Howard Grotts’ ride to an overall win of the four-race Epic Rides Series was anything but comfortable.
Only 30 minutes into Sunday’s OZ Trails Off-Road race in Bentonville, Arkansas, Grotts, a 25-year-old professional mountain biker from Durango, clipped a tree with his handlebars and crashed into the ground. The four-time defending cross-country national champion and 2016 Olympian landed on a sharp rock and gashed his arm bad enough to require 16 stitches. Grotts rode for another three hours en route to a third-place finish on the 50-plus-mile course. Utah’s Keegan Swenson won in 3 hours, 23 minutes. North Carolina’s Luke Vrouwenvelder was second in 3:26:46, as he barely edged Grotts at the line by four seconds.
“It was one of those stupid crashes,” Grotts said. “I guess I hit the right rock and sliced my arm open. Shifting was a little weird after that, and that was the most annoying mechanical I had, but I recovered pretty well. I had a (tire) puncture later in the race, but it was not so significant compared to what other people had.”
Grotts’ third-place finish was enough to solidify the series overall win and a bonus $2,500. Epic Rides has a combined purse of $160,000 awarded to the pro racers at its four events – the Whiskey Off-Road, Grand Junction Off-Road, Carson City Off-Road and the OZ Trails Off-Road. The OZ Trails event in Arkansas was a first-year event to add to the series and make it four events. It offered a double-cash purse of $60,000.
“It was a totally different style of racing compared to the other three Epic Rides courses,” Grotts said. “There was tons of singletrack. No significant climb, but it was constantly up and down. It made for more dynamic racing. The flats out there were the most significant thing. Everyone had a flat tire except a few guys in the top 20.”
Grotts ended up a little more than seven minutes ahead of Russell Finsterwald in the overall series time standings.
“Epic Rides is doing something right,” Grotts said. “It’s pretty huge for them to be putting that much money into mountain biking at a time when you see road teams folding because there isn’t funding. They’re helping the mountain bike industry a lot I think.”
Fort Lewis College cycling alum Ryan Standish finished fourth at Sunday’s race in Arkansas. Finsterwald was fifth. Durango’s Daniel Johnson was eighth in 3:34:08, Durango’s Nash Dory of FLC was 14th in 3:40:41. FLC cycling alums and Durangoans Stephan Davoust and Payson McElveen finished 18th and 19th, respectively.
McElveen was excited about the race and his form going into the event, but multiple tire punctures continued to slow him down.
“The rolling course played to my strengths and the numbers in training the last weeks have been one personal record after another,” he said in a post to Instagram. “So confident in fact that I decided to test the field much earlier than most probably expected.
“Just as gaps began to form, I finally had to pull over and plug a puncture that had been spurting for miles. ... After a fumbling fix, I pedaled back into the top 10. Just as placings started getting handed back in earnest thanks to fellow riders’ bad luck, I had another significant puncture.”
Still, McElveen was in third at the halfway mark of the race and was only 45 seconds behind the leaders. But he eventually had to replace a rear tire, and Finsterwald gave him some help with a lever to pop it off. During that stop, he lost 15 minutes on the lead.
With strong legs, he closed in on the top 10 once more when another rear tire slice with six miles to go really put a damper on his day, as he rode the final 45 minutes on his rim.
The women’s overall series was claimed by Utah’s Evelyn Dong, who had a 14:27 gap on California’s Crystal Anthony and 15:14 on Colorado Springs’ Amy Beisel. Boulder’s Erin Huck won the women’s OZ Trails race in 4:00:52. FLC alumna Sofia Gomez-Villafañe was fourth in 4:09:39, and she finished fifth in the overall series.
Up next for Grotts is the Brazil Ride, a team stage race. He will pair again with Specialized Racing teammate Jaroslav Kulhavý, who he teamed up with to win the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa earlier this year.
“That race is two weeks from now. With the crash and cut, I won’t have ideal prep time,” Grotts said. “I’m gonna go down, try to do my best and then enjoy time off after that.”