Todd Wells and Benjamin Sonntag have been tough men to keep up with this season.
Wells and Sonntag finished first and second, respectively at last weekend’s Grand Junction Off-Road backcountry mountain bike race. Wells, who rides for SRAM/Tory Lee Designs/Scott, crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 1 minute 48 seconds. Sonntag, the Clif Bar/Niner/Maxxis rider, crossed in 3:03:31. The race was 40 miles.
Wells earned $5,000 for the win, and Sonntag took home $3,000.
By crossing 1:47 ahead of Sonntag, Wells claimed the overall lead in the Epic Rides series 45 seconds ahead of Sonntag. The two will go for the series championship at the final race at the Carson City Off-Road on June 17-19 in Nevada.
“The Epic series is unique in that it goes off cumulative time rather than points,” Wells said in an email to The Durango Herald. “That makes it exciting but very stressful since if we have a mechanical problem, there is no team car there to get us going. They are trying to stay true to mountain biking’s roots of getting yourself in and out of the backcountry on your own.”
Sonntag said he is excited to see who can have a better race in Carson City on a new course that is largely an unknown.
“It’s a new venue and none of us know the course,” he said. “I think it will suit me. This series was one of Todd’s focuses this season from the beginning, and it’s been one of my focuses. It will be a good showdown and will depend on who has the better day.”
Wells was third at the Whiskey 50 off-road race behind Durango’s Howard Grotts and Sonntag. Grotts is not completing the Epic Rides series, as he is in Europe competing in UCI World Cup races.
That put much of the focus in Grand Junction on Sonntag and Wells on a perfect-weather day. After riding on some pavement early, riders took on the Lunch Loop trail system before dropping into Butter Knife. Wells described Butter Knife as a rough, technical section of singletrack. After that, racers descended all the way down to the Colorado River before an almost hour-long climb on a dirt road to the race’s high point before heading back toward town.
“These trails are very technical, rough and you need to be on point or you could fall hundreds of feet off the side of a cliff at many points,” Wells said.
Wells had a lead of about a minute after the Windmill climb and stayed hard on his pedals the whole way down trying to gain time on Sonntag in the overall.
“My hopes were to win the Grand Junction. Three times I’ve been second there now,” said Sonntag, who has lived in Durango since 2008 since moving from Germany. “Todd had a good day there, and Todd on a good day is hard to beat.”
Wells swept the Grand Junction weekend event. He also took first in Friday night’s Fat Tire Crit race through downtown. He also won the Fat Tire Crit race at the Whiskey Off-Road last month in Prescott, Arizona, and will look to sweep the event in Carson City.
The fat tire crit course in Grand Junction was less than one mile and was completely flat, and Wells said that made it fast the whole time. He knew it was going to be a sprint to the finish and said he timed it just right off the back tire of Barry Wicks, who took second.
“We went elbow-to-elbow into the last corner, but I was able to just out kick him in the final few meters to grab the win,” Wells said. “They shut down four blocks for the whole weekend and the place turns into a beer garden/party area with us blasting through the middle of it. Other than drunk people wandering across the course, it’s a lot of fun.”
Sonntag, who also was fourth in the fat tire crit, has been pleased with his results so far this season, calling it his most consistent stretch in recent years.
“I’ve always had a few standout races but never really consistent,” he said. “This year, I’ve been stable at a high level. It’s not just a fluke if I have one good race.”
Also finishing the Grand Junction Off-Road race from Durango was Payson McElveen, a recent Fort Lewis College graduate. He took seventh in 3:12:44. Durango’s Michael R. Sampson took 14th in 3:17:46. Troy Wells, Todd’s brother, was 22nd in 3:25:37. Levi Kurlander placed 29th in 3:32:07, Mason Shea was 36th in 3:40:39, and Jorge Munoz Jr. took 43rd in 3:52:25.
McElveen also took 11th in the fat tire crit, while Munoz was 15th. Kurlander took 21st, while Troy Wells and Shea finished side-by-side in 29th and 30th, respectively. Sampson also was 36th in the crit.
In the women’s race, recent Fort Lewis College graduate Sofia Gomez-Villafañe finished sixth while representing Durango. She crossed in 3:51:10. Rose Grant of Montana won the race in 3:41:50. Durango’s Liz Carrington finished 16th and Emily Schaldach was 20th.
Gomez-Villafañe was eighth in the crit race, while Carrington was 13th, and Schaldach took 23rd.
Sonntag and Wells will turn their focus to this weekend’s Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, and both look forward to Sunday’s mountain bike event through Steamworks Brewing Company.
“We get to ride through Steamworks brewery while people are mere inches from us drinking at the bar; what an event,” Wells said.