At 3017m above sea level, the "base camp" for the week is not exactly what you would call oxygen rich, and for this reason the race organisers suggested riders arrive a day early to acclimatise. The schedule for the week is registration and a single day of practice on Thursday, followed by racing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The first two days take riders out on an "alpine adventure" with predicted distances of approx. 45km per day, and a vertical gain / drop of 2500m. The third day will see riders tackling the bike park for shorter and more technical stages, with an estimated distance of 20km and a vertical gain / drop of 1200m. Each of these days will contain two "special" stages where riders are timed over a section of technically challenging trail. Sandwiched between these timed stages are the liaison sections where the riders make their way to the start of the special stage. Though the liaison sections are not timed, riders are given a start time for each of their special stages, and penalties are handed out if they are not at the start for their scheduled slot. Given the terrain, vertical elevation, altitude, and likelihood of mechanical problems, riders need to maintain a brisk pace to get to the start on time.
This would mean that the riders would be riding 60% of the race completely blind, something which provides a unique set of challenges on its own. Over the past two weeks however it has become quite apparent that a large number of the professional riders and teams have been in the area "exploring" the local trails. With forums alight with angry participants and opinionated people on either side of the topic, its been a bit of a nightmare for the organisers to come to terms with, and this has been extremely apparent by their change in stance: as of this morning, an additional day of practice was allowed [today, Wednesday], affording riders who arrived early to get an opportunity to get more riding on the designated race courses.
Having arrived in Crested Butte around lunch time after an epic drive from Vail Colorado, it was some time before I was able to get out on the bike and sample some of the local trails. With today being the only day that the bike park would be open, it seemed to make sense to head up the gondola and come to terms with the terrain. Not know which trails we would be racing on Sunday, the logical approach [in my mind] was to tackle the most challenging trails first, working towards the easier, less demanding routes. Thanks to long summer days, my 4:30pm start still allowed for two full hours or riding, and more than enough time to relegate my arms, hands and legs to a point of retirement.
The technicality of the trails in the bike park vary, and the trails are obviously graded accordingly. For the most part, I found this to be very much in line with what we would expect from some of our more technical trails across South Africa, but this did see me having to stop at a number of sections to take a second [and third...] look. One particular thing that I can comment on is that due to the higher speeds you carry as a result of the steep grade, things such as ruts and braking bumps are no joke, and these will obviously develop further through the course of the weekend.
Tomorrow [Thursday] will see the release of a course map and opening up of two stages for riders to practice. With a probable 40km round trip, and some 2000m of climbing, it certainly won't be possible to do multiple practice runs, but it should be sufficient to get a good feel for what we should expect on the first two days of racing. From what I've been told: fast, wide open, wild, bench-cut singletrack, with winning times for each of the four alpine stages estimated to be around 12 - 15min. Not having seen any of the bigger name pro riders around town as yet, I will be keeping my eyes wide open, and will certainly be making a stop past the pit area to report back with some details on bike setup, new products, tips, tricks etc, and of course a bike check or two if I can keep the riders still for long enough.