The Balance: Blood, Sweat, and Pickle Juice at the Grand Junction Off-Road

Matt tries out the Grand Junction Off-Road, a 40-mile mountain bike race with enough elevation gain and rocks to challenge anyone.

Photo: Matt Miller.

At 4:45am my alarm rings into my ears. It sounds like a Harley revving its engine. Brah brah brah bruuuuhhhhmm. It’s awful, but when has anyone actually found an alarm they enjoy?

After four days in a row of riding, I wake up for my fifth, more tired than I have been all week, but with too much pre-race anxiety to think about going back to sleep. Instead, I check my fanny pack again for my toolset, eight different gels, three snack bars, pack of syrup, and bottle of water mixed with hydration powder.

I’m on the fence about clothing, so I decide I’ll wear a lumbar pack with everything I need over a Lycra kit for the ultimate cross-duro setup. It looks goofy, but so does wearing Lycra alone – or riding with a fanny pack in baggies, and at least I’ll have everything I need.

The attitude of the Grand Junction Off-Road doesn’t require you to choose if you’re in the XC or enduro camp anyway. There are riders on 100mm XC race rigs in Lycra, there are people on Santa Cruz Bronsons wearing Dakine baggies, there are riders on 15-year-old aluminum full-suspension bikes wearing full-face helmets, and at 7:20am we’re all gathered around the start line in downtown Grand Junction for a 40-mile race with more than a mile of elevation gain.

The night before race day starts with the Klunker Crit. Riders are in party mode and race any kind of bike they want. Photo: Matt Miller.

The announcer lets us know when each minute has passed. “90 seconds to go!” At 7:30 on the dot the rope lifts and with a police motorcycle escort, almost 200 mountain bikers sprint out of downtown. Everyone is side by side, and I’m feeling pretty fricken’ motivated to lean this bike down as hard as I can around the street corners after watching the Fat Tire Crit the night before. Someone said the pros were averaging about 20MPH on the city crit course.

Pro women on the line. Photo: Matt Miller.

We’re all doing maybe 15MPH, and ride like a hive of bees has exploded in an air duct and are looking for a way out. Police stand at intersections and hold traffic while we fly through red lights. The single-speeders max out their gear quickly and top out at maybe 12 or 13MPH. They look like they’ll spin the pedals off their cranks if they try to go any faster.

Katerina Nash won the Fat Tire Crit and the pro women’s race at the Grand Junction Off-Road. Photo: Matt Miller.

When we hit the Lunch Loops trailhead everyone files in nicely. Since the first section of track is on the wide Tabegauch trail, it leaves some room for everyone to find exactly where they fit in without having to throw ‘bows. The last XC race I did was full of half-roadies, overly aggro about getting ahead of you, even when there wasn’t room. I wasn’t in the mood for it this time, and I think everyone else was too sleepy to be vocal about it.

Still, I want to push myself. So, when the first hike-a-bike up Tabegauch comes, and my carbon-soled slippers skid against the rock, I dig in harder to get to the top, remount, and pedal ahead of a few others. Even though I’m fatigued from riding the previous week, my legs feel pretty fresh. The weight of leftover lactic acid clears from my quads and calves and fresh blood rushes to my muscles.

Typically in this situation, my legs are heavy and I’m sweating marbles because it’s already 80-degrees out, and I ate a breakfast burrito the size of a hardshell knee pad which won’t pass through my intestine no matter what I send down my gullet to chase it. Not today though. Today, I feel light and efficient and ready for 30 more miles.

Within the first 10-12 miles, everyone has sorted themselves into an appropriate order. Ahead of me, there’s a guy on a single-speed hardtail and when I catch him on the downhills I worry for his safety a little bit because racing a single-speed hardtail down the Butterknife trail which is full of sniper rocks, exposure, and fast turns looks sketchy as hell.

A few minutes before, I passed a gal named Erin and she has caught back up with me on a climb in between descents.

“Hey, what’s your name?” she asks. I tell her, but since I can hardly breathe at this point it sounds like I said: “Bart, want s’mores!?” “Huh?” she asks.

“It’s Matt. What’s yours?” Erin and I pass two more people down Butterknife and I pull away and manage to hit the first aid station, 17-miles in. I drink a cup of cold water from the aid station and throw a few gummies in my mouth. Whoa, almost halfway already.

