Category: Mountain

Trek saves University of Vermont’s nationals after bikes burn

It isn’t easy for college kids to travel across the country for a national championship bike race. Most are on limited budgets, fitting in training rides around classes, and they have to negotiate all of the travel coordination from flights to rental cars to lodging.

This weekend’s collegiate mountain bike nationals took another unexpectedly difficult twist for the University of Vermont team when they arrived in Missoula, Montana, only to find their bikes were destroyed in a fire.

Something seemed wrong Thursday morning. The bikes were expected to arrive via FedEx Wednesday night, around the time their flight landed. The team had shipped most of their bikes across the country to avoid exorbitant airline fees. They did some errands Thursday, hoping to pick up their bikes in time to go pre-ride the race courses.

As they were unloading groceries at their VRBO, a fateful call came in from FedEx. The truck had caught on fire, and the bikes were likely destroyed.

“We were not sure if they existed anymore,” said UVM’s Nick Lando. “Then we start scrambling.”

Lando and his teammate Mazie Hayden had flown with their bikes, so while the other UVM riders scoured Missoula for rental bikes and called every company they could think of, Lando drove Hayden up to the venue so she could practice on the downhill track. After all, UVM was the best team in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference this season, and Hayden was the top downhiller.

While they were up at Marshall Mountain, another teammate retrieved the bikes from the burned-out FedEx truck on the side of a road near town. The bikes were in pretty bad shape.

“The conditions of bikes varied from totally turned to ash and not salvageable to the carbon in the frames had unraveled themselves,” said Lando. “We put our heads together, building bikes as quick as we could, taking parts and making Frankenstein bikes so we could get XC riders on bikes.”

Fortunately, as they pulled apart their burnt bikes, a better option came up when Sarah Spencer made a phone call to Trek Bicycles. She spoke to Jed Gunn in e-commerce, who passed her along to Gary Whitebird in customer care. Whitebird had raced collegiate as both an undergrad and a graduate student and jumped at the chance to help save the weekend for the “Catamounts.”

“They called in, kind of in a tough spot,” said Whitebird. “A lot of us here have ridden, raced, we all know that situation, especially in collegiate.”

Late on Thursday, Whitebird and his team scrambled to find an option. They realized their California warehouse was the only option to get bikes shipped this late in the day.

“They only had a matter of minutes to pick the bikes off the shelf to get them on a UPS trailer to hit that deadline,” Whitebird added.

Trek reached out to one of their dealers in Missoula, Open Road Bicycle and Nordic, to see if they could build the bikes on short notice. “They didn’t even question it. They just said hey there’s a team that needs help, absolutely,” Whitebird said.

Although the eight bikes were shipped overnight, the cross-country races started at 8:30 a.m. Friday, so the UVM team had to source a few spare bikes from other teams — Fort Lewis College and University of Montana at Bozeman. Riding his own bike that he brought on the plane, Lando ended up second in the club division. The rest of the UVM riders were just happy to be toeing the line after a crazy 24 hours.

“Everyone had fun; everyone party-biked it,” said Lando. “There’s some character-building when people showing up on the start with scorched jerseys that smell like smoke.”

Racing continues Saturday with the short track and dual slalom races and Sunday with the downhill and team relay.

UVM’s riders will be aboard new bikes, and back in Wisconsin at Trek HQ, the Catamounts will probably have a few new fans following the action from afar.

“We’re really excited that we could help these group of kids,” said Whitebird. “With a team effort, everything was able to come together.”

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The Dirt: How Catharine Pendrel stays mentally tough after injury

Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.

Back in June, Catharine Pendrel (Clif Bar) broke her left humerus in what seemed like an innocuous crash. This left the Olympic medalist off the bike for an extended period in the heart of the race season.

She returned to the World Cup in August and also raced world championships in Switzerland, where she was 14th. But she wanted to get in a bit more racing, so she continued on to the Swiss Epic stage race, which she won overall with fellow Canadian Haley Smith. Then, she came out for the final race of the Epic Rides Series in Bentonville, Arkansas. She nearly won that rainy 50-miler, only to be beaten in the very end by Erin Huck.

I caught up with two-time world champion at the Oz Trails Off-Road earlier this month to hear about how she has coped with injury this season.

VeloNews: Was that the worst injury of your career?

Catharine Pendrel: For sure. I broke two collarbones and a thumb, but this one was definitely the most severe. When I saw the X-rays, my heart dropped a little bit.

VN: I’m sure that reset everything for your season.

