What did we learn from the first race in the Life Time Grand Prix series? ‘It’s gonna be tough’

Russell Finsterwald, Evelyn Dong, Alex Howes, Sofia Gomez Villafañe and others reflect after the Fuego 80k at Sea Otter Classic.

Photo: Life Time

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MONTEREY COUNTY, California (VN) – Joke all you want that the mountain bike races part of the Life Time Grand Prix race series are just gravel races on steroids — and then watch mountain bikers dominate.

That was the case at  Saturday’s Fuego 80k race at the Sea Otter Classic. The XC mountain bike race was the season opener of the long-anticipated Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda, a six-race series comprised of three MTB races and three gravel races.

In both the men’s and women’s top ten, only two riders (Tobin Ortenblad, Kyle Trudeau, Katerina Nash, and Savilia Blunk) were not part of the race series. All of the riders participating in the series were awarded points based on their result. Mo Wilson leads the women’s field, while Keegan Swenson is at the top of the men’s leaderboard.

VeloNews was at the finish on Saturday to ask some of the racers for their take on how the first race informs the rest of the series.

The most obvious question was if mountain bikers are going to an advantage in the series. While there were some crossover athletes in the men’s top ten  — L39ION of Los Angeles ‘cross superstar Lance Haidet in seventh, former pro roadie Alexey Vermuelen in ninth, and Canadian time trialist Rob Britton in tenth — pro mountain bikers dominated on the day.

In the women’s race, mountain bike specialists made up the entire top ten — the only outlier being winner Mo Wilson, who may not be able to claim non-pro MTBer status for much longer.

“Saturday’s race showed us the mountain bikers are taking this race series seriously,” said Russell Finsterwald after his second-place finish. “Of course on Saturday, we were in our wheelhouse but on a fitness-heavy course like Sea Otter, I think we showed we have the engine in addition to a bit of an upper hand in the skills department.”

Adam Roberge, who finished 16th, raced mountain bikes as a kid but this was his first MTB race in six years. While he saw a bias toward mountain bikers on Saturday, he doesn’t think it will hold true throughout the series.

“We can maybe see that the mountain biker has a clear advantage in the mountain bike races,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand that there is a big difference between the two sports and I think you see it clearer here. So it will be very important for a gravel racer to make the [gravel] races very hard. If it stays in a peloton then a mountain biker can hang out but if it’s a hard grind always that’s where they struggle so I think it will be our responsibility to make it very hard.”

Maude Farrell, whose 20th place finish moved her into 15th in the Grand Prix, also predicts fluidity throughout the series.

“I don’t think it’s biased towards mountain bikers,” she said. “Happenstance put that style of race first, but I think there’s interesting shake-ups yet to come with Unbound Gravel next. The dynamics, strategy, racing principles, and fitness demands are entirely different.”

Farrell said that while the first race of the Grand Prix was informative in some ways, it shouldn’t be seen as more than a prologue to the entire series.

“There was so much intense energy going into the first race, with everyone curious about one another’s fitness and strategy which I think added an interesting spice to the opening race,” she said. “But the season is long — seven months. We have to stay sharp and tuned in for seven months. That’s a very long time for ebbs and flows in fitness, skill, and disposition in each racer. Definitely now that we have the first official ‘ranking’ it’s like we’ve all played a hand in the game of poker, but the next deal will essentially start from scratch, even if some racers have a better position than others. But I wouldn’t count out anyone yet. The cool thing about this series is it’s not just one and done.”

Alex Howes (15th at Sea Otter, 11th LTGP) offered a similar perspective.

Honestly I don’t think we had too many big surprises here,” he said. “In general the guys that we thought would perform well here performed well. There were a couple sort of roadie-esque guys that probably did better than we thought they might and then a couple of guys like myself who people were like, ‘oh yea he’s gonna be top ten’ that weren’t in the top ten. We’ll see. It’s a super long year. There’s still a foot and a half of snow at my house now, so I’m looking forward toward October.”

Evelyn Dong, who finished fifth on the day and is fifth in the Grand Prix standings, gave a quiet kudos to her competitors in the series.

“I have a lot of respect for everybody,” she said. “I know everyone’s been training hard for this, and everyone has switched up their training specifically for the series. It’s gonna be tough.”

Dong, like nearly every other rider in the series we’ve spoken to, is looking toward Unbound Gravel like a large, looming fireball on the horizon. For her — and basically every rider who’s never done Unbound Gravel — the next event in the Grand Prix will be her longest race ever.

“Sea Otter was not a priority but Unbound is,” said Sofia Gomez Villafañe (2nd at Sea Otter, 2nd LTGP). “I’m really excited in May to put in lots of miles and lots of efforts in Arizona in the heat. I’ll make all my equipment choices from bike to drivetrain to aerobars or not. I’m looking forward to it.”

Finsterwald is also eschewing a cool Colorado spring for a sweltering Arizona pre-Unbound simulation. Even as a lifelong pro mountain biker, he’s confident that the podium in Kansas could look more like the one in California.

“I do expect the top 10 of Unbound will look different,” he said. “I think we will see guys like Pete [Stetina], Howes, Lachlan [Morton], Laurens [ten Dam] and Colin [Strickland] in the mix, but I’m bullish on our chances as mountain bikers. It’s the race I want to win the most this year. I’ve been doing my homework learning as much as possible about the race, understanding the type of effort/power it will take to win, spending time out at Specialized’s win tunnel, testing different equipment, putting in the hours on the bike and building a strong mind. The level of mountain biking in the U.S. is high right now. There are a lot of talented males and females that I think have the endurance, skills and toughness to excel at Unbound. It will be fun to see how it shakes out.”

For Kiel Reijnen (39th at Sea Otter, 20th LTGP) who got tangled in a crash with Pete Stetina early in the race — only his second MTB race ever — riding out of his comfort zone is just part of the package.

“It’s great to mix it up,” he said. “When I was speaking to Kimo at Life Time, their idea was to make sure that no was comfortable at every single race and I think they’ll accomplish that.”


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