speed and what gears to use.
The feature that drew the most talk was a gap jump on the descent. It was a jump that made even the most experienced racers stop and think twice, and in fact at least half the elite men took the "B-line" and all of the elite women opted to skip the jump and take the longer B-line.
The jump helped those who did it gain about 6-10 seconds, depending how fast a rider could do the B-line.
"I was happy to get that jump dialed. That's close to the limit of what I would ride on a cross country bike," said Horgan-Kobelski. "I rediscovered my youthful getting air and having fun on a mountain bike course."
"I liked that feature. As long as people have an option to go around, I'm all for it. I like stuff like that."
US Pro XCT series winner Plaxton (Specialized), who was the only man in the top five not to ride the jump, still praised the course. "That was a hard course. Doing a bunch of laps the day before, it was fun to ride."
Even fourth place finisher Adam Craig (Rabobank-Giant), who is known for his technical skills, gave the jump some initial consideration.
"The course was super fun. I was a little nervous about that jump and it was sketchy on the first lap, but after that it was fine," said Craig.
Craig and fifth place finisher Carl Decker (Giant) ran dropper seat posts which is unheard of in elite cross country races.
"I've never run a dropper seat post in a cross country race before, but that five inches gave me the confidence to do that jump every lap," said Decker. "The climbs were steep enough that I was faster on a hardtail than on a dually."
"There was a lot climbing and steep descents so there wasn't much recovery, but it was the kind of course you would go out and ride for fun, maybe even do a few laps," said Decker. "That wasn't true of the course last week (at US Mountain Bike Nationals). Considering they didn't have trails here a year ago, this course is really impressive."
What the women thought
Although none of the women opted to ride the gap jump, they were still happy with the course.
"The course was exactly how it should be. It's what we used to race all the time," said second place finisher Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Trek). "I wish all of courses were back to that format."
"It had everything you'd want on a fun mountain bike ride. There was a little bit of fireroad, a little bit of climbing, a little bit of singletrack and a little bit of fast straightaway and some technical stuff. You couldn't help but smile the whole time."
When asked about the jump, third place finisher Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) said, "It's the kind of thing I joke that I might do it if I were in my 20s. I'm excited to see the guys do it, but I was happy to go around it."
Judy Freeman (Kenda/Felt), who finished fifth, explained why she chose to go around the jump.
"I thought about trying it, but it's a big one and you have to go into it with a lot of speed and confidence. Right before a race is not the time to practice that."
"Everyone is loooking at this and there is a big drop in Champery. From what I've been told, this one is larger than Champery and everyone has it on their mind."
"I think we'll start seeing more of these. There are more bike parks out there where we can have the opportunity to train on that kind of stuff. All of us wanted to do it. It wasn't for lack of wanting to, it was just being smart."