Let’s start by saying that the 2018 TIAA Bank XC Mountain Bike course is no downhiller’s dream. Racers with lightweight cross-country bikes will have an advantage, especially those equipped with rock solid legs and lungs. However, regardless of how much you think you’re suffering, you will not question the fact that there is not a more spectacular time of year to tackle this event. You’ll pedal amid lush, lime-green foliage and a rainbow of wildflowers – blooming Columbines and lupine – and the constant gurgle of Berry Creek bubbling with spring runoff. Of course, you won’t hear this over the collective chorus of nubby tires hammering over dirt and rocks.
New this year, the almost-7-mile loop begins at the base of Golden Peak this year with an immediate slog up the bunny (Gopher) hill (1). Rather than staying on the main service road as the course begins to climb Vail Mountain, it takes a sharp left on a lung-busting singletrack short cut before providing a quick respite (slight descent) toward Lion Down trail (2). From here, you grind up another section of winding singletrack before entering the greenest and shadiest part of the woods before climbing a couple more switchbacks on the open slope (3). The course rejoins the service road for a couple more respite sections of flatter terrain, outstanding views of the Gore Range to the east with Interstate 70 becoming more and more doll-sized below. Once you’re roughly halfway up the mountain, the downhill begins.
Big Mamba is a super fun, flowy singletrack with high bank turns and twists that’s sporting an extra challenge of being a bit dusty and washboard-y in spots. From here, you hang a left onto Hank’s Hideaway, which requires some pedaling and negotiating rocks, roots and off-camber switchbacks (4). Don’t think it’s all downhill from here, though. After Hank’s spits you back out onto the service road, rather than continuing onto the blue section of the trail, the course hangs a right up a section that is locally dubbed “buzz-kill hill” (5). You’ll do a rapid gear change to lumber toward the remaining singletrack. This final piece is the narrowest segment of the course that twists over boulders, roots and through tight trees to a hay-covered double track with a slight but painful uphill gradient. With one last steep but short (10 pedals) grind, you’ll descend through a tunnel (with small pieces of ice still caked under one wall) to a pair of final downhill switchbacks and the finish line.
If the XC race unfolds as it has in years past, when riders like Howard Grotts and Erin Huck schooled the field, finishing several minutes ahead of their nearest competitor, a few seconds on one section or another might not mean much. However, those two pros are not here this year and a few seconds could mean a spot on the podium, or at least a wheel ahead of that rider you’ll have been chasing throughout the race.
Here are the sections to keep in mind above all others:
- The section right after the initial climb up the bunny hill. Before the course continues climbing, it hangs a right downhill steeply for a few yards over loose dirt and gravel. Given that the start groups will still be tightly packed this early in the race, there should be some jostling here if not (accidental) handlebar contact.
- Whoever gets ahead to the beginning of Lion Down singletrack will have an advantage, as passing will not be easy for the next five or 10 minutes on this relatively narrow uphill section of course.
- Just over halfway along the uphill section of the course, when the Lion Down singletrack switchbacks a couple of times over the open slope, one switchback is particularly steep and loose and also … muddy. This could bog riders down and is bound to cause some spin-outs.
- Big Mamba and especially Hank’s Hideaway feature a few off-camber sections in which the trail slants into the slope. As you’re hammering downhill trying to keep your front wheel steady, these sections could present some close calls.
- Buzz-kill hill at the end of the course will absolutely serve as a great decider. Especially if you are wrapping up your second or third lap, your quads will be screaming here. You’ve got to power through with your strength reserves.
- Shauna Farnell
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