Wil takes us on a journey at the 2019 Grand Junction Off-Road race
Last month, I made the long journey from Australia to the US for the Pivot Cycles launch of the brand new Mach 4 SL.
We’d been staying in nearby Fruita, Colorado for a couple of days, where we were testing the Mach 4 SL, while shooting photos and videos in preparation for the official release a week later. Having spent those two days of riding around the 18 Road and Kokopelli trail networks getting our bikes dialled in, it was time to put them to the test in their intended habitat.
And so for the third and final day of the Pivot Cycles launch, us journos were given the option of racing a 15, 30 or 40-mile category in the Grand Junction Off-Road. This is a big weekend of mountain bike racing that’s organised by the Epic Rides crew – the same folks who run the 24-Hours In The Old Pueblo.
Of course I chose the 40-mile category, mostly because I had flown halfway round the world to be in Colorado and I wanted to experience as much riding as possible. But upon reflection, it’s probably also because my imperial-to-metric conversions are a bit sketchy.
Turns out it was a little longer than planned. By the end, I’d clocked up 70km and over 1800m of climbing on my GPS, which took me over four hours to complete.
It was simultaneously one of the toughest and the best days of riding I have ever had on a bike.
The start was busy and loud as hundreds of mountain bikers sped off through town on streets blockaded by local police, with spectators cheering and clanging cowbells on each side of the road.
Once onto dirt fire road, we hit some mega steep climbing and the field slowed down considerably as riders got frustrated as those ahead who were struggling with the technical, rocky and awkward climbing. There was plenty of dismounting and uphill trudging going on.
The field slowly began to string out and give us all a bit of breathing space. Then the trail narrowed and morphed into some properly good descending with plenty of chunky boulders and surprise rock drops to negotiate, keeping me and the 100mm travel Mach 4 SL on our toes. Once my heart rate had returned to something below 200bpm, I started to find my flow and broke out with an ear-to-ear grin as I swooped my way down, the bike and me floating over the chunder. Views of the surrounding mountains were very difficult to ignore as I attempted to focus on the trail ahead.
We hit the 30/40 mile split, and my mind briefly thought about a change of plan and doing the shorter option instead. But, as I had explained earlier to my American and German friends, I was not here to f**k spiders. And besides, I would have never lived it down from the other four lads I was racing against. As Scotty from Dirt Rag had warned me earlier, if I’d copped out of the full 40-mile race, US customs would have found out and I would have likely never been allowed into the country again.
No choice but to do the 40-mile route
I believed him, so I continued on the 40-mile route. Following some usefully flat dirt road recovery time through the bottom of the valley, we then hit the Windmill Rd climb.
This middle section of the Grand Junction Off Road race was, in a word, horrible.
Steep, rough fireroad climbs, with a sufficiently busted-up surface that meant you just couldn’t quite switch off mentally. While much of the course was pretty tacky thanks to light showers the day before, this section was still dusty, and deep with sand in some spots. It was slow going. Demoralising. I got passed by a few riders as my average speed plummeted. Then I was on my own for what seemed like an eternity.
Close to throwing in the towel
I went into a mental hole as my weary body felt every rock, every bump and every pebble on the track. My left knee started to flare up, and later on my right hammy (hamstring – Anatomy Ed) began twitching with all the warning signs of a hard cramp coming on. My GPS stared back at me, with a distance count that I could have sworn was winding backwards.
I got frustrated at myself for going too hard too early. I was beat, and so very close to throwing in the towel. All I could do was focus on keeping the pedals turning over one at a time. Left. Right. Left again. Right again.
Mercifully, the climb eventually peaked, and turned downwards aggressively on a very fast, very sketchy fireroad descent. With muscles and brain still exhausted, this kind of warp-speed descending had the potential to be total wipeout-land.
I ate half a pickle
While staying off the brakes as much as possible, I managed to keep things in check to reach the bottom one one piece. Having annoyingly given up all the elevation I’d blown my gasket for earlier, I came across the second feed station. I filled up both bottles (one on the bike, one in my jersey pocket) with fresh water. Half a dozen volunteers were cheering me on while asking if I wanted gels, food, isotonic drink. Then I saw the table with a tray of bananas and another tray with half-cut pickles.