CP: Yeah for sure. I wasn’t super happy with the start of my season. But you come back from mediocre races and you recharge and you’re still motivated, and then it’s a week later — boom. I was optimistic at first and then the doctors were like, ‘Maybe you’ll be back for September.’ Luckily I beat that by quite a bit. I was back after 10 weeks. It was a slow process. I lost more than I desired in fitness. But I still think it was a good year. I ended it with good sensations even if the results didn’t always show. I’m happy with my form and it left me positive, motivated for next year.

VN: Is it still affecting you while you ride?

CP: No, not at all.

VN: You wrapped up your European season with 14th at worlds. Tell me about that.

CP: I moved into top-10, flatted with a lap and a half to go, and that was a bummer. Sometimes you can’t get the legs to come back after that. I felt really good until then. I’m happy with how I felt; the results will come eventually.

VN: Is it weird to be back in that part of the field being a multi-time world champion?

CP: It is. It’s really mentally challenging because mentally I’m still always riding for a top-five and you have to still keep that intensity for the fight even if it’s a different surrounding. There’s so many races where I look around and I’m in 14th or 15th and all four riders with me have rainbow stripes on too. You just see how it’s rare to stay on top for as long as I have. If I have to have a little low and come back, it’s OK.

VN: To stay mentally strong, do you have a mantra or something?

CP: A lot of the work definitely has to happen before the race because you can’t be in there and have any doubt or second-guessing your desire. I just say clear mind, not thinking of anything negative, you try to think of things that are positive and exciting that keep you fighting forward.

VN: Is the injury part of why you came out for this race so late in the season?

CP: Yeah definitely, the injury, taking two and a half months off racing in the middle of summer, made me want to do it. Clif Team, we’re going to change our focus to a heavier emphasis on domestic stuff. I haven’t been to an Epic Ride since 2009. In the middle of the season being in Canada it doesn’t always work out to get here. This one was just to check it out, I’ve heard good things about the trails, and get excited to do more of these things next year.

VN: You expect you’re going to move away from World Cup racing?

CP: Eventually. [laughs] With world championships in Canada that is still big on my radar I want to be the top three points earners for Canada for Olympics. There’s potential to earn three start spots for 2020. So there’s a lot of things that are really motivating to stay in the highest level, at the World Cup level. It could be that I sit out a World Cup or two but I will be at the majority of them, and I hope to be a contender.

Huck wins, Woodruff third in Greek stage race

Attika stage race
Erin Huck won the three-day Attika stage race ahead of Annie Terpstra and fellow American Chloe Woodruff. Photo courtesy Team USA

Fresh off her win at the Oz Trails Off-Road, Erin Huck jetted to Greece with Team USA to chase UCI points at the Attika stage race. And she came away with an overall win after attacking early on the final stage of the three-day race to scoop up the 11 seconds needed for victory. Her compatriot Chloe Woodruff was third behind Annie Terpstra.

The two Americans will remain in Greece for a second Attika stage race October 19-21.

New venue for Red Bull Rampage

The world’s gnarliest freeride competition returns to the Utah desert on October 26, but this year, Red Bull Rampage will be held at an entirely new venue. According to organizers, this will afford an additional 150 feet of vertical and will feature steeper, more technical terrain. I’m not entirely sure how it is possible to send mountain bikers down terrain that’s more extreme than the old venue. Tune in on at 9 a.m. Pacific time Friday next week to see it for yourselves!

Got some news you’d like to share in The Dirt? I’d love to hear from you. Please email me your news and updates on all things gravel and mountain biking.

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Why Luke Vrouwenvelder is the fastest guy you’ve never heard of

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas (VN) — Luke Vrouwenvelder lacked the various accouterments of the other top riders at last weekend’s Oz Trails Off-Road in Bentonville, Arkansas. There was no tent to shield him from the rain, no team mechanic to wrench on his bicycle. Instead, Vrouwenvelder traveled to the race with his mom, Angie Shatas, from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

He left the weekend with a second-place medal and a check for $5,000 in prize money.

This is how Vrouwenvelder has operated his racing program all season. At 23, he is one of the country’s top up-and-coming off-road racers, with a resume of impressive results on the U.S. Cup series. Fifteen years ago, those results could have earned Vrouwenvelder a paying job on one of North America’s factory cross-country teams. But mountain biking’s heyday is long in the rearview mirror, and today, top talent like Vrouwenvelder often operate privateer programs.

