Keegan Swenson and Jenny Smith Win NUE Opener in Utah
Written by: Shannon Boffeli
In it’s second year as an official NUE event the True Grit 50 or marathon event showed significant growth and stacked fields to compete in the series opener.
Once again riders from all across the country made the trek to Santa Clara, Utah, to take in the desert singletrack oasis tucked in the southwestern corner of the state. Warm weather and ideal trail conditions greeted the 500 riders registered for this year’s True Grit Epic.
The fact that the NUE series finale would be moving out west in 2017 provided extra buzz as many of those in attendance would be making a run at the series title, a challenge that is typically out of reach for most racers out west who have a hard time traveling to the east coast for the series final. This year’s finale will be located in Big Bear, California.
The opens men’s race featured some of the fastest legs in the United States. Two-time U.S. national championship runner-up Keegan Swenson (Cannondale) was making his first appearance at this 50-miler. Swenson would be going up against longtime friend and teammate Alex Grant (Cannondale) who was making his return to mountain bike racing after being sidelined for almost all of 2016 after suffering a foot fracture in the world cup opener.
Last year’s NUE marathon champ Alex Pond was on hand looking to defend his title as was Justin Lindine (Apex/NBX) who always finds his way to the front of the pack.
Off the start it was Keegan Swenson and Justin Lindine providing the watts early on. Driving the pace and easily shedding the majority of the field in the early miles. The early pace was too much for Grant but California rider Menso De Jong (Clif Bar) and youngster Zach Calton (Competitive Cyclist) emerged from the pack staying close to the leaders. Calton surged ahead bridging the gap to the leaders.
After the race’s early climbs Swenson and Lindine led into the slickrock labyrinth of Zen trail. Both talented bike handlers, the lead duo flowed over the rocks like a flashflood pulling away from everyone including Calton who had worked hard to match the leaders pace.
Now the duo forged ahead, pushing the pace once again and opening big gaps behind them.
In the final miles, Lindine and Swenson traded attacks with neither rider getting an advantage. Late in the race the lead duo stayed together approaching the 1-mile paved finishing straight into downtown Santa Clara.
Lindine took the lead out with Swenson tucked behind waiting to make his final surge, which came just feet from the finishing chute as the Cannondale rider popped ahead just enough to take the win by one second.
Behind them Alex Grant had worked through his early cobwebs and traded the third spot with Calton. He made his final move on the Barrel Roll trail just miles from the finish securing a third place finish.
Calton rolled in for fourth followed by De Jong for fifth.
The 2017 women’s field represented the most competitive bunch ever assembled at the NUE opener. Over twenty women registered for the race including mountain bike speedsters like Alexis Skarda (NoTubes/Kenda), Jenni Smith (NoTubes/Kenda), last year’s runner up Nicole Tittensor (Scott/Jan’s), collegiate cyclocross star Sofia Gomez-Villafane (Assos/Pivot), Arizona speedster Erin Osbourne (Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution) and ’16 podium finisher Jen Hanks (Pivot/DNA Cycling).
A mixed start with the open men’s group meant a fast start for the ladies. Alexis Skarda showed the most power off the start opening it up early. She was joined early on by Gomez-Villafane.
Jenny Smith managed to find her way up to the lead group before being gapped again just before a notoriously technical section called “the Waterfall.”
Skarda managed a small gap that widened at Sofia Gomez-Villafane missed a turn and ended up off course. This put Smith in second position chasing her teammate Skarda.
“Alexis was climbing so well today,” said the always-cheery Smith after the finish. “She would pull away from me on the climbs and I would have to claw my way back on the flats and downhill sections.”
Lucky for Smith she stayed close enough throughout the race to pull ahead in the closing miles and take advantage of the rolling downhill terrain leading to the finish line.
An impressive effort throughout allowed with race winner to cross the line with a smoking fast time of 3 hours 50 minutes; fast enough to beat more than half the open male riders.
Alexis Skarda came in about 5 minutes back after being in close contact with Smith for most of the day.
Sofia Gomez-Villafane soldiered on for third place after encountering some confusion on the notoriously tricky racecourse. “I didn’t have the luxury of pre-riding the course so I got off track about four times out there… Overall a hard day on the bike, but it was a good day.”
Nicole Tittensor secured the fourth spot after trading her position with Jen Hanks several times throughout the day. Ultimately her strong climbing gave her the advantage over the Pivot/DNA Cycling rider.
A moderately-sized crew signed up to race one-speeders in the southern Utah desert. Ten in all, decided riding 50 miles of rugged terrain would just be too easy with gears.
The favorites included 2 podium finishers in the 100-mile True Grit event in 2016. Shannon Boffeli (Pivot/DNA Cycling) and Corey Larrabee (Kuhl) finished fourth and second respectively in ’16 and spent much of the race wheel to wheel last year.
The 2017 race got off to a quick start with several of the singlespeeders spinning their way to the singletrack with the lead group of geared 40-49 racers. Once on the dirt Larrabee and Boffeli were joined by Brent Cannon (Team Elevate) as the three leaders made their way through Cove Wash and onto the early climbs in Green Valley.
When the uphill started Larrabee showed a clear advantage being marked for a short time by Boffeli but eventually opening up a solid advantage on the climb to Zen trail.
Now riding with the fastest of the geared riders Larrabee kept putting time into the chasers pushing a 32 x 20 over the 50-mile course.
In the end the Kuhl rider passed all but two of the geared riders he started with and posted a time that was over 10 minutes faster than last year’s winning 50-mile finisher.
A satisfied Shannon Boffeli took second suffering a bit in the heat. “Even on my best day I couldn’t have matched Corey on the climbs,” Boffeli shared at the finish. “I could get close on the flatter stuff early on but he just crushed me when it started to get steep.”
Brent Cannon solidified the third spot with a strong finishing time well ahead of the next closest rider.
Both Larrabee and Boffeli have eyes on the NUE marathon title so expect to see them at more NUE events throughout the season.
50+ Masters Men
The master’s event turned out to be a battle of local talent with local legend Dave Harris (LW Coaching) taking the win over fellow Utahns Zan Treasure (Bountiful Bicycle) and Dave Smith (Red Rock Bicycle).
Although once active on the race scene Harris has been absent from competition for years focusing his efforts on youth mountain bike coaching and desert moto riding. After Saturday it was clear the years away from racing haven’t slowed him much as he posted a time of 3 hours 51 minutes, which would have put him in the top-30 of the open male category.
Once again the True Grit epic did not disappoint. Riders taking on the True Grit challenge know they can expect a tough, technical course with incredible views, great weather, enthusiastic support crews, and a hefty dose of spring-time singletrack riding.
Cannondale rider Alex Grant’s thoughts after the race captured the overall feeling well. “It felt so good to be back out racing the mountain bike. It has been almost 11 months since my last MTB race. It felt so familiar yet so strange getting ready. Last year’s injury definitely gave me some perspective, when I was laid up and couldn’t step on my foot for 3 months I had plenty of time to think about how I would never take just being mobile and active for granted again. Every race I do is all just gravy because at the end of the day I unclip and walk away on two feet.”