Seal of approval
GJ Off-Road course earn raves from pro mountain bike riders
Pretenders will be left in the distance and dust.
The Grand Junction Off-Road is not a race for pretenders, and the contenders know it will be a supreme test of ability and endurance.
Ben Sonntag, who pulled away from two riders late to win last year’s race, is back looking for a repeat crown.
“Coming back as the defending champion gives me a little extra confidence,” he said. “At the same time, it creates a little extra pressure, and I probably will be more marked by the other riders.”
The professional races are scheduled for Sunday with the men taking off at 7:30 a.m. and the women 10 minutes later.
In a sport where a mundane course can influence the outcome of the race by putting more of an emphasis on conditioning than overall riding ability, most of the pros from last year raved about the Grand Junction course. Their praise was leveled at the technical aspects of the 40-mile course.
England’s Chris Baddick, who now lives in Boulder, said the course caters to the pure mountain biker.
“It was fantastic, one of the most technically demanding courses I rode all year,” the 26-year-old said. “It was a proper mountain bike race.”
It was a point that every competitor hammered home.
The course puts a premium on mountain-bike-riding skill and not just physical conditioning.
Baddick, who finished fifth last year, said it best.
“You can’t fake it with fitness. You have to be a good mountain bike rider,” he said.
Sonntag agreed: “It’s a true mountain bike course. One has to be a complete rider in order to be successful.”
Sonntag won the race in 3 hours, 4.03 minutes to hold off Durango teenager Sepp Kuss by 1:46. Kuss, 19, is not scheduled to race in Grand Junction this year.
This year, close to 50 professional riders will be in Grand Junction battling for a $20,000 total purse. The winners in the men’s and women’s race will get $4,000 apiece.
There is no doubt the physical demands of the Grand Junction course are felt with every hill, drop and inch of singletrack.
With many pro races close to the 50-mile range, Baddick said the Grand Junction Off-Road is just as demanding at 40 miles.
“It’s deceptive. It’s so tough that we couldn’t do another 10 miles. It’s like a 50-mile race,” he said.
Hearing-impaired rider John Klish of Grand Junction said his hometown course is as challenging as any.
“The Lunch Loop is known to be one of the most technical cross-country mountain biking anyone will experience,” he said.
He said the course has everything from several technical singletrack sections to long and shorter climbs to fast descents.
The 34-year-old finished 19th last year and hopes to move up this year.
“I expect to do much better this year. I will plan to rest enough and pace better,” Klish said.
Baddick, who’s had a strong season this year, including a third-place finish at the 50-mile Steamboat Springs race, said riders have no chance at the podium if they get separated from the lead group after the first singletrack section.
“You have to go out pretty hard and be part of the lead group,” he said. “It’s good to follow other people’s line on the singletrack.”
Besides staying with the lead group early in the race, Sonntag targeted the long, seven-mile climb on Windmill Road a little past the halfway point as his attack strategy.
“Last year, that’s where I broke away. That climb and the following Slick Rock climb will most likely again shape the results,” he said.
The native of Germany, who now lives in Durango, said at that point of the race it will come down to who has the strongest legs as they tackle the last part of the race.
For the women, the defending champ, Pua Mata, will not be back because of injuries.
Boulder’s Deidre York, who finished 10th last year, had a strange race last year.
“I basically rode the entire race by myself,” she said with a laugh.
After getting separated from the lead group early in the race, the 23-year-old powered along throughout the rest of the 40 miles.
“I was pretty focused the entire time,” she said. “When you’re riding alone, you’re constantly worried that someone might catch you.”
She said there’s always the chance of catching someone, too. That’s what happened at the Steamboat Springs Springer race, where she finished third.
“I caught someone within three miles of the finish. I was shocked to catch her, but you never know where people are in these longer races,” she said.
This year, she knows she has to get into and stay with the lead group if she hopes to have a shot at the podium.
Also back this year will be Colorado Mesa graduate Alexis Skarda, who finished ninth last year.
On a sad note, Boulder’s Amy Dombrowski, who finished fourth at the Grand Junction Off-Road last year, died in a training accident last October while riding in Belgium.
Klish said it’s special to have a race that brings some of the best professional mountain bikers in the world to Grand Junction.
“We are honored to showcase our gnarly and beautiful trails to the world,” he said. “We are lucky to live in such an amazing mountain bike mecca.”
Sonntag, who’s had a good season in the United States and Europe, said he’s motivated to go for a repeat in Grand Junction. Even though he finished third overall in the six-day Breckenridge stage race in mid-August, he was disappointed with the result.
“That’s racing. I did the only thing reasonable and took some time to rest and recover,” he said. “It might have lowered my confidence, but it raised my appetite to win again (in Grand Junction).”