That means scraping together what little support Vrouwenvelder can find. He has Trek as a bike sponsor, along with seven other companies providing a range of products — Bontrager, Oakley, Clif Bar, Vittoria, Cutaway, Fox, and Violich Farms, a California orchard that grows almonds and walnuts. He also races under the team name of his personal coaching business, LukeVCoaching, and uses his presence at the races to find new clients.

“I get to meet clients that I coach. I get to see them, put a face to a name, I get to race alongside them,” Vrouwenvelder told VeloNews in Bentonville. “It can be a bit much at times but as long as my time management’s there, it’s doable. It’s the only reason I’m here, otherwise I wouldn’t have the money.”

No, it’s not the easiest or most obvious way to take on the best American mountain bikers in his debut season in the pro ranks. So far, it’s working for Vrouwenvelder.

He started in April with the Fontana and Bonelli US Cup races, where he was seventh and 10th, respectively. The next month he was fifth in the short-track and sixth in the cross-country at Soldier Hollow. Then, he was hit by a car in early June while riding, suffering a severe bone bruise on his tibia. He was off the bike for about a month and had to cancel a trip to Europe for World Cups in Italy and Andorra.

“The injury is sort of like what could have been,” Vrouwenvelder said. “At the same time, it’s easy to focus on the negative at the time, in the moment. But a forced break like that, mentally it’s really motivating.”

Vrouwenvelder came back stronger. He was second in the elite cross-country and third in the short track at USA Cycling National Mountain Bike Championships, beating rivals with factory sponsorships like Christopher Blevins (Specialized) and Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes).

Vrouwenvelder is hardly a novice. He won three national championships in collegiate cycling at the University of North Carolina. After graduating in 2017, he launched his coaching business. After one year as a coach, Vrouwenvelder counts about 15-20 clients, some of whom were out racing at the Oz Trails Off-Road.

Vrouwenvelder’s impressive results have begun to earn him sponsors. Ken Avery, vice president of marketing for Vittoria tires, met Vrouwenvelder at the Boston Rebellion Pro XCT race. Vrouwenvelder finished fifth overall at the race, and the impressive ride caught Avery’s attention.

“For me, it was like, ‘Dude you’re one of the best in the country and you’re buying our product? Let’s work together,’” Avery said. “I liked the fact that he had full freedom to ride whatever because it really underscored that he’s using our stuff because he believes in it.”

Of course, there are disadvantages to the privateer program, Vrouwenvelder said. His race at the Oz Trails Off-Road almost didn’t happen; during Friday’s fat tire crit he broke a chain and didn’t finish.

Vrouwenvelder tried to troubleshoot the problem with Brad Copeland, the mechanic for Howard Grotts and the Specialized team. The two realized that Vrouwenvelder’s cassette was causing a problem, and the Specialized team loaned Vrouwenvelder a new one for Sunday’s backcountry race.

Vrouwenvelder made the most of the good fortune — he out-sprinted Grotts for second place and the $5,000 payday.

“Luckily Howard [Grotts] and Brad [Copeland] from Specialized were nice enough to take a little pity on me,” Vrouwenvelder said. “I feel a little bad — their new cassette is probably what won me the sprint. They didn’t have to do that.”

Vrouwenvelder (right) got the better of Grotts at the end of the Oz Trails Off-Road. Photo: Brenda Ernst

The privateer program may work for now, however it isn’t enough to help Vrouwenvelder meet his ultimate goal. Vrouwenvelder wants to someday compete on the World Cup series. Racing the World Cup, which has races scattered across Europe, requires resources and team support.

“The teams that are offering, they’re not necessarily a better situation than what I’m doing right now,” Vrouwenvelder said. “Because I would obviously lose the ability to put my coaching service on the front of my jersey, which definitely delivers a few clients now and again. I’d have to weigh the pros and the cons.”

Avery believes Vrouwenvelder has the right combination of natural talent and intelligence to someday advance him to the sport’s premier series.

“With Luke, he has the ability and the mindset, and he understands how to do it all because he’s a coach himself. Because of that, he’s got great potential,” Avery said.

“He is the fastest guy you may have never heard of.”


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Dirt Dispatch: The wonderful Oz Trails Off-Road

Editor’s note: News director Spencer Powlison is racing all four of the Epic Rides Series mountain bike races this summer to cover the pro racing and experience the events from a participant’s standpoint. This coverage is sponsored by Fezzari Bicycles, Smith, and Mavic. Powlison will ride Fezzari’s new Signal Peak cross-country bike, wear Smith’s Forefront 2 helmet and Attack Max sunglasses, and ride Mavic’s Crossmax Pro Carbon wheelset.

