Surprise! Local riders crushed at the 52-mile Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships last Saturday in Bend. Not exactly a shocker, really.
We have plenty of talent here in Central Oregon, both professional and amateur and it showed. Again. Adam Craig added another national championship jersey to his growing collection after holding off good buddy, longtime teammate and Bend native Carl Decker by a measly 12 seconds on a course that contained more than 4,000 feet of climbing and sent riders up past Wanoga Sno Park before bringing them back to the finish in the Old Mill.
Craig and Decker rode away from the rest of the elite men's field early and used their intimate knowledge of our local trails to stay well in front of the hard-charging pack.
Once the duo was alone, some of the pressure receded and the two friends were free to chat about the stuff they usually mull over during their dusty bike rides together.
"We talked about the dirt as it got better near Edison (Sno Park). I reminded Carl (a self proclaimed camel) to eat and drink. We'd say 'What's up' to spectators out on the course. We kept it light," Craig said.
After it was obvious that the local pair had sufficiently separated themselves from the field, the race for first was on. No longer teammates, the two began racing each other as Tiddlywinks, a new trail accessed from Wanoga Sno Park, led them downhill toward town and the finish line.
Craig and Decker have their own respective strengths - and they both know what those strengths are. Both racers are clearly two of the strongest in the country, but Decker is better known for his crafty, analytical take on everything from bike race strategy to equipment, while Craig's advantages lie in his raw power and uncanny bike-handling skills.
"I knew if we came down the road together that I was going to lose, because Carl is smarter than me (tactically) and a better sprinter," Craig said.
After Craig made his move, though, airing out over the bumps on a section of the Tiddlywinks trail - the faster option - the winning gap was established. Craig maintained a few seconds advantage on his pal, who chose to ride around the jumps, for more than 15 miles of dirt and paved road.
"The remaining pavement was a battle of wills. Me to catch. Him to stay away. I came within four seconds of him twice, but never closer," Decker said.
After finishing, it became apparent just how big the gap to third place had become. The two Bend racers could have gone for tacos and still been around to see third place cross the finish line.
Mega-fitness and local familiarity benefited amateur racers from Bend, too. Carson Miller, Ben Thompson and Scott Seaton all captured national titles in their respective age groups and Alice Drobna took the women's singlespeed national title. Many other locals earned a spot on the podium, including Bend mountain bike institution Don Leet. The SunnySide Sports co-owner recently won a national title in the mega-experienced 60-99 age group while competing in the shorter discipline of cross-country earlier this summer.
Not too shabby, Bend. Well done.
Changes could be afoot for next year's championship event, said Visit Bend's Doug LaPlaca, who works with USA Cycling to put on the national title races. Since marathon mountain bike racing isn't much of a spectator sport, a venue switch might be in the cards.
"We plan on making substantial changes next year, like staging the race out of Wanoga or somewhere else," LaPlaca said.
"It's a bunch of people riding relatively slowly into the woods and returning three hours later, dirty and thirsty. It's hardly a pay-per-view spectacle. Endurance racing is a rider-focused sport. If you want more people at the start/finish, you simply need to have more starters and finishers," offered Decker.
Race organizers are also looking at other dates since come September, most bike nerds are fired up about cyclocross. An earlier date would suit Craig just fine. The newly crowned champ suggested that, along with holding the race earlier in the summer, hosting star-studded pre-ride events and course tip sessions might draw more racers to the marathon event .
Still, it was generally agreed that the singletrack-heavy course was a good one. With a mix of one-track, dirt roads and pavement, the route ensured that the strongest racer won. Bend also scored high marks from out-of-towners for both its bike-friendly atmosphere and scenic beauty.
And now for something completely different. Kind of. But at root of it, the results sheet of Colorado's TransRockies Run - a six-day ultra race - still reads like a who's who of Bend's sporting world. Max King, who last year, along with partner Andy Martin won the Men's Open division, finished second this year with friend and recent Bend transplant Ryan Bak. But it didn't come easily this time around. On day four, Bak suffered a broken toe as a result of a tight hamstring that prohibited him from sufficiently lifting his left leg. While a broken toe might be a good reason to drop out of a mountain race for most, the Bend duo hardly considered it.
"We weren't really willing to do that," said King, recent winner of the World Mountain Running Championships in Albania.
After a hospital visit, a couple stitches (Bak also split his hip open in the fall) and a shoe modification that required the use of a large knife, Bak and King soldiered on and managed to hold onto second place, finishing in 15 hours, 19 minutes.
Two-time PPP champ Stephanie Howe and boyfriend Zach Violett took third in the competitive Open-Mixed category, finishing in just over 18 hours. Other than the unavoidable bonks and muscle soreness, the relatively inexperienced pair escaped unscathed.
"Everybody that beat us had trained 100-mile weeks before," Violett said.
Katie Caba and husband Jeff beat out 23 other race teams to take first in their age group. The couple finished the six stages in 18 hours, 32 minutes.
50k National Champs
In upcoming running news, Bend will play host to yet another national championship event. The USA Track & Field 50K Trail Championships is Saturday and King, Howe, Violett and other locals plan to compete for the title. Both King and Howe finished second last year at the event, which, like this year, was held on and around Bend's Flagline trail.
"It's a great course for beginners, because it's not super hard," said King, noting the lack of significant climbs on the scenic course.
"It's beautiful. It goes through some of Bend's best singletrack," added the running champ.
Last year King finished seconds behind friend and fellow Oregon runner, Erik Skaggs. King expects the race to once again come down between the Ashland runner and himself.