So I ate half a pickle. Because Americans like that sort of thing, and I found it totally bizarre to eat one halfway in a race. It was really tasty though.
The next horrible climb was all on slick-rock. If you’ve ever been to Moab, it was kind of like that. Jeeps casually crawled down past me as I climbed upwards, following sporadic yellow strips painted onto the vast rock slab surface. I could hear the cowbells behind me as fellow competitors had reached the feed station. ‘Just keep pushing’ I tried to tell myself. I didn’t want to lose more places, but I was already feeling beaten.
Large fractures across the rock created momentum-robbing step-ups, which proved exceptionally taxing on my already-fatigued upper body. There were a few that I just didn’t bother attempting to hoik my front wheel over at all. Instead, I dismounted and walked for a bit to give my twinging knee a rest.
Finally at the end of this eternal slick-rock climb, I turned onto bitumen, with the course sending us up a public two-lane mountain road for a bit, before speeding downhill in a 60Kph aero tuck to try and save some energy and claw back some time. Views opened up of Grand Junction far down in the valley below, which gave me a glimmer of hope that most of the climbing damage had already been dished out.
Six foot chicken with a chainsaw
Then we hit the third and final feed station – the junction point where the 30 and 40-mile racecourses would rejoin for the last portion of the route. There was so much noise at this feed station. Cheers, whistles, cowbells, vuvuzelas. Loads of spectators, families, friends, random hikers.
Oh, and a six-foot chicken with a chainsaw. The chainsaw still had its chain on. I surprised the chicken, as he/she was facing the other way down the road to the 30-milers. As I ducked left into the singletrack, I heard a cheer as the chainsaw fired up again, the roar growing faint quickly as the trail sloped downhill and I sped away.
The final 20km of the race was insane. The trails were so good, so technical, and oh so very rocky. But there was incredible flow to be tapped into, if you could pick the right lines and hit the jumps where possible.
My body was tired, but my brain had switched on again. The welcome views of Grand Junction might have been responsible for lifting my spirits. Or it might have been that magic pickle from an hour ago that was just starting to kick in. Whatever it was, all I could try and do was go as fast as possible. Occasionally I came into sections waaay too hot, clanging the wheels and tyres so hard that I was sure I’d cut open a sidewalk or cracked a rim. Thankfully the tyres (and rims) held.
I got stuck behind some 30-mile riders, which slowed me down, since I’m not very good at aggressive overtaking manoeuvres. A particularly stubborn rider was not interested in moving over on the narrow technical singletrack, so I eased off to avoid making any stupid mistakes. I eventually got past him before sitting behind a rider who I assume was a local.
“You gonna ride the Waterfall?”
“You wanna go past?” she yelled out.
“Only when you’re ready, no stress!” I called back.
“You gonna ride the Waterfall?” she inquired.
“I have no idea what that is” I yelled back. “This is my first time riding here”.
“Right, follow my line. I don’t want to have to walk down the Waterfall” she said in a considerate, but also no-bullshit tone.
I was a bit worried about this unknown upcoming trail feature, but her pace and lines were good. Really good. Then we got to ‘The Waterfall’ – a huge rocky ledge that extended out straight ahead, with a gnarly steep line to the left to get down off it. There were a dozen other riders crawling down the huge rock ledge, bikes on shoulders or braced down below them for balance as they carefully navigated their way down as safely as possible when you’re in Lycra with cleated shoes.
Without hesitation, my local guide tipped left and bombed straight down the Waterfall. I followed her exact line, heart in mouth, and eyeballs growing wide as I spotted the rock gap beneath my wheels, and then the full drop off. Arms and legs at full extension, my front wheel rolled down over the drop.
My balance point must have been so very close to pivoting over the bars, but my arms and the bike soaked up the full force of the landing as we carried on through. I screamed out of both sheer terror and excitement as we successfully pummelled down this short, 3m vertical descent. My pulse leapt and I could feel my hairs standing on end. I’d made it!