The yellow brick road isn’t a road at all — it’s a strip of singletrack that twists through the emerald forests of Northwest Arkansas.

For the final round of the Epic Rides Series of mountain bike races, I traveled to Oz. Not the place with flying monkeys and wicked witches — I’m talking about the Ozark Mountains, where there are flying mountain bikers and wickedly slick roots and rocks.

Tucked up into Arkansas’s hilly northwest corner, the town of Bentonville played host to the inaugural Oz Trails Off-Road. Bentonville, as you may know, is the home to retailer Walmart.  This may seem an unlikely destination for a 50-mile mountain bike race, but actually, that $500 billion corporation is the indirect reason why this town has become the Emerald City for knobby tires. The Walton Family — children and grandchildren of Walmart founder Sam Walton — have a Walton Family Foundation that has donated more than $70 million to cycling trails and infrastructure over the years.

The morning after I arrived in Bentonville, I connected with my friend Paxton Roberts, executive director at advocacy group Bike NWA. Having heard about the area’s myriad trails, I was eager to get out for a ride.

Ordinarily, on a race weekend like this, I’d try to preview part of the course to get familiar with some of the trails. The trouble is, with 100 miles of singletrack starting just a few blocks from the restaurants and coffee shops, it is easy to get distracted. Instead of pre-riding the Back 40 loop, I was hitting jumps in Coler Preserve, one of Bentonville’s newest trail nodes. Although I probably should have put the dropper seatpost back on my Fezzari Signal Peak, it handled the berms, doubles, and drops with ease.

Oz Trails Off-Road
The race pre-ride is a little different in Oz. Photo: Paxton Roberts

Two hours later, we were back to town where the First Friday festivities were underway. Along with the usual pro-only fat tire crit at these races, the streets around the town square were alive with a farmers’ market.

I wrapped up the evening with dinner at a sushi restaurant called Blu (sushi in Arkansas seems almost as unlikely as singletrack, but it was good too!), and retreated from the sweltering heat to my hotel.

A big mountain bike race feels a lot different in October than it does in August, which was the last time I saddled up. With less daylight, I had to put on some blinky lights to ride down to the start early in the morning of the race. Being a bit out of practice after a couple months off, I also missed a few key preparation details. I forgot my GPS at home, so I’d have to rely on my wristwatch to monitor when to eat. I also went with a Colorado-friendly dry chain lube, which was instantly washed away when a 40-percent chance of rain turned into a 100-percent chance of a downpour.

Oz Trails Off-Road
Northwest Arkansas is known for its rocky ledges. Photo: Dave McElwaine

Surprisingly, the trails in Northwest Arkansas are nearly impervious to wet weather, as they’re mostly loose flint rocks. Berm corners that would be loose and sketchy in dry conditions became grippy in this rainstorm. On the other hand, the smooth rock ledges and wooden bridges became slippery as ice. I rode cautiously on trails like the aptly named “Ledges Trail” and really opened it up on the berms and jumps. Maybe I got a little too greedy.

Not more than 15 miles into the 50-mile race, my bike started feeling weird. Sure enough, I’d flatted my rear tire. Not again. I had flashbacks to my disastrous ride at the Grand Junction Off-Road in May. Fortunately, I easily found the cut — perpetrated by one of those sharp little pieces of flint — plugged the hole, and hit the tire with some CO2.

It didn’t take me too long, but it wasn’t the world’s fastest flat fix. By that point, a number of riders had passed me. While the other three Epic Rides Series races have ample passing opportunities, this course was 80 percent singletrack, so it was a bit trickier to do the dance of passing a fellow racer. I had some ground to make up.

Oz Trails Off-Road
Oz Trails Off-Road was 80 percent singletrack. Photo: Dave McElwaine

While the course was markedly different from other Epic Rides races, the vibe, fortunately, was the same. We were all in for a long day, so no one was too agro.

As we looped north to Bella Vista, a golf community that is rapidly transforming into a great place for mountain bike racers, rain squalls raked across the hills. I was glad to have a visor on my Smith Forefront II helmet as well as Smith’s Attack Max sunglasses that vented the humidity that rivaled a rainforest room at the zoo.

Between the climate and the terrain, the Oz Trails Off-Road felt like a mysterious alternate universe. As the trails twisted in and out of drainages, up and down short hills, I was just waiting for the Cowardly Lion to pop out of the trees.

