Sonntag beats Kuss in GJ race
Ben Sonntag wanted to be patient and pick his spots in the Grand Junction Off-Road 40-mile race.
The veteran Durango rider was a little nervous because late in the race he was riding with “the future of the sport.”
After more than two hours of racing, the battle was between veteran experience and youth.
But youth — 18-year-old Sepp Kuss — would have to settle for second place and high praise from Sonntag, who claimed the men’s title in the Grand Junction Off-Road 40-mile professional race Sunday.
Sonntag, who won with a time of 3 hours, 4.03 minutes, said Kuss, also from Durango, provided him with a fierce challenge, finishing in 3:05:49.
“He’s a good rider and is going to be the future of the sport,” Sonntag said.
Kuss battled the experienced riders throughout and held the lead after two-thirds of the race.
This wasn’t the first time the two Durango riders have battled to the finish in Mesa County this year. Sonntag caught Kuss late in April’s Rumble on 18 Road to win there. Kuss finished third.
Sonntag was happy to pick up the win and see his friend finish second Sunday.
“It worked out awesomely. He’s a Durango kid and a friend. It all worked out perfectly for me,” said the 33-year-old Sonntag, a native of Germany.
He said his strategy was to be patient and pick his spots to attack.
“The only thing I knew was that I wanted to go first into Butterknife (singletrack) because there’s no passing there,” he said “There was a real waiting game when the right time to move was.”
Sonntag didn’t feel there were any good places to attack early, so he waited for the six-mile climb a little after the midway point of the race.
“I could feel that the three of us were a little stronger on the climb,” he said of Kuss and Canadian Kris Sneddon, who finished third at 3:08:04.
Kuss may still be a teenager, but after eight years of racing, he knows the sport and strategy well and also targeted the long climb as the place to make his move.
“I knew that long climb in the middle would be a good launch pad for something if I wanted to make the race happen,” he said.
Like Sonntag, Kuss wanted to be patient.
“I didn’t want to go too early, so I was waiting for some uncertainty in the pack, and when that happened I decided to go,” he said. “Ben and Kris went with me, and I knew then that was probably going to be the group.”
The top three riders eased away from the rest, and the three-way battle dwindled to two as Sonntag and Kuss raced for first.
Kuss opened a small gap, but he said Sonntag used the downhill sections to take control.
“Ben was descending better than I was, and he got a gap on me, then I was just trying to hang on to second place at that point,” Kuss said.
Sonntag took advantage of his riding skills on the demanding course and technical sections to increase his lead.
He said he never made a real hard push to drop Kuss, but rather just kept it smooth and gradually pulled away.
The course made for some great mountain bike racing, he said.
“You have to be a complete mountain biker to do well here,” Sonntag said. “You need to be a good technical rider, handle the heat and climb. It’s really a great event. The length of the race is perfect. It’s three hours of hard racing.”
“I like the variety. It wasn’t just a climber’s course or a descender’s course. There was something for everyone, so you just had to pick your spot and go for it,” he said.
As far as the praiseworthy words from Sonntag, Kuss said it was an honor being called “the future of the sport.”
“I’m flattered, I hope I can hold on to that title,” he said.
John Klish was the only Grand Junction finisher in the men’s race and finished 19th. The hearing-impaired rider said the course made for a special event.
“It was hard. There was a mental challenge, and then there were steep climbs,” he said.
He was thrilled to see a mountain bike race come to Grand Junction and have some of the areas popular trails in the spotlight.
“I’m so happy that we have a race here and to showcase the trails we have here,” he said.
A number of riders said this was the first time they have been to the area and ridden the Grand Junction trails.
“They will be back,” Klish said.
The men’s race had a $10,000 purse, and Sonntag picked up $4,000 for the win. Kuss earned $2,250 for second and said he will let his parents handle his winnings.
“I’ve never had that much money at one time,” he said with a laugh.
Sneddon earned $1,000 for third place. The top 10 finishers earned money.
This was the first Grand Junction Off-Road, with Sunday being the culmination of three days of racing and other festivities. The event is organized by Arizona-based Epic Rides.