Pro racers from ten countries will be traveling from as far away as New Zealand and the Czech Republic to compete in the fifth annual Grand Junction Off-Road weekend of races. At stake will be $30,000 in prize money, with an equal payout for the women's racing.
Closely patterned after the highly successful Whiskey Off-Road, the Grand Junction event has grown dramatically. It will also include racing for hundreds of amateurs at distances of 15, 30, or 40 miles. Racing will start and finish in downtown Grand Junction, just steps away from the Colorado River.
Pros will compete in a relatively flat Fat Tire Criterium on Friday evening in downtown Grand Junction, and then will race 40 miles on Sunday morning. Held largely on Bureau of Land Management trails outside of Grand Junction, the racecourse has become known as one of the most challenging in the USA.
Named for its location at the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers, the high desert town of Grand Junction has flourished over the past decade into a world-class mountain biking destination. Local trail favorites including Butterknife, Tabegauche, Gunny Loop, and Twist and Shout will all be part of the pro course on Sunday.
Riders will face 5,470 feet of climbing with virtually no flat sections over the 40-mile distance. The race starts at an elevation of 4,600 feet and reaches over 6,600 feet at its highest point. Nearly the entire final 12 miles is downhill, a feature that has become quite popular with the racers.
Back to defend his 2017 title will be Todd Wells (SRAM-Troy Lee Designs) who won by less than two minutes over Germany's Ben Sonntag (Cliff Bar). Wells is coming off of a couple tough weekends, at least partially due to punctures. He uncharacteristically finished 23rd at the Whiskey Off-Road, and then relinquished his USA Marathon title last weekend, finishing fifth in Arkansas. It is fair to say that Wells will be highly motivated to turn things around at Grand Junction.
Sonntag, known for his excellent endurance, is hoping to pull off something big this weekend. He told Cyclingnews, "I've done every one of the previous four editions of the Grand Junction Off-Road, finished 2nd in the last three, and won the inaugural one."
Sonntag continued, "I'm definitely looking forward to arguably the most technical endurance MTB race course in the US. I will try to have a clean, smooth race. If you do that & have some strong legs on race day one will be up there."
Howard Grotts (Specialized), second at both the Whisky Off-Road and USA Marathon Champions is arguably the pre-race favorite on paper. He clearly is the best climber in the peloton, while Wells and others have better technical and descending skills. With literally 20 miles of climbing on the course, Grotts should be able to find places to press his advantage.
2105 Grand Junction winner, and former Columbian Champion, Fernando Riveros Paez (CZ Racing) will be back to attempt another victory after missing the race last year. Paez told Cyclingnews, "I can't wait to line up for one of the most technical courses in the U.S. It has lots of singletrack, enough climbing to hurt you, and fun descents. "
Paez added, "Epic Rides events are getting bigger, and the fields tougher which makes them more attractive to the spectators."
Newly crowned US Marathon Champion Payson McElveen (Orange Seal), Jeremiah Bishop (Topeak Ergon), and Justin Lindine (Apex) all had strong races at Marathon Nationals in Arkansas. They should be in the mix again for podium spots this weekend. Of the three, Bishop is legendary for his ability to handle rocky terrain.
Four-time USA Marathon Champion Rose Grant (Stans Notubes-Pivot), has been on a bit of a tear this season after rehabbing an injury during the entire off-season. Last weekend she set a stunning pace for hours at Marathon Nationals in Arkansas. Only Crystal Anthony (Riverside Racing) was able to hold her wheel. Despite her best efforts, Anthony had to settle for second place.
Grant described the upcoming race, "The GJ Off-Road course puts mountain bikers to the test with a perfect combination of rocky, technical single track and long double track climbs, requiring both maximum bike handling and fitness."
Last year Grant crushed a talented women's field by nearly six minutes. However, Katerina Nash (Clif Pro Team) is back on this year's roster. She beat Grant by six minutes in the 2015 version of the event.
Nash is coming off a highly successful Amgen Tour of California this past weekend where she finished fourteenth overall out of eighty women who finished. She obviously has regained much of her fitness after taking a well-earned break after cyclo-cross season. Nash excels when the terrain gets difficult so the Grand Junction course suits her well.
Crystal Anthony (Riverside Racing) has bumped up her mountain bike racing to a new level this year, something she credits to a new work schedule and ability to train. She not only finished 7th at Whiskey Off-Road (which included a 12-mile climb), but also finished right behind Rose Grant at last week's Marathon Nationals. Making her first appearance at the Grand Junction Off-Road, the question remains how Anthony will handle the technical terrain.
Also in the hunt will be local favorite Alexis Skarda (Stans NoTubes), who finished in second place at last year, and is coming off her first Pro-XCT victory in Utah last weekend. Up-and-coming Maghalie Rochette (Clif Pro Team) and Evelyn Dong (Cannondale) both have a good shot to be on the podium as well.
Cyclingnews will be on hand this weekend in Grand Junction to bring you news, results, and images from the course.