Grotts and Skarda take Oakley XC Mountain Bike titles
Lifetime Grand Prix athletes continue to enjoy stop at GoPro Mountain Games
Howard Grotts and Alexis Skarda found their climbing cadences early and never looked back, racing away to the pro/open men’s and women’s Oakley XC Mountain Bike titles on Saturday morning at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail.
“I felt good the first two laps. Of course we’re missing Keegan (Swenson) and Russell (Finsterwald), who were here last year. But, yeah, I’m pretty happy,” said Grotts, who came into the race just hoping to “get a good, hard effort in.”
“I’m trying to race my way into shape now; I guess it’s working,” the 2016 Olympian and three-time Leadville 100 champion said.
“I just love this kind of racing and climbing in the mountains and I love the kind of descents that are fast and windy,” Skarda said. The Grand Junction rider has been on a tear this year, with wins at Epic Rides Whiskey Off-road in Arizona and the Wild Horse Gravel, a race she dedicated to the late rising gravel star Moriah Wilson, whose death was announced the night before the event.
Skarda also holds the women’s unsupported record for the White Rim route, a 100-mile loop in Canyonlands National Park near Moab. The U.S. Marathon champion was the first woman to complete the route in under seven hours, but her record was broken by 16 seconds a month later. In 2021, she went back and set it again. She credited her off-season volume as a big reason for her successes in 2022.
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“Just putting in a lot of miles and trying to push it further and further every year and trying to find new ways to challenge myself,” she said of her secret sauce for success.
The women’s race broke up early, allowing the top five to space themselves in 90-120-second gaps. Not having to fight for single-track entrances allowed Skarda to find her rhythm right away.
“Basically I just told myself ’20-minute climbs,'” she said in regard to compartmentalizing the grueling race. “And just focusing on that and knowing on the descents I could recover. That’s how I was mentally able to pace myself.”
Ellen Campbell finished 4:55 behind Skarda. Both riders, along with several of the top men’s finishers, are participants in the 2022 Lifetime Grand Prix, a series of six iconic off-road bike races for 60 of the nation’s best cyclists, complete with a $250,000 prize purse. Last weekend’s stop was Unbound Gravel, the 200-mile Emporia, Kansas, epic.
“I was excited to be here. I was kind of unsure how I’d feel physically after Unbound last week,” Campbell admitted.
“This is a totally different race.”
Vail’s punchy, steep climbs and Alpine descents are more in the 24-year-old Durango rider’s wheelhouse. Having trained for the longer stuff this year, however, Campbell felt able to take some aerobic risks.
“I went out a little harder than I probably should have, and ended up paying for it the second part of the first lap,” she said, adding her self-talk mainly involved calming things down and finding an even cadence. “I know I’ve been training for the longer events, so (I knew) that engine would kick in, and it did.”
Campbell was most pleased to build her race as it progressed, saying, “The biggest takeaway is the confidence that I got better as the race went on.”
The top local finisher in the pro women’s field was Bayli McSpadden, who notched a fifth-place finish.
“It was hard — definitely a battle,” McSpadden said with a finish-line smile.
“Last year I couldn’t finish, so it was definitely a mental battle today.” McSpadden said she held her pacing in check, hovering around her threshold level for the first half of the race. She hoped for stronger legs on the last lap, but with 3,500 feet of climbing over just 16 miles, she was relieved just to have crested the final climb for the last time.
“I got to the top and was so happy that I was on the downhill,” she laughed.
“It felt pretty good; I enjoyed it.”
The men’s race packaged a little more drama, aside from the status of Grotts, who cruised to an early lead en route to a two-minute win. At the course’s highest point, his turnover remained constant and his face relaxed. “The first two laps were good and then the last lap, it was just suffering,” he said.
“It was like I didn’t have any snap left.”
“I’m still getting used to the altitude, so just reminding myself that you have to breathe the whole time; there’s no real recovery,” he added of mentally maintaining an even keel.
Alexey Vermeulen tried to go with Grotts early, while Stephan Davoust, the 2021 U.S. Marathon national champion, and road specialist Eric Brunner, who was third overall in the Redlands Classic GC earlier this year, chased.
“It’s so steep; you just get into the climbing immediately, so I think a lot of people were hesitant to sprint off the line,” said Brunner, who caught Vermeulen and spent some time riding alone until Davoust made up ground on a descent midway through.
Brunner, who is using the summer mountain bike season to prepare for cyclocross, where he was the 2021 U.S. champion, formed another gap on the next climb, only to watch Davoust erase it coming down the mountain for the last time. With approximately 1 mile remaining, Davoust surged.
“I sprinted around him to get to the singletrack first and was just like, ‘Here we go, I’m laying it out on the downhill,'” Davoust said of the rare downhill attack.
“He’s just a very good descender and I was cramping pretty badly, so that was the end for me,” lamented Brunner, who will also be in tomorrow’s time trial.
“That was hard. It’s always hard being up here,” Davoust said.
“You just can’t push as hard as you would at sea-level or even 6,000 feet.”