The Backcountry Bike Team: Racing in the City of Angels
If the season-opener event in Austin was about fluffy, feel-good racing on singletrack, Bonelli and Fontana were about world-class competition and pushing the pain needle to 11 on the dial, then seeing how you stacked up against the best. Both events are on track to become World Cup events, and as such feature sub-15-minute laps, multiple brutal climbs, and dust so thick it obscures the ground. Limited opportunity to recover or prevent being passed characterized the racing and the track. There’s no faking it on these courses or against the competition, which was gunning for both UCI points and the series prize money.
Evelyn Dong and I road-tripped down from Salt Lake City, taking advantage of the opportunity to ride Prospector Trail, just off the freeway in Washington, Utah. Veterans of the road learn how to break up long trips. They know where the good coffee is, where the nice gas stations are, and most importantly, great places to ride along the way. Stopping for a 90-minute singletrack session not only keeps the body going during a drive, but also functions as part of the trip’s reward.
On the fence about whether to push through the night or stop and sleep, we took a roadside break outside Las Vegas to eat dinner and brew up French press coffee without Jet Boil Flash systems. Two things I’ve learned that make travel easier: taking an extra pair of shoes and packing your own coffee.
A quiet oasis in the middle of LA, Bonelli Park offers shade trees, manicured grass, and easy access from the pits to the course. This combination of the early-season race and the venue layout make for a family reunion of sorts. Teams and privateers all work together in one common space under the trees, with big rigs and camp trailers positioned in the shade. BBQ grills and the smell of citrus degreaser mix in the air between the announcer’s voice and folks catching up after a winter’s break. We’re at the big show, yes, and we’ll all have our game faces on at the starting line … but for now it’s all laughs and smiles—we’ll chop each other going into the singletrack tomorrow.
USA Cycling Pro XCT – Bonelli Park, San Dimas, CA
Bonelli’s XC start features one of the longer paved starts of the series. It’s a serpentine grass loop that moves to pavement and shuffles the riders up a curb and then down a flowing declined sidewalk before hitting the first vertical wall of dust that takes the racers out onto the course. Rewarding to those on the front, it heavily penalizes the unfortunate or slow starters, never mind if there’s a crash or a rubbing of wheels…a reward shuffle of positioning traps all but the most powerful athletes, miring them in traffic while the frontrunners never touch their brakes.
Despite such a reward shuffling, Backcountry’s Evelyn Dong moved from deep within the dust cloud on the first lap to a four-way battle for 5th place on the last lap. From the feed zone I watched as Evelyn moved through the field, picking off riders one by one, chasing down the Olympians and national champions alike. Running from the feed zone to the finish line as Evelyn finished, I could only overhear her result over the announcer’s P.A. She had methodically dismantled the group, rider by rider, until she hit the finishing straight alone, taking the final podium spot, and as a bonus, finishing as the top-placed American in the event. I just about lost my mind.
Afterward, the guys did their thing in the dust and fought it out in the trenches and dust of the cheap seats.
Photo Credit: Cyclingdirt.org
After the dust settled, Evelyn headed to visit family near the coast, TJ pinned it back to Prescott, and I caught a quick flight out of LAX back to Utah. Friday would be here soon enough, and we’d be back at in Fontana in just five short days.
USA Cycling Pro XCT – Fontana, CA
South Ridge Park in Fontana is a mountain bike torture zone smack in the middle of Fontana’s industrial and trucking zone, a rocky mountain and low-shrub outcropping flanked by a small park with oddly healthy and green grass. This race was going to be a five-minute uphill sprint followed by another five minutes of singletrack climbing. At the top, racers navigated sandstone rocks covered in silt, a treacherous track peppered with fans who laid in wait for the media scrum … photographers on the hunt for images and video of legs poisoned by lactate and the soft thud of bike and body crashing. It was a cruel course that rewarded those able to climb beyond their limits of self-preservation, but punished those too cross-eyed to steer their machines properly around the course.
We pre-rode with fellow Ninerds from the Clifbar team, just to ease the pain.
On race day, Evelyn again methodically moved her way through the women’s field before settling into a two-woman battle on the last lap against London Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould. Gould was winning medals while Evelyn was still figuring out how to clip into her pedals—and now the two were locked into a physical, tactical, and bike-handling battle for the top American finisher in the event. Both would finish on the podium, as their group represented 4th and 5th place, so this fight was simply about who would be top dog. A battle where there’s really nothing to lose.
Wheel to wheel, they pushed the pace on the pavement, onto the dirt, around the course, and into the downhill. Experience, as they say, is the teacher of all things. If you can’t drop, block. Georgia took the lead into the downhill, and between her decade of racing experience and a little bit of extra dust in the air, that was all it took to slightly gap off Evelyn by the finish. Another amazing ride for both women, and another podium for Evelyn and Backcountry!
Photo Credit: Cyclingdirt.org
Now we take a slight break to wash the California dust off the bikes and from our ears before heading out to the Sea Otter Classic on April 11th. See you all there.