Tuesday, June 4, 2013


What makes a mountain bike event good? There are some basic expectations from those of us who travel to do what we do: marked trails, clear information, some kind of celebration / awards post race that includes food and hopefully a hoppy beverage. Not a lot to ask.

The real question is: what makes a mountain bike event great? What makes us want to travel twelve freaking hours, eight of which are across the western -yawn- plaines of Nebraska, just to compete in an event where we're more than likely just going to be pack fodder? The Gunnison Growler in Gunnison, Colorado, has the answer. Dialed. 

This trip's MTB WAGN crew included Adam "The Proper Asian" Stoll, Gnarly Carly, world traveler, Todd Eyberg and Larry "The Elder" Kintner. 

We got on the road after work on a Thursday and drove to Ogalala where we shacked up at The Stage Coach Inn right off the interstate. Ya never know about places with a name like that but it wasn't too bad. A museum of cowboy culture, the lobby was a good sign that the rooms weren't just going to be a made-over trucker's bunk house. Hot breakfast (aka Belgiun waffle maker) and powdered eggs on the house got our attention. Bikers love free b-fasts. Makes the young'ns get out of bed on time (good job Adam). 

That Friday morning started out grey and drizzly, just like it has for most of this spring season. Hearing the call of the mountains and imagining the warmth of the sun on our pasty-pacific-northwest-wrinkly skin, we pointed the MTB WAGN west and drove as fast as possible. Once we hit Denver, and after a mad scramble to get to both a bathroom and coffee, we headed south. Soon we were out of good 4G range, which meant we were getting farther and farther away from civilization. That was fine by us.

This area of Colorado is spectacular. Yeah, I get it. 14ers, rad, brah. But to see and be in a mountain valley miles wide and twice as long is really breathtaking. To me they make the mountains they precede that much more grand. And they look like they haven't changed in a millennium. Great expanses, bound only by the highway we were on. This is where the real cowboys live. 

Well, cowboys and Asians. 

At a T intersection between Salida and Crested Butte, there were not one but two cafe that offered Tai food. Oh and ice cream. The one we picked had a walk-up window and outdoor seating. As we all know the best Tai joints are off the beaten path. This one was definitely off. We placed our orders for pad tai. I had chicken and pineapple and immediately had tai envy. The proper Asian, Adam, declared it to be Chinese Tai. Regardless of its authenticity, it was pretty good and the atmosphere could only be rivaled to the likes of a rodeo. As we were sitting there, at the intersection of two high ways, in the blinding sun, 3 semis hauling cattle cars parked on the shoulder. Soon after the drivers got out of the cabs, the cows began to moo. It was as if we were being serenaded by a cow chorus. Of course some of us mooed back. It was just one of those moments that seemed more dream-like than real. A bunch of folks from Nebraska, sitting at a picnic table, eating Tai in the middle of nowhere, with cows mooing in the back ground. Yeah, I thought it odd too. Maybe they read the sign and were protesting.

By late afternoon, we pulled into Gunnison. Our little home away from home was awesome. A newly built 3 bedroom home, complete with a large living area and a small deck that overlooked a pond. And it was 4 blocks from the start line. Score! 

We immediately unloaded the WAGN and kitted up so we could get in a short ride on the course. Well, what we thought was the course. Right out of the parking lot, we followed pink flags up into the craggy Hartman Rocks. Not exactly slick rock, not exactly rock, but it was definitely a sandy love child between the two. The trail went almost straight up immediately, and we all thought, ah, shit. We are gonna be in for it tomorrow. The altitude was clearly affecting us. That and the fact that we had been sitting for four hours just before arriving. But you know how it is. Mountain air. Mountain trails. Let's ride! It didn't take long for me to be off the bike and bent over trying gasp for air. One spot in particular, the line was up onto a ledge. I walked next to it, in a crag and had to lean my bike at an angle to be able to walk. Jason, my coach, warned me that it was a hairy place to ride. The event website says the same thing and you have sign the event waiver that says you have the experience to ride this kind of terrain. I finally got the message. This was going to be tough. 

This was part of the long course!
We just kinda rode around, following pink flags. Not sure where we were going, we ended up following some locals for a bit and then lost them. We got onto a gravel road and then took some advice from some hikers where to go to get back. They sent us down the new stuff, most unfortunately named Collar Bone. It was a curvy, wall ride of a trail that snaked down a steep hillside. Keep the speed up or you'll never make it, I kept saying. Once down, we headed back to the condo for the night. Pasta primavera with chicken was whipped up and we all hit the hay after hanging out on the deck for a bit. With a respectable 9am start time, the morning wouldn't have to come too early. Which was great, cuz sacking out in a king size bed is the bomb! It is until you can't sleep because of the altitude and nerves, that is. 