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But, it’s a deceiving halfway point because the next segment of the course is Windmill road, a sandy, off-road trail that climbs 2,000 feet over seven miles. The first section is steep, but the rest of it is a gradient that is not so steep and not quite flat. Eating is necessary and almost unmanageable since my bike wanders off the trail without both hands on the bars.

Earlier in the race on the Gunny Loop trail when I was still fresh. Photo: Cody Wethington.

My body is burning through fuel like a 1985 Chevy Suburban with 10-year old spark plugs and a bird stuck in the air filter. Thirty minutes after I sucked down a coffee-infused maple syrup packet, I can feel myself tanking again. So I whip my fanny pack around to my gut and fish for food. Piece by piece, I break down a stroop waffle and feed each chunk to myself.

“Hey, how’s it going,” Erin says as she pedals past me. “Oh, trying not to bonk,” I say. Every time it seems like I can get out of my third gear into a smaller cog, my legs fill up with weight, like marbles in a sack. But I’m still going up, and I know the climb will end eventually.

I try to look behind me to see where downtown Grand Junction is and give myself a sense of place, but I can’t see it. There are only shrubby juniper trees, and loose dirt, and two hikers ahead of me. One of them has a giant set of elk antlers spread across his back. Ahead of them is another group driving an ATV with a small trailer and two e-bikes mounted.

Then the road flattens out a little bit and I come around a right-hand corner to see a white sign with two black arrows pointing down. Finally. The road gets steep and ribbon-like and there are jumps to huck. Within ten minutes, I’ve lost all the elevation that took me an hour to gain. After a stream crossing, I arrive at the second and final aid station 30-miles in.

“Hey, whatdya need?” asks a guy at the aid station. He grabs the bottle from my frame before I answer. “Is this just water?” He fills it up with the tenacity of a NASCAR pit-stop tech.

The desert is full of interesting blooms this time of year. Photo: Matt Miller.

“Uh, yep,” I say. “Is that pickle juice?” There are cups of clear, green fluid all lined up on the table. He hands me one. It’s salty, flavorful, ice cold, and the best thing I’ve drank all week. “Damn that was good.” Then I chase it down with a small chunk of a pickle. It’s all I can stomach.

“You have a three-mile climb ahead of you and then it’s all downhill from there.”

Without stopping for more than two minutes, I start pedaling and reach the Tabeguach trail, yet again. Like the slickrock climbs in Moab, yellow lines point upward. It’s steep, but has the best traction anywhere. If I had the leg power left I could power straight up it, but I don’t, so instead I’m weaving my way up, adding distance, but cutting the gradient.

As I summit the final major climb, I reach Little Park Rd. and start flying down, tucked into my saddle and cockpit. Any time I hit a descent I feel four times stronger, and as soon as the course gains elevation, I’m deterred. But it’s a short road ride, and we’re back on the Lunch Loops trails, pointed toward downtown.

The last few miles of trail come when you’re exhausted but still can’t let up because you might end up in a tree. Shortly after I’m back on the trail, my pedal strikes a rock and I end up in a tree. I grabbed my brakes before and slowed down, so it’s only the right side of me that’s a little banged up.

Another half-mile down the trail, I’m still riding like I’m half drunk and even though I told myself to keep looking up, I pedal strike a stump which then rips my Boa-strapped shoe off the pedal and off of my foot. When I realize what happened, I’m already 15-feet ahead of the lost shoe.

Photo: Matt Miller.

My leg is a little torn up, but I run back and I have two shoes again and am ready to crush the last few miles of trail. By crush, I mean I’ll try not to ride too recklessly anymore because I can’t focus more than ten feet ahead of me, and I feel like a bag of smashed dog poop.

Another mile down the trail, a group of riders are gathered around a waterfall drop trying to decide if they want to walk or ride it. I come up, steer left, clear the drop and ram into another tree. That’s it, I swear.

The trail back to the paved road to town goes on for miles more, but finally, I hit the pavement and I’ve never been happier. With a burst of energy, I’m now sprinting down the road, down sidewalks, across a bridge, through downtown, and across the finish line. I slow down quickly because there are now mobs of people downtown. I walk off my five-hour ride, hang my bike up, and plop down in a chair, too tired to even take my shoes and kit off for an hour.

Recovery starts with a glass bottle of Coke from a cooler, wet with little chunks of ice around the sides. Then a meal, and hours later a beer. But, before the beer, it’s time for a nap, and I’m not waking up to that damned Harley alarm again.