written by: Evan Plews
Today is MLK day which means yesterday was the fourth
annual El Paso Puzzler 50. After two months away from racing mountain bikes I
was ready for a challenge and opportunity to test out some recent changes to my
equipment and position. A pineapple express had NW Oregon in its cross-hairs so
it was perfect timing to escape winter for day. I boarded the Southwest Luv-Jet
and traveled south. After landing, a quick shuttle ride brought me to Hyatt
Place, the host hotel. They had a great bed some super authentic mexican food a
few doors down and I nice big screen to watch the NFL playoffs.
I immediately ran into Bryan Fawley (Orbea) as I walked
in the door. He had already been out on the course and was impressed by the
techy rockiness. I assured him there would be more of that since it was the
toughest 50 miles I've raced last year. I mindlessly assembled my bike and
watched the game then grabbled some huevos y tamales for dinner and made it to
bed nice and early. After some decent Z's, I woke up in time for some Chia and vitamins
and and grabbed a cup of joe for the ride to the race. Mike Rossen of The
Bicycle Company in El Paso had graciously agreed to give me a lift to the race.
We arrived with an hour to spare, and picked up our
packets. It was a chilly 32 degrees but the sun was already up and warming the
east side of the Franklin Mountains. There a was a nice campfire at the
Bowen Roundhouse (race headquarters) and bagels and coffee available for
breakfast. I kept warm in Mike's truck and got out in time for a 15 minute
warm-up. A considerable field had showed up to race and after some pre-race
instruction from Big Dave Wilson we were off!
Bryan set the early pace and I followed comfortably until
we left the initial jeep road and entered pave sector one. Immediately I
noticed that I had installed a Gravity Dropper seatpost on my bike. Actually,
it was my trusted SDG Carbon I-Beam that was not tight enough and migrating
down at a rapid rate! I stopped at the first aid after eight miles and
re-tightened the clamp as well as my brake calipers that I had apparently
overlooked while watching football. A group of six riders had separated
themselves from the front so I set off to chase them. After a few more miles of
rocky, twisty, thorn-infested desert knarl, I had the leaders back in sight.
Just as I was about to close the final gap I missed a switchback on some
slickrock and had to back track. Not a minute later, I did the same thing
again--this time riding off trail for a considerable distance. By the time I
was back on trail I was nearly a minute behind again.
Back on a jeep road that more resembled a dry creek bed
with the innumerable round stones we began the climb to Mundy's Gap. This is a
pass over the Franklin Mountains and while it is double track, much of the time
there is only one somewhat clean line. The climb from the east and the initial
descent are relatively benign by Puzzler standards, but the halfway down
the west side the trail enters a huge rockfall that lasts almost a mile. It
basically looks like the side of the mountain fell off and covered the trail.
Most of the rocks are less than a foot in diameter but there is no line just an
open field of rip-rap. I had passed Cameron Brenneman (NM Bike N Sport) and
another rider on the climb and knew what to expect from last year so I
maintained my momentum, trying to float as much as possible. 80mm of Manitou
suspension was being pushed to its limits and apparently the incessant pounding
and vibration jarred loose some air in my rear brake. As we left the Mundy's
pave sector is had closed in on fourth place but my brake lever was to the bar.
After a brief paved section through the park, we hit and
seemingly endless section of new pave interspersed by washes an short,
punishingly climbs. I was able to move up to third through this section and
again had the lead insight as we began the climb up the backside of Hit Canyon.
This was the location I had consolidated my victory last year but it was 10
miles earlier in the race and while I was able to pass Bryan on the climb it
was short-lived as I tipped over into a cactus on the way down and he went back
by. After we left the ridiculous knarl of Hit Canyon Bryan slowed
apparently breaking just chain with an errant rock bouncing off his drivetrain.
In another mile I was back in sight of the leader and passing through the
start/finish for the final loop.
15 miles can be seem like an eternity in the El Paso
desert so despite the urging from the crowd I maintained a reasonable pass and
slowly bridged to the race lead. I had a full bottle of CarboRocket and now
leaned fully on my generally sturdy crutch of endurance. Manuel Solas (Mexico)
had set a blistering pace over the Mundy's and Hit Gap climbs but seemed to
have tired as we hit the steep loose climb at the bottom of the loop. I pressed
the pedals and sensed a gap opening. Careful not to the throttle too much, I
slowed stretched the lead. By the time we reached the bottom of the Mundy's and
turned north towards the Roundhouse, Solas was out of sight in the rearview
mirror. With more than five miles of hideous pave to go, I knew the race was
far from over. The key to solving the Puzzler is maintaining pace and momentum.
One little mistake and forward motion stops and as one tires, it gets harder
and harder to be steady.
In the end I was able to finished relatively smoothly and
with a lead of over five minutes. My second straight Puzzler solved, I was
again beaten and exhausted. It seemed harder than last year. Maybe it was or
maybe I had just blocked all that from my memory. In any case, it looks like I
will have to go back next year and see if I can do it again!
In some of the other races, Karen Rishel (NoTubes) won
the womens overall and Anthony Petta hammered to a decisive victory in the