RACE REPORT - Half Growler (32+ miles)
The morning went smoothly. Everyone was up, coffee was drank and race fuel consumed. I brought pancake mix. I've had many altitude issues in the past relating to my stomach so my thinking was to eat something my body could easily digest. I topped em off with a couple of eggs and called it good. Since we were so close to the venue, we warmed up around the neighborhood before heading over to the starting line in the heart of their downtown.

I'm standing at about 10 o'clock.
Upon arrival the scene was casual. Folks were warming up. One city block was barricaded off to traffic so we had a comfortable area to stage and hang out. I did a few quick sprints, hit the bathroom about 3x and then got in line about 1/3 of the way from the front. I looked around. Many folks were in C-backs. My coach suggested I wear one. At the last minute I decided to carry a third bottle instead.

Matt Burt: 2013 Growler - Half &emdash; IMGP1648

At the stroke of 9am, someone shot off a very loud shot gun and we were off, following a police escort through town. The pace wasn't too crazy but soon a large group broke off. I was boxed in behind a large guy and a single speeder spinning his little heart out. When I finally saw some daylight I went into action and bridged up to the back of the group. There was probably 75 riders snaking along. As we approached the parking lot I was dreading the technical section we rode the day before. But to my (and our group's) delight, we rode past the single track and instead went up a very steep service road, known locally as Kill Hill, which it kinda did. I overhead someone say stay to the left, as it was smoother so that's what I did, until a wobbly rider forced me to abandon my line. 

Image courtesy of Sonya Looney
My plan was to stay steady and not cook myself on this hill. Once at the top, we continued on gravel for a while. My bike was not the most efficient on this but I knew she'd pay off in the single track. In fact, my bike hadn't felt great since Syllamo. Something was up with the fork but tuning it before a big race was not a good idea. It was not going through all of its travel despite setting it well below industry standard for my weight. It was rebounding fine but it felt like I was riding an 80 mil fork so some of the technical stuff was a little unnerving. So back to the race, there was enough gravel road to get the heart rate steady before heading into single track, which was a mix of hard, punchy, climby stuff and super flowy, big-ring-swoopy stuff. As much fun as I was having, I kept asking myself when are we going to get that technical lung buster we road yesterday? That thought held me at bay. Not that I would've gone that much faster, but thinking we'd get to that at trail at some point, I kept extra care to keep my HR in check. 

Not sure how soon into the race it was, but Larry came around and was giddy as a kid on a bike. "My kind of trail", he yelled. He was having a blast, which was awesome because he deserved it after a fall/winter healing from a broken collar bone and ribs succumbed from a dumb crash recon riding the Dakota Five-0. I thought if I was up with Larry, then I must be in decent position. 

Adam went by at one point too but I eventually reeled him back in. He was cramping pretty bad and was just trying to hold on. At some point I caught him again. I tried to ride up a technical section a guy was walking. Thinking I had enough momentum to get up the 2 ft ledge, I made a run at it. I stopped mid point, clipped out but the sandy stone had nothing of it. I went down on my left elbow and hip. As I got back up and moving again, I could feel the blood running down my arm. "I ain't got time to bleed". I rubbed it with my glove and after a few times doing that, it pretty much stopped but not before I created a mess on the underside of my arm. Hopefully, it made me look bad ass.

At one point the race went down a two-way road and onto a signature Hartman Rocks loop. I was going back and forth with a guy that was easily 200lbs. He'd fly by on descents and I'd move past him on the climbs. Once we got back to the gravel road, though, I was able to put him behind me for good. However, a woman on an SS took his place. I was in awe. She was moving. We rode together for a few miles. I stopped at one of the few minnie aid stations to fill up again and eat. I asked what was left (still worrying about the craggy climb). "A couple big climbs, Top of the World and The Ridge". I kept on. The SS rider was there. I had to let her by on one technical step up but then went by her when she bobbled next. It was late in the race. My mileage was in the high twenties. I went up and back down what I thought was Top of the World and the Ridge. To my disappointment, I still had to do the ridge. 

