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Sofia Gomez Villafañe rode to an impressive first place in the Fuego XL race at the Sea Otter Classic on Saturday, putting herself at the top of the leaderboard of the Life Time Grand Prix series in the process.
Gomez Villafañe crossed the line solo, followed less than a minute later by Alexis Skarda of Grand Junction, Colorado and Vera Looser of Switzerland. Haley Smith and Erin Huck rounded out the podium.
What the women’s Fuego XL lacked in dramatic storylines it made up for with steady, smooth riding from a strong field. Experience proved to be a valuable resource, with all of the women in the top ten either Grand Prix alumna or veterans of the XC MTB scene.
Looser, one of the less familiar names in the top 10, is a multi-time Namibian national champion on the road and just won the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa.
Gomez Villafañe, who was second in the Fuego XL last year, pushed the pace early to help establish a gap. A group of five — Gomez Villafañe, Skarda, Looser, Huck, and Hannah Otto — came through the first lap together.
Evelyn Dong was the next through, chasing solo. She was followed closely by Sarah Sturm and Jenna Rinehart who trailed the lead group by about one minute.
At the third feed zone, Otto would lost the lead group to a mechanical. By mile 44, it was just Gomez Villafañe, Looser, and Skarda with Huck chasing a minute and a half back.
Skarda said that being with the same three or four women all day “worked out really well. Hannah was up there most of the time, as well. We all worked together really well, we took turns pulling and shared equal work. It’s so nice to work in a group like that.”
For Dong, who said she felt like she was “always hovering 30 seconds to a minute back,” the race felt “very tactical.”
“I think they weren’t riding to their full potential the whole time,” she said of the three leaders. “I could see them, they were just yo’yo’ing around in front of me for a long time.”
The tactics gave Dong time to ride with longtime competitor and friend Erin Huck, who also spent much of the race dangling just off the back of the lead trio. Huck returned to racing late last season after having a child in March of 2021, and the marathon national champ was thrilled with her fifth place finish given her new life circumstances.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. I’ve been spoiled in that I’m used to being able to show up knowing that I did everything I possibly could and my preparation was dialed, and since having a baby it’s never like that. My preparation is not dialed, so it’s a pleasant surprise to land in one piece.”
Sarah Sturm and Jenna Rinehart rode together all day, forming an interesting duo. Sturm is a Grand Prix veteran who said that today’s race “felt calmer this year, I was a little more prepared, and that really helped with the nerves and feeling like I belong in the scene.” Rinehart is returning to the scene after a more than decade away — she was U23 XC national champ in 2006.
“It was good to have company out there,” Rinehart said. “We traded pulls on the gravel roads.”
Haley Smith came through lap one in ninth position but worked her way to Sturm and Rinehart who were just behind Dong at the mile 44 marker. Eventually, Smith, who won the 2022 Grand Prix series, would put in a massive effort on the Lookout Ridge climb to pass all the chasers and come across the line in fourth.
For Gomez Villafañe, it was a question of where to attack and when.
“At some point I wanted to do an attack, and I felt that last pitch was probably my best chance to go,” she said. “I dug in pretty deep today to get the win.”
Skarda wasn’t surprised when it happened, but she didn’t quite have the power to follow.
“I was just trying to watch for the attacks,” she said. “I knew it was coming. Sofia is so good at those attacks, I just couldn’t quite get on in time and she took off. She’s got so much power and that’s something I’m working on.”
2023 Fuego XL women’s elite results
- Sofia Gomez Villafañe, 4:55:13
- Alexis Skarda, 4:55:41
- Vera Looser, 4:55:58
- Haley Smith, 4:56:45
- Erin Huck, 5:00:24
- Sarah Sturm, 5:01:15
- Evelyn Dong, 5:01:33
- Jenna Rinehart, 5:03:12
- Hannah Otto, 5:07:54
- Crystal Anthony, 5:08:13