After Sherwood Peak I knew I wanted to get another longer MTB race done this year, and with dreams of Leadville qualifying the Tahoe 100k seemed like a perfect race. Briefly looking at race times and reading some descriptions I deduced it would be mostly fast fireroad with a few lightweight technical sections of singletrack. As I lined up on at the starting line however I observed not only was I the only one on a cross bike present out of the few hundred I saw, I didn't see a rigid MTB or single pair of rim brakes either... maybe a foreshadowing of what was to come. We'll get to that later.
I stayed in Reno to save money, Northstar is about a 40 minute drive away. Packet pickup and the pre race meeting was the day before the race, it's very apparent right away this race is extremely well run. The race director was sitting next to the timing tag pickup to answer any questions, and the meeting not only covered everything but had a good amount of motivation and inspiration from Rebecca Rusch and Dave Wiens. There was a short course preride with the two that day but I didn't partake, it does cover the start climb which is one of the toughest parts of the course so if you have concerns about it the preride could definitely calm your nerves. I opted for a run instead to keep my legs warm that Friday, I checked out the course a bit but was mostly feeling out the altitude, which was noticeable but not crippling.
The race start was 7am, I was concerned it would be freezing but I was fine in a short sleeve even at 6:30 standing around. The race starts a bit down the road from Northstar, which is fortunate as the large field can get sorted out a bit before hitting the trail. Everyone lines up in a pretty tight mass start, and the gun goes off. There's actually a short downhill right out of the gate, I was expecting carnage but everyone in my vicinity kept it together. The road climb into the village is mellow, I took advantage of my bike here to move up as far as I could, I am still on my Stan's Crows which may as well be slicks for a MTB but are extremely fast on pavement/fireroad compared to the tires most were running. After climbing into the village you ride through a short, flat cobble section then hang a right onto the beginning of the trail, where the real racing begins.
The race organizers watered this road a bit the night before, which everyone I am sure was grateful for. Even so, the road was already pretty dusty and loose. Although the trail was essentially a fireroad there were really only two lines to ride up, where vehicles had packed it down, so the still crowded race was riding on two narrow tracks about 8 feet apart. The total climb from the starting area is around 880ft, mostly easy grades. When the grade kicked up I used the opportunity to pass, which normally entailed going from one line to the other and praying I wouldn't spin out in the middle, others were doing this as well, an interesting leapfrog dynamic. Towards the top the climb leveled off but I did my best to keep the power up as I knew I would lose time on the descents with my brakes and lack of suspension. At the top of the climb there's a few miles of fast fireroads with the occasional treacherous waterbar or rock, just enough to keep you 100% focused on the descent. The course is very well marked, and at the end of the easy fireroad section pink flags directed you into one of the more difficult sections of the course, a winding downhill singletrack.
This section seemed like it would be a blast on a hardtail, but unfortunately I could not enjoy at as I was death gripping my double wrapped drops and doing my best not to fly off the side. The singletrack levels out and smooths out after a few minutes though as you enter Burton Creek State Park, and this part of the course is a dream. The course follows flat, fast single and doubletrack for a few miles, with a few short climbs where I was still trying to make moves to pass. Unfortunately as I came around a corner I noticed my rear tire was extremely soft, low enough that I had to stop. On me I had one Vittoria Pit Stop, 2 normal c02s and a chuck, and one tube. I debated throwing the tube in there but I didn't want to spend the 5 minutes and get stuck back in the middle of the race after working my way towards the front. I decided to use the Pit Stop and hope it stopped the leak, which was around the base of the valve stem, a place I'd had problems with a lot since my tubeless conversion. I used the Pit Stop, didn't see any foam come out anywhere, and was back on the road. The singletack keeps winding along, and fortunately stays in the shade. The first lap was warm, but later in the day the heat was really going, well above 90 degrees.
Eventually the singletrack ends and you hit the first aid station. Out of aid station one there's a few short fireroad climbs, easy grades. I noticed my tire was low again, and again didn't want to take the 5 minutes to switch to a tube. I messed around with the valve stem and thought I stopped the leak, then hit it with the c02. I thought I had it fixed, didn't hear any air leaking, and continued up. After a few easy climbs there is a short paved descent, and at the end a quick left back onto doubletrack, followed by the steepest descent of the day, "The Wall." This descent on the cross bike was pretty harrowing, it was extremely dusty and fast, I managed to hold on though. After the wall is a short fireroad descent, then a turn back onto some doubletrack for another climb. This climb is like a ladder, repeatedly kicking up to 12-14% grade for short kicks then leveling out. A lot of people were cracking here on the short kicks. My "granny" is a 34-32, and with the Crows there is no starting again if I stop on a climb like this, so I was standing the whole way up. As you make it over the crest the doubletrack turns into fast singletrack, smooth but fast with some quick switchbacks. The ground is very loose and dusty, as I was riding in the middle section I saw someone sliding down the hill, and I'm guessing it wasn't to take a shortcut. The singletrack opens up again to some gravel fireroad, still very fast, giving you time to relax as you approach the Strava Challenge, which is the biggest climb of the actual race lap.
This climb isn't too bad, shallow grade and one flat spot in the middle. The most sun exposed parts of the course were towards the top of the climb though, turning it into a bit of a grinder. After you finished the climb the descent starts towards the pit stop/finish, the first half being fireroad, the second half being a non-technical flow trail type thing with berms and rollers. My tire had lost a bit of air I noticed as I checked in the pit stop, but not as quickly as before, so I still held off the tube change. Fortunately someone had a pump there, so I pumped it up to 40psi in hopes that together with my last c02 would last the entirety of my second lap. Not much changed on lap 2, I was a bit more conservative on the technical parts but managed to go a little harder on the shorter climbs. The sun was higher in the sky and together with the huge amount of dust still on the course made for some blinding moments. Back at aid station 1 my tire was around 20psi, luckily some riders who weren't racing had some c02 to lend me, together with my last cartridge it lasted me to the finish. In retrospect nursing the tire like this cost me more time that it would have to change to a tube, hindsight is 20/20.
The only difference coursewise on the second lap was the final descent, which had been changed from previous years, and is what I can only describe as a cruel joke for anyone struggling and hoping for an easy cruise to the finish. There were tight turns everywhere, rock gardens, screamer downhill rollers that caused me to go airborne repeatedly, then a final chute of loose gravel with a sweeping turn. I was having a blast since I knew even if I flew off the bike I could probably crawl to the finish, but I saw a lot of people off to the side of the course who had gone too wide or been rattled off their line by rocks. I rolled through the finish at 5:20, not quite what I was aiming for but a solid time considering the bike I was on. There are a lot of Leadville spots up for grabs here, so even if you don't grab one on the podium or in rolldowns your chances are very good at the lotto... especially after a huge hailstorm clears out the awards ceremony temporarily. There was a great food and beer after the race, continuing with the theme of an expertly run race. I will definitely be back next year, not only to enjoy this awesome course, but to try and get a good corral time for Leadville, which is 2 weeks after this race.