Matt Burt: 2013 Growler - Half &emdash; IMGP2992
Images courtesy of Matt Burte

Matt Burt: 2013 Growler - Half &emdash; IMGP2990

The ridge was a progressively technical, progressively steep sliver of single track that required skill, focus and a deep desire to get up as fast as possible and get it over with. Upon entering, I got confused with direction and put a foot down to get my barring. Once on the right path, I charged up and over, up and over and up, up, up. Cliff edge on one side and craggy rocks on the other, focus was key. After a long race to this point, that could be hard for many. A photographer was up there and yelled out "just a couple of rollers and you're done". Well, they weren't exactly rollers but nothing like what I had just ridden. The last bit of the course was the Collar Bone trail we rode the day before. It wasn't as loose as it was yesterday, do to the heavy traffic of the race so I was able to take the wall-high berms faster. On my way down, I saw riders on the main road that we went up at the start and I was worried I had gone the wrong way but as soon as I popped out of the Collar Bone, I could see the finish line area. I let out a whoop and cruised in. Ryan was there with Larry and to my surprise, Morgan and Steve Lomell, former IMBA Trail Care Crew members who stayed with us a couple years ago when they were in town to teach us trail building at Adam's Park. Steve had completed the race so we all were chatting and catching up. Soon Adam rolled in, then Todd (on a big bike no less) and then to all of our surprises, Carly comes across the line only 10 minutes or so after. We were all so excited for her. After a couple of years of JRA on big events, she shows up out of nowhere, totally beating out Colorado riders from every altitude. This is exactly why we bring people with us on our trips. To expose them to places and events they otherwise may not try. Then this happens. A break through ride. A defined moment that tells everyone, including her, that she can actually do this sport and do it well. Helmet off to you, Carly. No looking back now.

Lowlanders unite!
Once the glow of finishing wore off, I got my boo-boo fixed up and we rolled back to the official starting line in town. This is where the ante gets upped. So we turn onto the same street we left earlier that day. We get to the barricades and are forced to dismount our bikes. 

"Are you just finishing?" a woman asks.


"Great. Here is $10 for lunch and do you want a growler or a mug to fill up and here is a can of beer and help yourself to the table of cookies"

Let me get this straight. You are giving us money to buy lunch, a container to go AND a cookie? 


And so that's why I say the Growler has this event dialed. And this was just the FIRST day. They were going to be doing this all over again the next day for the long event! 

Race Swag
So we amble into the food area, in complete shock, trying to figure out how we're going to walk our bikes, carry a full growler of Fat Tire (free of charge) and eat. What to do first? Well, most of the group wanted to get out of their diaper. Larry and I just wanted to take it all in so we filled up our growlers, split a brick oven fired pizza (yeah, made right there in a parking stall) and sat in the sun in complete and utter bliss, amazement, whatever ya want to call it. I felt like a pro getting the royal treatment. They had options for pizza, burritos, deluxe hot dogs, and of course Fat Tire on tap and a massage tent. In the park was a live band. Life could not have gotten any better at that moment. We savored our 'za and had a nice chat with someone who wanted to sit at our table. Then, with half growlers, we rode back to the house to clean up. Everyone was still unclean and hanging out. Good thing we stayed at the venue. 

Matt Burt: 2013 Growler - Half &emdash; IMGP2144
THE Dave Wiens did all of the handing out of prizes.

 Dave Wiens with low landers
We finished up the day at the awards ceremony. Dave Wiens, muti-winner of the Leadville 100 and all around total stud, lead the awards ceremony. Here was this guy who is pretty famous in the mtb world, sitting on the edge of a stage, handing out swag and hand-made awards hand over fist. It took over an hour to get through all of the swag Ergon, Stinger and ProLube could throw at people. And to think he was going to do it all over again the next day! Amazing. Eyberg and Carly both got called up in the raffle so that was good. I caught two hats that were thrown out, which was perfect b/c Eyberg and Ryan were getting awfully pink sitting there. 

One fun noteworthy thing: while we were sitting around hoping to have our name called, Dave mentioned that they do a contest, comparing fastest cities represented at the Growler. He started reading off the top 10: Grand Junction, Golden, and then he paused. "You're not going to believe this: Omaha, Nebraska" When we heard that we all let out a loud whoop. That was awesome. By comparing the two fastest men and top fastest woman from each city, it was the combined times of me, Ryan and Adam that put us in the top 10. Take that, altidudes!

Post ceremony, we walked over to the little Mexican place we were told to go to the last time, we were here and Las Palmas didn't disappoint. Chips, guac, margies all around. It was a meal fit for a small village but we managed to scarf it down easily. Eventually we carried our tired, full bodies back to the house where we chilled out and shared war stories. As the sun started to set, we took a walk over to a small public park next to a raging, narrow river. It was nice to stretch the legs and be out in nature. We skipped rocks and just enjoyed the moment. Talk on the way back was of how could we get a time share here and who's driving to get ice cream. The last of the evening was spent out on the deck devouring our iced desserts. A perfect way to end an already perfect day.

