The cross country mountain bike race at the 13th edition of the GoPro Mountain Games (formerly Teva Games) promises to be one of the most hotly contested events of the year. American race promoters have found that large cash prizes bring out the biggest names in the sport.
With the suspension of UCI rule 1.2.019, several UCI license holders will be allowed to compete in the GoPro Games - which is not UCI sanctioned - for considerable cash prizes. The first three finishers will earn $3000, $2000, and $1000 respectively, and the pro women's purse will be identical to the men's.
At this writing, the exact mountain bike course has not been laid out due to higher than average snow cover on the mountain. Generally the riders can count on climbing a large portion of the steep mountain at Vail, but this year’s course could feature an abbreviated lap.
On the men's side, former Olympian and USA Champion Todd Wells (Specialized) has to be considered the favorite. However, he should be concerned about his own teammate Howard Grotts. Grotts not only won the 2013 edition of the race, but on Sunday also finished third in the under 23 World Cup at Albstadt, Germany. His specialty is steep climbing, and Vail generally provides plenty of that.
Wells told Cyclingnews, "I am looking forward to returning to the GoPro Games. I have only raced it once before as the Teva Games. Racing between 8,500-9,500 ft is tough. There is great prize money and strong field so it will be a hard race. I'll be trying to keep an eye on my teammate and last year's winner, Howard Grotts, among the other guys."
The race course starts at an elevation of 8,200 feet and generally rises up to about 9,500 feet. Alex Grant (Sho-Air/Cannondale), who finished second last year, said, "It is always a shock to race that high for the first time. Last year Howard Grotts climbed away from me and made it look easy."
Wells also has looked good this season. He finished second in the Whiskey Off-Road to teammate and marathon world Champion Christoph Sauser, and was on all the early US season podiums. While Grotts is making the trip back from two weeks at the European World Cups, Wells has been home preparing for this race.
Wells said, "The GoPro Games is an awesome festival with a bunch of events, a cool venue and packed Vail Village. I'm surprised it hasn't gotten more press over the years because it is in such an iconic mountain bike venue (multiple-time World Championship/World Cup host), has great prize money, TV coverage, and thousands of people. I can't wait to get back race'n after a big lull in the schedule."
Race tactics could be quite interesting on Saturday. Wells is one of the best cross country descenders on the planet, while Grotts probably has the edge when it comes to steep climbs. Each will be looking to gap the other when they are on terrain that suits them.
Four-time winner Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and his wife Heather Irmiger (Trek) will not be attending the race this year due to enduro racing commitments in Oregon. Troy Wells, who finished third last year, will be attending. When asked if he was coming, he replied, "Money and top riders get me to races."
Ben Sonntag (Stan’s NoTubes), Brady Kappius (Cliff Bar), and Jay Henry (Tokyo Joe’s) will be rounding out a very competitive men’s field.
The women’s mountain bike race will feature a stacked field as well. Olympic bronze medalist and former national champion Georgia Gould (Luna Pro Team) will be making her way back from Germany to race at Vail. She finished "first American", in 18th place, at the Albstadt World Cup, several minutes ahead of any other female American world cup racer who may attend the GoPro Games.
Gould told Cyclingnews, "I am really looking forward to the GoPro games. It is a real treat to have such a high quality event in my home state of Colorado. The big prize purse always ensures a competitive field and the high-altitude course is packed with tough climbs and fun, flowy descents. To take the win at GoPro you have to be firing on all cylinders!"
Erin Huck (Tokyo Joe’s), last year’s GoPro winner, has stepped up her game this season. She finished second in the Whiskey 50 last month. She too will be making the trip back from Germany.
Evelyn Dong (Backountry.com) has probably been the most improved American rider this year. She finished third at both The Sea Otter Classic and the Whiskey Off-Road. She may also be the best pure climber in Saturday’s field.
The X-factor in the women’s race has to be the Cyclo-cross World Cup Champion Katie Compton (Trek Cyclo-cross Collaborative). While she only competes in mountain biking to keep her skills and fitness at top levels, she often gets results. She finished fourth at the Val di Sole World Cup a couple years ago, and is coming off a win at the Biti Bike Bash last weekend in Lakewood Colorado. She finished third in last year’s GoPro mountain bike race.
The 2014 GoPro Mountain Games has a major economic impact on Vail and the surrounding area. Not only is there $100,000 in total prize money, but also last year it was estimated that there were over 53,000 spectators who attended the four-day weekend of multi-sport events.
This weekend will feature World Cups for the sports of Bouldering and Slackline. In addition to the mountain bike racing, there will also be a road time trial and a Slopestyle competition. There will also be several climbing, kayaking, running, fishing, rafting, stand-up paddling, and disc golf competitions.
The Ultimate Mountain Challenge combines the mountain bike race, road time trial, a 10k running race, and a four-mile kayaking race. Veteran mountain bike racers Gretchen Reeves (Tokyo Joe’s) and Sari Anderson have each won the event multiple times, and will be competing this weekend. Seven-time winner Josiah Middaugh will be competing as well. Last year the X-Terra specialist won the event by a whopping 7:29 minutes.
Everyone will be keeping a close eye on the Vail weather forecast. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 70s, but there is up to a 40% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews.com for all the action from the GoPro Mountain Games this weekend.