Plus, those repeated efforts up and over short hills began to take a toll on my legs. I’d opted for Mavic’s Crossmax Pro Carbon wheels at this race for a bit of an advantage. The lighter weight helps for repeated accelerations like those. But it doesn’t revive my waning late-season form.

On the final few hills back into town, Wes Rasmussen, a guy I’d gotten to know at previous series events, cracked me. I rolled home to second place overall.

Oz Trails Off-Road
Photo: Dave McElwaine

While it had poured on our race throughout the morning, the clouds lifted and the sun came out in the afternoon, just in time for the afternoon’s lineup of four local Arkansas musical acts followed by headliners Big Sam’s Funky Nation.

In keeping with the town’s love affair with all things bikes, Bike Rack Brewing had plenty of post-race refreshment on tap as soggy, splattered riders rolled home.

Amazingly, this town of about 50,000 people has plenty of other things to do beyond the trails. Onyx Coffee Lab was a daily stop for my caffeine dependency. Right next door, I couldn’t help but eat at Pressroom, named after the town’s old printing press building. Apart from the obvious media connection, I liked the food too.

Plus, there’s the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — another Walton family project. Free to the public, I had to check out this architectural marvel, nestled in between two towns on the north side of time. How often do you go to a mountain bike race and end up unwinding in an art museum?

As I rode back from the museum, I heard a noise in the dark forest up the hill from the bike path. It wasn’t one of the deer I’d seen earlier. It was a couple of groms, ripping through the forest on “All American,” the trail we’d finished on the day before.

If this is Oz, it sure is wicked — in the best possible way.

What I rode:

Oz Trails Off-Road
Photo: Dave McElwaine

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Video: One minute at the Oz Trails Off-Road

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Oz Trails Off-Road Gallery: A wild weekend on the Arkansas singletrack

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The most epic day of Epic Rides

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas (VN) — Riders, spectators, mechanics, team managers, reporters — no one could recall a mountain bike race that was quite as unpredictable and wild as Sunday’s Oz Trails Off-Road.

One by one, flat tires knocked top contenders out of the race. But then, as their rivals would also flat, they’d ride back into the picture, only to see their hopes dashed again with another puncture. It was a topsy-turvy day. Only a handful of the top pro men avoided flats.

“It was insane,” said Payson McElveen (Orange Seal). “You were winning, then you were in 10th, then you were in third, then you were in 20th, then you were in fifth.”

In large part, the flat tires were due to sharp flint rocks that litter the singletrack in Northwest Arkansas. The race was also drenched by a heavy thunderstorm that rolled through in the morning. But also, so much was on the line. This final stop in the four-race Epic Rides Series offered a $60,000 prize purse, with $10,000 apiece to the winners of the men’s and women’s pro races. The field was stacked, and the riders were willing to push the limits for one of the biggest payouts in cross-country mountain biking.

At the finish of the 50-mile race, riders recounted their misadventures in the dark forest north of Bentonville. Here are a few of the riders’ stories, in their own words.

Oz Trails
Riders were splattered with mud and dirt after 50 miles of unpredictable mountain bike racing. Photo: Spencer Powlison |

Carl Decker (Giant), 6th:

On why he didn’t flat: “Clean livin’, man!”

“I’ve never seen any flats like this. Probably 80-90 percent of our race flatted. It was like riding through a glass factory.”

Luke Vrouwenvelder (LukeVCoaching), 2nd:

“I was a little out of control coming into those corners too hot and punctured.

“I got passed by a few guys the first time, felt it go flat again. I was like, ‘S—t I gotta stop again.’

“This [high-volume CO2] saved my butt. I aired it up three times. I think it was still going flat as we came home. But it was good enough.”

Payson McElveen (Orange Seal), 19th:

“My hands were so wet and tired that I couldn’t get the tire off. Everyone was helping each other out there so much. Russell [Finsterwald] gave me a lever, [Ryan] Standish gave me a tube. I got three CO2s from other people. Fixed that, but it took like five or six minutes. Then I was stopped again because I only had 20psi in the tube and I knew that wasn’t going to last. So I stopped again and got another CO2 from somebody. Put it up to like 50psi, and then put a crazy slice in it and just rode the rim for the last 45 minutes.

“Somehow I only lost three spots in 45 minutes of riding the rim!”

Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak), 38th:

“Yeah that was ridiculous!! I was fairly sure after that last flat and 2” cut I was done, but since my Virginia boys Bryan and Eddie were also down to solder it to the finish I was like, ‘Ok let’s just Fondo it.’

“It was actually fun after that. We helped a few of the ladies that were slumming. It was like an adventure race!”

Geoff Kabush (Yeti), 9th:

“It was chaos. All of a sudden I was in third … I was like ‘what!?’”

Chloe Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes), DNF:

On why she gave her wheel to Erin Huck, who went on to win the race: “Erin [Huck] had a pretty good gap on us she was on fire and I had a front flat she had a rear flat we could have both sat their and thrown tubes in and neither of us would have been in contention for the win. I was not very confident in my prep coming into this. I had my money on Erin.”

Erin Huck (Construction Zone), 1st:

On getting a wheel from Woodruff mid-race: “That was awesome I almost started crying.

“I kept getting punctures in the front. I don’t know if they were unique punctures or it didn’t seal. I stopped and it would seal. That happened about three times.”

Catharine Pendrel (Clif Bar), 2nd

“I thought it would be a group of five to the finish — what’s going to separate us? And then literally I heard Chloe [Woodruff] or somebody behind me flat and then I saw Erin fixing a flat. I didn’t know what happened after that.

“You want to push the singletrack but I was trying to be pretty cautious and keep air in and be consistent.”

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Huck wins Oz Trails Off-Road on borrowed wheel

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas (VN) — Riding on a borrowed wheel and a prayer, Erin Huck (Construction Zone) chased down two-time world champion Catharine Pendrel to win the Oz Trails Off-Road Sunday in Bentonville, Arkansas. Pendrel’s Clif Bar teammate Katerina Nash was third in the final race of the Epic Rides Series.

Late in the 50-mile race, after stopping three times due to punctures, Huck found herself stopped trailside with friend and “unofficial” teammate Chloe Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes). Woodruff gave Huck her wheel and a chance to challenge Pendrel for the $10,000 prize on offer to the winner in what was arguably the richest mountain bike race in American history.

“That was awesome, I almost started crying,” Huck said of Woodruff’s unexpected aid.

When the flat tires started, Huck already looked to be well on her way to victory, off the front of an early group of about seven riders after two hours of racing.

As was the case in the men’s race, the sharp flint rocks on the Back 40 trail caused chaos. By the second aid station, 30 miles in, the chase group behind Huck was down to just Pendrel, fellow Canadian Jenn Jackson (AWI Racing), and Sofia Gomez-Villafane (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes).

They passed Huck fixing a flat on the side of the trail, and eventually Pendrel was alone after Jackson and Gomez-Villafane also flatted.

Having seen the prevalence of punctures in the amateur race on Saturday, Pendrel took a conservative approach both in her tire pressure choice and riding style.

“I think I settled in too much, too steady, and I needed to pick it up a little bit, but at the same time I kept air in my tires,” said Pendrel. “It’s really that toss-up.”

She seemed to be in the clear, heading into the final few miles alone.

However, Huck was charging hard from behind, riding a borrowed wheel. Woodruff didn’t think she had the form to win, so she gave her wheel away.

“Erin [Huck] had a pretty good gap on us she was on fire, and I had a front flat she had a rear flat. We could have both sat there and thrown tubes in and neither of us would have been in contention for the win,” said Woodruff.

Although Epic Rides Series rules prohibit outside aid beyond hydration and nutrition, riders are allowed to provide technical assistance to each other within the race.

Pendrel couldn’t respond when Huck caught her in the very end of the rainy race and ended up second, just seven seconds behind.

The race for the overall series title was similarly dramatic. Evelyn Dong (Spry-Stan’s No Tubes) started the race with a healthy lead of almost 15 minutes on Crystal Anthony (Liv).

Anthony came home fifth after a smooth race — no flats, only one crash. “That’s definitely my type of course,” she said, comparing it to the riding in New England, where she is from.

She wasn’t racing with the overall in mind, though.

“I didn’t know,” said Anthony. “I just wanted to give it everything and rode my own race.”

After two flats, Dong was on the back foot, well behind Anthony.

“I was trying not to [think about the overall],” Dong said. “I had a dud CO2. One of the ladies in the back, she gave me a pump, which was great. The pump, you know it’s great, it’s reliable, it just takes time.”

She had resigned herself to losing the overall title but pushed hard to the end.

“I had no idea. I thought I was going for third honestly,” Dong added. “I gave it everything, but I thought third is probably the best I can ask for.”

