Race Report: Taxing High Alpine Climbs and Punishing Descents During BME Durango, Day 1

As soon as the map and elevation profiles for the Durango stop of the Big Mountain Enduro Series were released, I knew that this event would be radically different than the Snowmass stop: the first day alone boasted over 22 miles of riding (however, I did 27, and many riders who had to pedal back to town did more), almost 4,000 feet of climbing, but almost 7,000 feet of descending! Compare that to 17 miles of riding, 1,800 feet of climbing, and 4,800 feet of descending during the first day of the Snowmass race, and yeah: this was going to be no easy feat!

Photo: Nick Ontiveros / BME
Photo: Nick Ontiveros / BME

Day 1 began with a bus shuttle from Durango out to the trailhead. On the ride over, I got to sit and chat with an interesting chick who hails from Germany by way of Atlanta. When asked why she was out here racing in Durango this weekend, Mickey responded, “I like racing because it takes me to cool places that I wouldn’t check out otherwise.” Well said, sister! While I’d like to think that I’d personally have checked out these trails race or no race, there’s no telling how long it would have taken me to come to Durango to ride these sweet sections of singletrack.

Still, I think it’s extremely telling that while the competition draws people to the Big Mountain Enduro events, the draw is just as much–or even more so–the fantastic trails that these races are held on.

The race run on Day 1 would be my first-ever ride in Durango (I didn’t have time to preride anything the day before), but Mickey had been acclimating in Durango since Tuesday. Her take on the area? “The trails are awesome and challenging, [and] the views are incredible!”

Count me excited!

Stage 0: The Climb

The shuttle bus took us as far as it could go, but the road turned steep and rocky pretty quickly. After unloading, we were greeted with a stiff 6.5-mile 4×4 road climb that gained 2,500 vertical feet… yeouch! With my 32-36 low gear, I did a lot of anaerobic grinding and a whole lot of hiking.

As I chatted with some of the Durango locals who were also racing the entire BME series, they brought up the huge disparity in the enrollment numbers for the Durango event versus the Snowmass event: about 180 people were racing this weekend compared to 300 people the weekend before. Rumor has it that the first heinous climb was the main deterrent.

Climb climb climb!
Climb climb climb!

But as I ground away for close to seven miles, I realized something: this is the kind of mountain biking that I personally do every weekend. Grind/hike for miles upon miles to reach the top of an epic ridge line, and then blast down the descent on the other side as fast as possible! While maybe plenty of other people on the BME circuit couldn’t hack it, I was in my element!

However, to be fair to my racing comrades, the back-to-back timing of these events could have been a major deterrent as well. Even though I was out here covering the events as a part of my job, I was personally still struggling to keep up with all of the duties of life in the office and on the home front with two packed 3-day weekends of traveling, camping, and racing situated so close together. But as I worked my way up the mountain side, all the pressures of life faded into the background as I focused on maintaining forward momentum and soaking in the epic mountain views that surrounded me.

Finally: Singletrack!
Finally: Singletrack!

Stage 1: Colorado Trail: Kennebec Pass

We finally gained the top of Kennebec Pass and the start of Stage 1. I honestly can’t imagine a more beautiful place to drop in for a mountain bike race: at almost 12,000 feet in elevation, above treeline, looking down at the rest of the world below, it was a truly surreal experience! It probably helped that, aside from riding the lift up high at Snowmass the week before, this was my first, true, high alpine ride of the summer season.

On top of the world at the beginning of Stage 1.
On top of the world at the beginning of Stage 1.
Cheesin' because I have a feeling about what's in store: a truly epic big-mountain descent!
Cheesin’ because I have a good feeling about what’s in store: a truly epic big-mountain descent!
Dropping into Stage 1. Photo: Nick Ontiveros / Big Mountain Enduro
Dropping into Stage 1. Photo: Nick Ontiveros / Big Mountain Enduro

To be brief, Stage 1 was absolutely punishing. With highspeed whoops and waterbars up high on a super tight tread, the trail then fed into a loose scree field that I knew must have had the most epic views off to my right! But taking so much as one eye off of that mess for more than a second would have spelled disaster, and a tumble down hundreds of feet of steep, exposed mountain side with who-knows-what at the bottom.

Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
A big snow drift still hanging on to life. Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
A big snow drift still hanging on to life. Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME

The trail then fed into the trees, flashing through high-speed bench-cut sections of supremely narrow tread. After the wide bike park trails of Snowmass, shredding classic Colorado Trail singletrack required a radically different skill set! Add in the rocks, the roots, and the sharp switchbacks, and my forearms and hands went numb in the first few minutes (before I left the scree field). Normally, I would just stop, shake them out, and continue, but this was a race: so I pinned it for a half an hour at max capacity, down that mountain side, trying to hang on to my bike for dear life!

Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME

Well, as you can tell, I’m sitting here typing, so I made it to the bottom safe and sound! That’s more I can say for many of my fellow racers, though: there were flats, mechanicals, and bloody crashes left and right. I passed about a half a dozen people (2-3 still on their bikes, 3-4 walking or fixing something) on my rip down the mountain. I quickly decided, as I had the weekend before, that if I could make it through the weekend without any major mechanicals or a serious crash, that I’d be doing pretty well for myself!

At the bottom of the stage as I took a breather and chatted with some folks, a fellow racer asked, “How was Stage 1?” I paused a second to think and he said, “Brutal?” right as I responded “Rad!!” Yes, it was undeniably brutal, but it was absolutely rad all at the same time!

Intermission

There was another untimed liaison stage between Stages 1 and 2, and it featured a–you guessed it–brutal hike-a-bike climb. However, the entire intermission wasn’t a punch in the gut: after gaining some elevation, we scored a mellow piece of rolling singletrack through old growth pine trees towering over a hundred feet over our heads! I exclaimed to the rider in front of me, “this is just awesome! This is what mountain biking is all about!” Despite the brutal climbs, the ripping descents, gorgeous mountain views, beautiful forests, and trailside wildflowers all came together to form what is, in my mind, a truly epic mountain bike ride.

Still, my race wasn’t all daisies and rainbows. On Stage 1, I had felt a lot of slop in the rear end of my bike. As I assessed it during the climb to Stage 2, I realized that the spoke tension on my rear wheel had loosened up significantly. Thankfully it was still rolling ok, so I crossed my fingers and hoped that I wouldn’t do any permanent damage as I prepared to shred Stage 2.

Stage 2: Colorado Trail: Wild Oat Mesa to Junction Creek Campground

While the trail tread on Stage 1 had been narrow and exposed, on average the tread on Stage 2 was much more bermed up, wider, and had much better sight lines down the trail so it was easier to see what was coming. Consequently, I was maching down the mountain, hoping against hope that my rear wheel wouldn’t implode.

While the trail was straighter and faster, it was also much, much rockier. I blasted through countless rock gardens, but thanks to the long sight lines I was also able to set up plenty of airs over the gnarliest sections. As I launched over section after section, I couldn’t help thinking back to one of my first rides in Colorado when I had ridden with my then-boss, Pete Nelson, and learned that “oftentimes, it’s easier and faster to just jump over the rocks than to ride through them.”

Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME
Photo: Nick Ontiveros/BME

That ride about 6 years before was the first time I remember learning that lesson, and I put it into practice countless times during my run down Stage 2! While sure, I did have to tackle plenty of gnar the old fashioned way, Stage 2 was an absolute riot with flowy rollers, lips to pop, rocks to smash, berms to rail, and an unexpected steep drop/rock roll right at the end of the stage.

As I pedaled the last untimed mile back to the trailhead on a still-rideable rear wheel, stopping to give away a tube to an unfortunate soul who had flatted twice that day, I was absolutely beaten and exhausted. However, I felt so satisfied and fulfilled deep in my soul: this is what mountain biking should be! Sure, there are many different flavors of MTB, but more than any other type of riding, this big mountain riding resonates deep within me and says “yes, you came, and you conquered, Well done!”

Click here to read about Day 2!

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