It would be hard to imagine a race more radically different from Big Mountain Enduro’s 2nd stop in Durango than BME’s 3rd stop in Keystone. Looking at the Keystone course map, gone were the epic uphill pedal transitions, replaced with rides up the chairlift. And everything else was just downhill.
I didn’t have a chance to preride until Saturday morning, but I got up early and hit the lift before the pros started dropping. I was glad I did, too, as the segments proved to be brutally technical! Keystone is renowned for its rocks and rock gardens, and for good reason: they are long, chundery, and challenging, and can eat your bike alive.
Over the course of two days we raced six stages, but we ended up racing on some sections of trail two or even more times, so all of the stages seemed to blur together. Thus, I’ll just relate some of my general impressions from the trails over the course of the weekend.
While there was one extremely short pedal transition, the rest of the stages started right at the top of the mountain and ran all the way to the base. While that makes for easy access to the stages, it means that the lengthy runs down are demanding and challenging!
While I had opted to wear my open-face Bell Super helmet for both Snowmass and Durango, I knew immediately that Keystone was full face helmet terrain. And I’m glad I packed it. Essentially, we were racing all mountain bikes on trails and terrain that most of the general public rides full-blown dual-crown 8+ inch-travel DH rigs on, complete with full face helmets, neck braces, pads, compression suits–the whole nine yards. Now granted, most of the other racers were wearing full face helmets as well, but there were a select few still running open face lids… and one or two crazies who weren’t wearing any pads at all! While I was lightly padded, simply wearing a knee/shin combo, I didn’t count myself that crazy!
Normally when I go to the bike park, I like riding bike park DH bikes, so shredding on the 6-inch-travel GT Force was eye-opening. While it was admittedly more challenging and took more finesse, the capability of a modern full-suspension, all mountain rig with top-of-the-line design, suspension, and components is pretty mind-blowing. Despite wishing I had more cush and forgiveness and maybe slacker geometry, the Force, again, wowed me by blasting through all of the chunder with carefree abandon, shredding scree, slashing through loam and roots, and airing jumps and drops easily despite my poor airborne form. This 30-pound rig is easily capable of 50 mile pedal-driven days or a full weekend of chairlift riding in one of the most infamously-damaging bike parks in the nation. Awesome!
Like I said, many of the stages blurred together in my mind, but there were a few sections that really stuck out.
Cowboy Up, Stages 2 and 4
The rock gardens on Cowboy Up were some of the most classic, big-style rock gardens of the weekend. The steeper, high speed garden was technical but very rideable, but then the flatter garden with huge boulders that was low-angle enough to require one to pedal through it was just as–if not more–difficult.
There were several wood bridges coated in chicken wire, with a few mild, rolling, low-angle bridges. However, on one stage (Stage 3?) we dropped into a steep, exposed, narrow bridge that I hadn’t had a chance to preride. I’d seen it from the lift, but when I put tires-to-wood, I was shocked: that thing was STEEP! I wanted to brake, but not brake so hard that my back wheel would slip loose and start an uncontrolled slide on the narrow wooden path. Thankfully, I made it down OK.
We raced through Wild Thing at least 2 or 3 times, and this rock garden waterfall was a doozy! Thankfully I had preridden it, and realized that everything could be rolled, but when I dropped into it both times at race pace I rolled/skidded down the 3 upper drops and launched off of the final rock to avoid a more precarious situation. The pros, of course, railed down it at a mind-boggling rate of speed! I was just glad to be able to ride it clean every time to please the hecklers, cowbell ringers, and photographers.
Stage 5 held easily the most technical feature of the weekend: Jam Rock. Jam Rock is a technical rocky boulder field on an absurd incline that drops about 50 vertical feet in not nearly as many horizontal feet. An absurdly steep descent, my butt–quite literally–buzzed on the rear tire as I practiced the lines here. And I was so glad that I had a chance to practice: there were three lines, with the middle line reserved for institutionalized crazies and the left and right lines offering more reasonable, but still butt-buzzing-steep, descents. After a few runs on each side, I picked the left line for the race, and it proved to be fluid and predictable, even dropping in with the adrenaline pumping.
Braking Bumps and Endless Chunder
While the big features were challenging, the one trail feature that took the most serious toll was the endless braking bumps and small chundery roots and rocks. While I would feel fresh as I started my run, by the time 5 miles of descending came to a close, I was holding onto my handlebars for dear life! While I had energy in my legs, my grip on the bars was so exhausted that bringing myself to a halt after crossing the finish line was almost unbearable! My hands are so worked that pounding the keyboard all day has been grueling… time for a little Tylenol, methinks.
With such great trails it’s hard to complain, but there were a few downers throughout the weekend. First and foremost were the long lines: with over 300 competitors and no pedal transitions to space people out, the lines stacked up at the beginning of every single stage, making “hurry up and wait” the name of the game. While Snowmass had long lines, what made Keystone worse was that there was no riding between race stages.
Due to the way the courses were laid out, we’d also often have to wait for all the racers to finish running a certain stage for the tape to be moved and the next stage to begin. While this made for more waiting, it also meant that we weren’t allowed to ride any trails during the day (lifts were open from 8-9am and 5-7pm outside of race hours) to stave off boredom and keep our muscles warmed up. Going from this-sun’s-so-warm-I-want-to-take-a-nap to 180bpm sprints and life-threatening rock gardens in a matter of seconds is tough, and all of the sitting around seemed like a waste of life. Still, if you’re racing with friends, or were standing in line next to some interesting people, it made for a good chance to have interesting conversations.
I made it through the weekend with no crashes and no mechanicals whatsoever, which is more than many people can say. We raced on some brutally-awesome trails, had a great time in the mountains, and drank some delicious beer. All in all, Keystone was yet again another Big Mountain Enduro success!