Her efforts paid off and Dong finished ninth, 7:34 behind Anthony to clinch the title. Orange Seal’s Amy Beisel ended the series in third behind Anthony.

Full results >>

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Oz Trails Off-Road: Swenson survives flat-fest

From thunderstorms to slippery rock slabs to tire-shredding gravel, Sunday’s Oz Trails Off-Road was less a battle between riders and more a fight with the elements. Keegan Swenson was up to the task and won the final round of the Epic Rides Series in Bentonville, Arkansas.

“It was mainly just trying to stay smooth and stay on your bike and be fast,” said Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes). “It was so slippery.”

Luke Vrouwenvelder (LukeVCoaching) was second, out-sprinting Howard Grotts (Specialized), nearly four minutes later.

After a fast seven-mile start out on town on roads and bike paths, the pro men’s race charged into the wet singletrack. Right away, it was apparent that the rolling 50-mile course would be deceptively difficult.

Epic Rides Series leader Grotts (Specialized) crashed early on, cutting his right elbow deeply. He was well outside the top-10 at the first aid station, 15 miles in.

“It was a rough day I crashed, punctured. It just wasn’t my day,” Grotts said.

Perhaps it wasn’t up to his high standards — Grotts won round two of the Epic Rides Series in Grand Junction, Colorado — but he was in good company. Nearly every top rider in the men’s race was setback by a puncture at one point or another, no matter the tire brand or sealant type.

The trail surface on the Back 40 loop, up through Bella Vista, is primarily small sharp flint rocks. Some compared it to the maddeningly sharp gravel found at the Dirty Kanza 200.

“It was like riding through a glass factory,” said Carl Dekker (Giant) with a laugh. He was one of the few pro men to avoid puncturing.

Swenson was one of the few riders to avoid flatting, putting him alone off the front.

“I honestly wasn’t sure,” said Swenson, who won the first Epic Rides race, the Whiskey Off-Road. “I kept looking back and didn’t see anyone I just tried to ride my own race.”

Over the course of his race, Vrouwenvelder stopped three times due to a puncture.

Riding in the lead group, he was having trouble with his front brake. Coming into a corner a bit out of control, he flatted, losing touch with the leaders.

“I got passed by a few guys the first time I stopped,” he said. “I felt it go flat again so then I was like s—t, I CO2-ed it again.”

Finally, Vrouwenvelder stopped a third time to plug the hole and caught Grotts in the closing miles of the course.
“I just sort of found flow, this sort of thing suits me,” Vrouwenvelder added. “All of a sudden there was Howard.”

He considered attacking on the final climb up to town but instead waited for the sprint.

“He was playing tactics, sitting up there at the end,” Vrouwenvelder added. “I came around just soft-pedaling, punched it — it turns out I didn’t even need it because he slipped a pedal, unfortunately.”

Although Grotts was disappointed and a bit shaken by the injury immediately after he finished, he sewed up the overall win in Epic Rides Series. Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar) kept his second-place overall standing despite dropping as far back as 18th due to a flat. He was fifth on the day. Orange Seal’s Ryan Standish moved up to third in the final series rankings because Benjamin Sonntag (Clif Bar) dropped out due to flats.

Swenson was the biggest winner of the day, collecting a $10,000 payout from the $60,000 prize purse on offer. He thought about it as he was soloing to victory but was careful not to get distracted.

“Oh yeah definitely I thought about [the payout],” Swenson said. “But I just worried about crossing the line first.”

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Oz Trails Off-Road rides into unknown with $70,000 prize purse

The Epic Rides Series of marathon mountain bike races heads into the unknown this weekend with a new race in an unfamiliar locale: Bentonville, Arkansas. The inaugural Oz Trails Off-Road will feature the strongest field of pro riders in the four-race series. Up for grabs is the biggest prize purse of the season. But nobody is quite sure how this one will play out.

Before we get to the unknowns, let’s begin with one big known factor: the $71,000 prize purse. That money is primarily on offer in Sunday’s 50-mile backcountry race — $60,000 split evenly between genders — then $10,000 will be awarded to top-three in the series, with the final $1,000 in primes for the Friday night El Yucateco fat tire crit. The Oz Trails Off-Road may offer the richest purse ever in American mountain bike racing history.

To get that payout, North America’s top mountain bikers will face an undulating course with 5,900 feet of climbing primarily on singletrack trails. Most of the riders who have been pre-riding the course agree that it will be deceptively hard.

