Pro mountain bikers flock to Vail area for race series; Lost Lake race ready for new COVID-19 restrictions

Russell Finsterwald takes on the Berry Creek course in Edwards on July 8. For Finsterwald, a professional mountain biker from Colorado Springs, it was a return to competitive racing following COVID-19 cancellations across the country.
Vail Rec District | Special to the Daily

Professional racers took to the Vail Recreation District’s Berry Creek Bash last week in numbers never before seen in the local race series.

In 2017, the men’s pro elite division at Berry Creek had three participants; in 2018, there were three participants; and in 2019, there were seven.

On July 8, there were 18 mountain bikers in the men’s pro field.

“It was the most we’ve ever had in the pro category, by far,” said race organizer Beth Pappas.

Among the professional racers was Russell Finsterwald, a member of the 2016 Olympic mountain biking team and a five-time national champion cross country rider. He came into town from Colorado Springs and was surprised to find Erin Huck also attending. Huck is also a national champion who has been selected for the final Olympic Team for 2021.

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“She’s one of the top women racers in the country, and had come up from Boulder,” Finsterwald said.

In seeing Huck, along with Bjorn Riley and Brayden Johnson from the California-based Bear Development Team (Riley is from Boulder, Johnson is from West Jordan, Utah), Finsterwald knew the competition was going to be tougher than he was expecting to find at a typical Vail Recreation District race.

But even a typical Vail Recreation District race is not an easy win, Finsterwald said, with local legend and Xterra World Champion Josiah Middaugh, of EagleVail, often present.

“I’ve raced with Josiah plenty of times over the years, you can never count him out,” Finsterwald said. “We’ve had plenty of good battles over the years, and Josiah was there (on Wednesday).”

‘Pretty brutal for a week-night series’

Finsterwald often faces off against Middaugh at the GoPro Mountain Games course on Vail Mountain, but with the Vail Recreation District race taking place on unfamiliar ground on Edwards’ Berry Creek Trail, he said he wasn’t as prepared as he could have been.

“That was my first time riding in Edwards,” Finsterwald said. “Typically these local weeknight series, they’re not on the best courses — just because they’re shorter laps, you’ll just do a short little circuit in a city park or something like that — but I was completely blown away by the quality of the course. Tons of climbing — I didn’t really look at the profile before we raced, 900 feet of climbing per lap is pretty brutal for a week-night series — and then the descent was awesome.”

Finsterwald battled it out with Bjorn Riley for the win in a time of 57:25; Riley finished 9 seconds behind him.

“The quality of the competition was definitely good,” Finsterwald said. “I definitely got to push myself, have fun out there and get that race effort I was looking for.”

It was Finsterwald’s first competitive race of the season.

“There’s basically no mountain bike races going on across the United States because of the COVID-19,” he said. “I just saw a race and was like ‘I’m going to do it.’”

Lost Lake next

In visiting from Colorado Springs, Finsterwald said he made a weekend of it.

“We camped in Vail the night before … after the race we went to Eagle and did some cool riding out in Eagle,” Finsterwald said.

Randomly, Finsterwald selected a ride in Vail to enjoy before the race; he picked a trail near his campsite in the Red Sandstone area. It turns out he selected a nearly identical route to next week’s course up the Son of Middle Creek trail to the Lost Lake area north of Vail.

“I didn’t know that was the course until a couple people told me,” he said. “I looked at the maps and that was exactly what I rode.”

Finsterwald said he likes the course, and is thinking about returning for the race.

“I think it’s a solid race course,” he said of the Lost Lake course. “It’s challenging, there’s one section you might have to get off and run, but pretty much all of it seemed ridable to me. I think it’s cool when races have a different dynamic, that one seems like it will be quite a bit different than the way a race would normally play out, being that the majority is uphill but the little downhill that is on it is pretty technical, so you gotta be a really good climber, but also know how to descend.”

Race spacing in place

Race organizer Beth Pappas said on Wednesday that the series has protocols in place that fit previous levels of public health ordinances, and the Lost Lake race will not need many alterations if a reduction in gathering sizes is mandated by the county.

“We’re already set up to meet those restrictions,” Pappas said. “We may see some minor changes, start times may change by 10 minutes or so, just to spread people out more.”

The race itself, with a lot of single-track climbing, doesn’t do well with a lot of people in one place at one time under normal conditions. With extra COVID-19 precautions in place, “we may have to limit numbers and cut registration off,” Pappas said, but so far the series has not had to limit the number of entrants.

Following Wednesday’s race, women’s pro winner Erin Huck told Pappas she hopes to return for Lost Lake, as well.

“I felt like it was very safely executed,” Huck said of the Berry Creek race.

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