Pro rider Sonya Looney holds steady through the rough, rowdy, technical 100-miler near St. George, Utah
I sat on my flight leaving the Las Vegas airport this past Sunday and the flight attendant asked, “Did anyone win big?” I smiled to myself because most people leaving Las Vegas were there to gamble, party, and see shows. They probably felt a little beat up and tired. I did too, but for different reasons. I had just finished the True Grit 100, a rough, rowdy, technical 100-mile mountain bike race 2 hours outside of Las Vegas in St. George, Utah. As I crammed into the small airplane chair, my tight, creaky body and calm energy level were just part of the prize. I had won big with a great day of mountain biking, although I did not win first place.
St. George has been a winter riding destination for years and tends to be overshadowed by Moab or Tucson. The quaint Western town offers many miles of technical desert singletrack and lacks the crowds. In 2010, it was the site of my first 100 mile ride on a mountain bike as part of a training camp. I was happy to return to St. George as an endurance veteran with so many 100 mile mountain bike races under my belt that I’ve lost count. Ironically, I still have not ridden 100 miles on a road bike! I was also admittedly intimidated by the True Grit course because I had only nontechnical short rides in the training logbook. I reassured myself that I had the diesel and the mountain bike skills would quickly return… kind of like riding a bike?
2014 was the event’s fourth year and the season opener for the National Ultra-Endurance Series (NUE). The disclaimer on the website did not lie when it said, “Our tag line is not a joke, this is a tough race. It is a mountain bikers race. The first 20 miles are over rocky and steep terrain that requires excellent bike handling skills and upper body strength.” The brief sections of dirt road were actually a relief rather than a nuisance as dirt roads can be when looking for a “mountain bike race.” The race offers the 100 mile distance (which was actually 89) and a 50 miler.
I prefer mountainous terrain, but I enjoy riding in the desert from time to time. It has almost an alien quality with hues of red and beige, sprinkled with bits of green plants, framed by an uninterrupted crystal blue sky. The vast space is rugged in its own right with jagged, corrugated cliffs and nothing but expansive barren landscape as far as the eye can see. The race course took us through chunky, rough singletrack to the tops of plateaus. The ridges were extremely windy and it would almost be a surprise when I looked up to see that I was on top of a cliff with a sheer drop not too many feet away from my tires.
The start of the race was a punchy dirt road straight into a headwind and eventually introducing us to technical singletrack. The first 3.5 hours were a bit rough for me, so I rode very conservatively. My legs felt like they were trying to pedal bike under water, but I knew they would come around eventually.
The Zen loop was my favorite with slickrock and tricky sections. I decided that it is called “zen” because you cannot think about anything other than navigating the trail. It calms the mind and forces a focused presence. That’s one of the main reasons I love mountain biking. The loop was also the most challenging to follow because there was no defined trail. There were long sections of continuous rock with cairns and tiny orange flagging to lead the way, but they were not always easy to see. The ribbons are more of a guide for the general direction you should go and can result in some surprisingly challenging lines or “oh shit, a cliff” moments! Knowing the trail was definitely an advantage that most of us did not have, but it was almost funny to stop and look around wondering where the hell the trail went!
The backside of the course lead us into a more remote section of the desert with fun pump track styled trail, a choice of a green or blue line depending on the desired challenge, and ground so fast and hard that it was like concrete. This year, there was rain leading up to the race had caused some damage turning lightning fast singletrack into a chattery, punishing ride on my hardtail! We all had to put up a massive fight against a strong desert headwind for about an hour as we made our way to the Barrel Roll section. I discovered I was about 7 minutes down from the race leader, NUE series winner Cheryl Sorenson. Soon after, it was like a switch flipped and my legs turned on. The Barrel Roll loop was insanely fun with technical climbing and descending. I was happy I was doing the 100 because that meant I got to do it again. That also meant I had to ride the chattery trail into the headwind on the back side of the course.
Watch the video below of the pre-ride with Team Topeak-Ergon’s Sonya Looney and Jeff Kerkove as they roll a fun, punchy section of the Zen Trail at the True Grit Epic Bike Race’s “long, tough and technical” course near St. George, Utah.
As I headed out for my second lap, a few things came unglued. First, I noticed my front brake lever was pulling all the way to the bar. I pumped it vigorously hoping it would come back. Unfortunately, it was gone. I was concerned about my safety riding tricky singletrack for the next 3.5 hours with no front brake. I didn’t want to quit, so I decided that I would give it a try. It wasn’t awful, but I definitely had to slow down on all the fun descents. Back braking doesn’t exactly stop you on a dime, nor is it a rip cord for coming into a corner too hot. It was frustrating, but I didn’t let it ruin my day. Perhaps the busted front brake was a blessing in disguise. I had broken my left wrist in 2012, and decided to race Leadville 100 with a cast followed by the Vapor Trail 125. I admit it was not the smartest decision as it still flares up and hurts. After about 40 miles of the jarring True Grit course, my wrist hurt so bad that I thought it might be rebroken. Holding on to the handlebar was excruciating, so maybe not having to worry about reaching and squeezing a brake lever made things just a tad easier on the wrist.
I babied the bike for the second loop and reminded myself as to why I was there; to ride singletrack, soak up the sun, see my friends, and get some good training. All of the objectives were being met. I was rewarded by a stout headwind the last 10 miles to the finish line, and was spun out. I’d recommend a 32 ring on the XX1 drivetrain, not a 30 for the race!
I cruised to the finish line in second place for the day, crash-free and satisfied with my accomplishment. Sounds of live music and my fiancé and friends greeting me quickly made me forget about the mishaps of the day. I was left with a craving for my next ride!