“OH DUDE THAT WAS INSANE!” I yelled to my lead-out rider, laughing at the same time.
“Right on man!” she yelled back to me.
“I honestly would not have ridden that if it weren’t for you. Thank you!” I yelled back.
“No problems!” she replied. “Alright you can pass me on the right here. Just so you know, this next bit is the best part of the whole race. Enjoy it. Go get ’em!”
As I went past, thanking her repeatedly for helping to guide me down that line, she gave me a couple of strong whoops and hollas, and we wished each other good luck for the rest of the race.
10km to the finish
At this point my GPS was showing that I was within 10km of the finish, so I clicked up a gear and started to push hard. Well, as hard as I could while keeping my twinging hammy at bay.
The descent felt like it went on forever. I skipped and banged my way through it, flipping the bike from left-to-right. I was still feeling tired, but totally in-tune with the bike, like we couldn’t put a foot wrong.
That can be a dangerous mindset though, because you can’t afford to get too cocky. This happened when I came into a blind corner far too hot, and felt both front and rear tyres slip into a drift as I pushed through the tightening turn. All of a sudden there was an exposed cliff on my right, with jagged rocks peeking up from the ground, their sharp edges pointing right up in my direction. I almost lost it, but somehow I stayed off the brakes and the tyres held a clean drift, just before they hooked up again past the apex, pushing me forwards down the trail in the preferred direction. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and promised myself to dial things back a notch and to never do that again.
I kept the power on though, and continued to wind in some 30-mile riders, and occasionally some 40-milers too. As we got closer to town, more spectators lined the trail. Some people were in costume, parents were with young kids, retirees were kicking back in camp chairs next to their coolers, and school kids were high up on the rocks watching riders below them. With all the noise and cheering, all these wonderful folks were doing everything they could to lift the spirits of tired competitors who were so very close to the end.
Some final tech-climbing got us back onto bitumen, and then it was onto the road into town. Knowing how close we were, I dug deep and pushed as hard as I could with my forearms slumped over the bars, shoulders hunched, head dropped, hoping I could hold off any stronger riders behind me. I managed to do that, speeding around a few more inner city street corners – again blocked off by local police – before I came rolling down the main street through the finish line chute.
All over (the place)
And after 4 hours and 18 minutes, I crossed the finish line and it was all over.
My body was so beat. My thighs were tight, my back was aching, and my neck could barely turn left or right. But I was so satisfied I’d finished.
Somehow I nabbed the win in the Open Women’s category, which was exciting because I’d never won anything like that. I had a feeling that 2nd place getter Brittany Spangler (funnily enough a Pivot-sponsored rider) would be a tad pissed off about that. Once the category kerfuffle was rectified, it was deemed I actually got a top-30 spot in the bloke’s Open category, so I was pretty stoked with that.
More importantly though, I managed to be the first of our group to cross the line, earning me the coveted Journo Cup!
For many reasons, I’ll never forget this day of racing. For someone who doesn’t race that kind of distance (or really race that much at all), it was so brutally tough – especially since we had two solid days of riding beforehand for the launch that had already drained my somewhat limited and jet-lagged batteries. But the trails were so mind-blowingly good that it made all the pain more than worth it.
Honesty, I cannot wait to go back and ride there again. And explore more of Colorado too. I’d do the event again, but I reckon the 30-mile would be just fine.
Thank you very much to the crew at Pivot Cycles for inviting me along to the launch, and for including the Grand Junction Off-Road as part of it. The Mach 4 performed flawlessly throughout the day’s racing, and was a big reason that I came out the other side unscathed. I’m very impressed, and particularly with the Fox Live Valve system, which totally comes into its own in a proper racing environment.
If you’d like to read more about the bike and my experience of testing it over those three days in Colorado, check out my review of the Pivot Mach 4 SL right here.
Wil’s flights & accommodation for this trip were covered by Pivot Cycles, and his event entry was covered by Epic Rides.