Report & Photos: California XC MTB Champions Crowned at Big Bear

Traffic jams are just a way of life in California. Any time, any place. If it’s not a jackknifed big rig on I-5, it’s a La-Z-Boy on the 101. Construction zones materialize out of nowhere. A Midwesterner might think it’s impossible to be bumper-to-bumper in the middle of the Mojave Desert. They haven’t tried driving to Vegas on a holiday weekend.

But a Sig Alert on a remote singletrack in a National Forest above 7000 feet of elevation?

Images by Phil Beckman / PB Creative

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The 2013 California State Championship will likely not be remembered for its glorious weather or intense competition or challenging terrain. Instead, many will recall this race for the rush hour-like chaos on Skyline Trail.

Chalk it up to unfortunate timing — like the ’72 Pinto that decides to pitch a connecting rod onto lane three of the San Diego Freeway at 4 p.m. just as you’re heading up the onramp a couple of miles back. The bottom line is that a whole bunch of different classes — riding different course lengths and starting at vastly different times — ended up on this beautiful new trail “en masse.” It made for sketchy passing, questionable dialogue and a few bruised egos.

And it certainly made life interesting for the Pro Men’s leaders. Clint Claassen, riding for Santa Cruz and Fox out of El Dorado Hills (30 miles east of Sacramento), had worked hard to catch the breakaway duo of Miguel Valadez (Bear Valley Bikes) and Joel Titius (SoCal Endurance). He finally made contact just as a shorter race route merged with their 24-mile loop for the final push home.

“We had a bit of a tough time working our way through traffic,” Claassen said. “To be honest it was a bit of a break for me; I could get a little rest behind the slower guys. We had been pushing pretty hard before that. After about a mile and a half of working our way through traffic I made the pass on Miguel. We continued to work on traffic, then Miguel and I broke away as it thinned out.”

From Valadez’s perspective, “From the beginning I pushed very hard and went away with Joel and we stayed together for a long time, until I attacked on a singletrack and got a pretty good gap. Then I got lost for a little bit, which cost me about 15 seconds. It wasn’t that much, but in the end… I found the course and could see Clint and Joel up ahead. I got back to them and we started to get into Skyline, but there was a lot of traffic and it was impossible to pass. I was yelling at everybody to move, move, please move. Clint and I were able to get separated from Joel. We kept a pretty good pace and then he opened a gap – maybe 10 seconds – by the time we finished Skyline.”

It was mostly downhill or flat to the finish from that point, but Valadez leveraged a bit of final climbing on the Pirates of the Caribbean singletrack to grind his way back to Claassen. As Claassen explained, “Miguel passed me on a steep little climb. We got onto the fast fireroad descent and I just set him up on a corner and went outside-in for the pass. I was just drifting the corners, hammering it as hard as I could. I went down the last singletrack [Fern Trail] hoping I wouldn’t flat because I was going balls-out. It’s been about four years since I’ve ridden here, so I did this blind.”

Valadez, the first to encounter the backmarkers, was getting frustrated. “On the downhill there was a lot of traffic and Clint caught me again. One rider didn’t move and actually pushed me off. I was so angry, and it takes a lot of energy out of you when you’re angry. Clint attacked me there and got a few seconds and I wasn’t able to close it. Second is good. I’m training here in preparation for the National Championship of Mexico in Guadalajara mid-July. With this performance today I definitely feel like I can do it.”

Claassen claimed the title by just 16 seconds over Valadez. Ely Woody (Chains Required) managed to catch Titius for third, while Chris Jackson (Castex/Felt) rounded out the podium in fifth.

On the Pro Women’s side, a relaxed Monique “Pua” Mata (Sho-Air/Cannondale), from just “down the hill” in Yucaipa, decided to race “only” the 24-mile course and ended up with another line on her extensive resume — much of which consists of long-distance, marathon-style competition. As she put it, “Yeah, I kept it short. It’s always fun racing out here with the locals and old friends that I don’t get to see all the time. My legs weren’t the happiest today. It was kind of a training race, trying to get back my speed. Overall it was good. I went as hard as I could. It was a gorgeous day and these guys [Team Big Bear] always do a good job with the races. It’s fun to be back up here.”

On the topic of capacity, this was the fourth and final event of the U.S. Cup Ultra Endurance Series. Ryan Clark (Audi/Felt) took the Open Men’s victory at Big Bear with a time of 3:35:43 after two laps of the 24-mile course [ouch], while Karen Lundgren (Bear Valley Bikes) topped the Open Women’s field in 4:19:02. For the series — best three out of four count — Tinker Juarez (Sho-Air/Cannondale) and Jessica Cerra (Focus Bikes) ended up at the pinnacle. Neither of the overall season champs had to ride the Big Bear finale.

For full results and more, visit the US Cup website.

Words and images by Phil Beckman / PB Creative
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