Mata dominates women’s field

Pua Mata had some scary moments on the Grand Junction Off-Road 40-mile course, but mainly she was scary fast.

The Yucaipa, Calif., rider dominated the professional women’s mountain bike race and blew away the field by more than nine minutes Sunday.

Her strategy was to get to the singletrack first and just ride hard.

“I knew if I could get to that first (singletrack) section first, I knew I could ride that stuff,” she said. “I just wanted to ride at my pace and not get caught.”

Her pace was ridiculously fast compared to the rest of the field. It was clear by the halfway point that if Mata didn’t crash or have mechanical issues, the race was in the bag.

She finished in 3 hours, 36.21 minutes. Erin Huck from Boulder was second in 3:45:51, and Chloe Woodruff of Prescott, Ariz. was third in 3:49:28.

But that didn’t mean that the race was easy. Far from it.

“The best way to describe it is that it’s physically demanding. You use your upper body strength to pop up and over rocks, then you have drop-offs,” she said.

The technical parts of the course were some of the most challenging she’s seen in racing.

“There were a couple moments when I had a ‘oh crap’ moment that I thought for sure that I was going to (crash). Your heart is just racing, and you just say ‘breathe, breathe, breathe,’ ” she said smiling.

What she didn’t do is take too many breathers during the race. She kept hammering the course at her punishing pace.

“I just wanted to be smooth. It was all about flow, being steady,” she said. “On the long climb I just tried to stay steady, stay up on my nutrition and not blow myself up. Even though (the climb is) only six miles, it’s a hard six miles.”

More than eight minutes after Mata powered up and over the climb, Huck was in a group battling for second place. She didn’t plan to use the climb as her attack point, but it worked out that way.

“That really wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to race my own race and stay within my limits,” she said.

Riding out of Boulder, Huck, 32, agreed the course was challenging with a variety of terrain. It was only missing one thing.

“It had everything except for trees. It didn’t have every many of those,” she said laughing.

The lone Grand Junction rider in the pro race was Alexis Skarda, who finished in ninth place.

The 23-year-old rides for the Colorado Mesa University cycling team and is actually an amateur who has no sponsors.

Skarda, a two-time defending women’s Division II collegiate national champion, said it was special to ride against the talented field of pros.

“I was able to do a couple of races with some of the girls who were here today, so I know how they race, and they killed it as always,” she said. “I love racing with them. It’s an honor.”

Skarda currently is spending time in Colorado Springs with the CMU track cycling team, training and competing on the velodrome there.

As a relative newcomer to mountain biking, the technical course tested her.

“I’m working a lot on becoming a smoother rider, especially on the technical stuff, but it’s going to still take a while before I get as smooth as those top riders,” she said.

Skarda will compete on the CMU cycling program’s track, mountain biking and cyclocross teams through the fall. She took up cycling a couple of few years ago as a cross-training alternative to running. But when injuries started adding up the more she ran, she decided to focus more on cycling.

She said she met her goal in the Grand Junction Off-Road race.

“My goal was top 10 and I was top 10, so I’m pretty happy,” she said.

The professional race, which is organized by Epic Rides out of Arizona, is unique in that it has equal prize money for the men and women.

Mata won $4,000 for first, Huck $2,250 for second and Woodruff $1,000 for third.

The total purse for the women was $10,000 with the top 10 finishers earning money.

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