The next day was a planned ride in Crested Butte. Ryan did extensive social media research to make sure trails were rideable. It's amazing that a mere 30 minute drive would take us from high desert type riding to classic Colorado alpine riding.

After a big omelette breakfast at the house, we packed up for a long day on the bike. We pulled into CB's visitor's center parking sometime around 11 am. While we got ready, Ryan confirmed our plans with the visitor's center person. The first ride was up to Snodgrass. That meant a long slog on pavement up to the ski hill, through the resort and out to the hillsides. There were a couple of pretty good wake up and smell the coffee hills that ripped any last remaining power from our already tired legs but the ripen single track that waited for us on the other side would quickly dissolve those feelings into a classic rocky mountain high. We only had to wake across one small snow field. The rest of the trails were ribbons of dirty joy.

We rode back into town after we heard that the lower trails in the area were still muddy from spring run-off. We had to ride on pavement back into town but that was ok. We went back to the van, ate and headed back out in the opposite direction, through neighborhoods and soon up to some pretty popular switchbacks that would lead us to the Upper Loop trail. As we started up, we ran into our friends Steve and Morgan again. They assured us the trails were in great shape. We were excited! As we rode along, we came upon more riders coming at us. Soon the trail went into the trees and was pretty technical. Lots of rock gardens and rooty power climbs. Each switchback was harder than the next. I loves me a challenging climb but today, I didn't quite have the umph I needed. I was still having fun, but the efforts up to this point were catching up with me. Again, riders came at us. I was wondering if we were going the less fun way on this trail. We finally made it the top and were rewarded with some short, tight and loose switchbacks. Yep, we went the less fun way. The trail popped us out onto a gravel road. Off in the distance (a couple miles) we could see a double-track climb. Beleaguered, we wandered on. We only had one day and it was sunny and awesome so what the hell? OMG, that hill was a beast. It went on and on. We finally hit the single track knows as Strand. At a popular resting spot we took pics and stared jealously at the couple who were sitting on a log drinking a beer. Yeah, it was time to get down off this hill. 

At the top of Strand. Thirsty.

The descent was pretty spectacular, gnarly and fun. Probably more so if I wasn't dead ass tired. Requests from Ryan to ride the Upper Upper trail backwards went unanswered. Yep, we were officially cooked. So we took roads and bike path back to town. An unwelcome headwind accompanied us on our ride back, only making us hungrier and more determined to get back. Once back in the parking lot of the visitor's center, we opened the beer cooler and celebrated the double epicness of the day. 35 miles ON TOP of the 35 miles we raced the day before. And not so much as a peep out of them. Todd was climbing on his big bike like he had spent a week at an Italian training camp instead of site seeing. Larry was right there with him or leading him. Adam was like little bunny rabbit cruising around the trails and descending like his life depended on it. You wouldn't know Carly was on a hard tale and hadn't ridden alpine trail before. Ryan and I were very pleased with our fellow travelers. They like to go hard and go long and not complain. Complaining takes energy and we didn't have any to spare.

Once all spit shined, the only thing on our minds was FOOD. And large quantities of it. Since it was late in the afternoon, we weren't sure if the local bike shop, Big Al's Bicyle Heaven, would be open so we swung in there first to pick up some souvenirs. Small world, my office manager knows the owner's parents so I mentioned that to her. She was happy to meet some Omaha locals. 

By this time we were seeing double and on fumes. We walked briskly to the local burrito joint and selfishly, piggishly and with no regard to our dignity, swallowed our 4 lb burritos like a python swallowing a mouse. Afterwards, on their sunny patio we basked in our post burrito, $1 margarita happy hour haze. We finished our tour of CB main street at a local coffee house, finding ourselves again, sitting in the afternoon sun like a bunch of high desert lizards. 

Once back in Gunnison, after taking turns cleaning up, we gobbled up the last of the day's sun on the deck of the cabin. It was an epic day. It was an epic weekend. High desert racing backed with high alpine riding. Carly had a break-through race. Eyberg realized he's not as out of shape as he may have thought. Adam proved he knows how to descend and Larry, literally, is back in the saddle. It brings us an enormous amount of joy to bring our friends to new places; even more, when we can witness their triumphs. These are the days we will look back on with fondness, minus the 16 hours driving across Nebraska.

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