“It has a lot of subtle loose stuff, holding speed on fast rubbly trail — loose rocks,” said Geoff Kabush (Yeti). “It’s hard to carve corners. It’s going to be a lot of finesse, maintaining speed through all these rollers and fast winding stuff.”

The other three Epic Rides events feature major climbs that serve to break apart the race. For instance, the first series race, the Whiskey Off-Road, usually hinges on a massive 4,000-foot climb out of Skull Valley at the halfway point. Instead, Oz Trails is expected to gradually wear down riders with twists, turns, ups, and downs.

“Compared to the normal Epic Rides it’s very rolling,” said Amy Beisel (Orange Seal). “The trails are rolling and short punchy lots of corners you have to stay focused the whole time.”

Kabush is one of the favorites at the Oz Trails Off-Road. Photo: Dave McElwaine

Beyond the trails that twist through the dark Arkansas forest, there is another major unknown: Who has form this late in the year?

It is unusual for pro riders to target a major race in early October. Mountain bike world championships were about a month ago. Some haven’t done a marathon-distance race in months.

Erin Huck (Construction Zone) is one such rider and with a 12th-place result at XC worlds in September, she’s the top worlds finisher in either gender to line up in Arkansas. However, she’s not approaching the big-money race with specific ambitions given that her last long-distance mountain bike race was the Whiskey in April.

“I’m still motivated to race,” Huck said. “At this point of the season, racing is still fun for me and I think that goes a long way.”

Other riders like Katerina Nash (Clif Bar) have moved on to cyclocross season. The Czech Olympian will try to translate that into a payout on Sunday.

“I made a push for the early [cyclocross] World Cups in the U.S. and I’m on good form there,” said Nash who won the Sunday race at Jingle Cross. “It will be interesting to see how it translates to that 50-mile mountain bike event. I tried to keep up with some mountain biking and long rides but my focus has been speed and intensity the last few weeks.

“Physically, it’s definitely doable. For me the harder part is mental. After an hour I’m like, ‘Oh man we’ve been here for a while!’”

Katerina Nash Jingle Cross
In the course of seven days, Nash will go from battling in the mud at Jingle Cross to racing 50 miles on her mountain bike in the Oz Trails Off-Road. Photo: Ethan Glading

None of the top pros seem sure of what to expect when it comes to their autumn form or the undulating race course. Despite that uncertainty, a few familiar names come up when predicting favorites for the Oz Trails Off-Road.

“Anytime there’s a course that’s a little bit unusual, Geoff [Kabush] is really good,” said Payson McElveen (Orange Seal). “Anytime there’s something that takes different thinking, tactics, pacing, he has so much experience that he always seems to have a little inside line on the rest of us. He’s also a bigger dude and this is absolutely power course one that’s more a race of attrition. He’s so good at conserving energy.”

McElveen himself should be noted as a favorite. Like Kabush, he is more of a power rider and is the two-time reigning U.S. marathon champion on a similar course in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

Although he’s a slightly built climber compared to McElveen and Kabush, Howard Grotts (Specialized) will also be one to watch. As the men’s series leader, he will be fending off Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar) who is second overall, 5:31 back.

“Hopefully I can try to put some pressure on Howie [Grotts] in the technical stuff,” Finsterwald said. “He’s got a good chunk of time on me but I’m not going to just settle for second.”

Now recovered from a concussion, Chloe Woodruff will be hungry for a win. Photo: Dave McElwaine

Like Grotts, Huck is coming off a European stint. She doesn’t necessarily see a direct connection between world championships success and the Oz Trails Off-Road. Instead, she has her eye on Chloe Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes), who didn’t even start the championship race in Switzerland.

“My top pick would have to be Chloe,” Huck said. “She didn’t get to start at worlds due to a concussion. I know that she’s super motivated to get out and race and has a fair bit of race motivation and fitness. Not to mention she’s particularly good at tight twisty bike-maneuvering courses.”

The women’s series leader Evelyn Dong (Spry-Stan’s No Tubes) also comes up as a favorite. She has yet to win an Epic Rides event this season but has a comfortable 14:27 lead on Crystal Anthony (Liv) in the overall.

Given that their seasons often tread a familiar path from one well-known race venue to the next, the pro riders seem eager to take on a fresh challenge in Arkansas. And having a rich prize purse definitely helps keep them motivated as well.

“It is a lot of money, that’s why everybody’s happy to keep on riding and racing even though technically mountain bikers are typically done after worlds,” Nash added.

“It’s motivating and that’s cool to see.”

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