Ever since Janna rode the Chino Grinder in May of 2017, I've been wanting to do the event. We've ridden part of the course on our own during May of 2020, but this was its first event since COVID. Without consideration for the fact that we raced a 100 mile singletrack mountain bike the previous weekend, we signed up for this one too. Both Janna and I were exhausted heading in.
We woke up early and drove to Chino Valley, parked, and joined the large number of riders gathering for the day. It was slightly overcast overhead, which proved excellent for heat, but also carried the threat of peanut butter roads all day. It was smooth sailing for the first mile or so before I saw a guy fixing a flat and needing help. I pulled off and helped him change his tire. Then, I raced to catch back up with Janna in my original position. As we careened down to our first SAG, I came around the corner and saw a guy who had crashed head first into the side of the road, smashing in his helmet. I jumped off my bike as people pulled over to avoid adding to the collision. Given my WFR recertification just a month ago, I put it to use for a possible backcountry spinal injury.
The guy wanted to continue racing, but the nature of his crash, his smashed helmet, and large head lacerations led me to suggest otherwise to him. We were able to flag down a SAG/medical volunteer who took him off the route. Janna and I pushed on, now taking a leisurely pace because we knew we were at the back with our multiple stops. We hit up the Verde River on Perkinsville Road where our next SAG station was. We hung out, talked to the volunteers, and then rode onwards to the last SAG which was also our turn around point. I rode an extra few miles up the road to make sure I got an even 60 miles (the route proper was a few miles short).
We hustled back on the route, determined to avoid getting passed by the 110 mile racers where were soon to pass us. We cranked uphill, gaining spots in the race as we passed others. Near the top of the Perkinsville Road climb, the three riders in first place came roaring past us on the 110 mile route. They were cranking insane speed on that hill. Once on top ourselves, we cranked out some speed and rolled back into the finish line.
The Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach 100 race is an annual race put on in association with the Arizona Trail Association that connects the AZT singletrack from the base of the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff all the way across the high desert grasslands to the town of Tusayan outside Grand Canyon NP. We hiked this whole portion when we thru-hiked the AZT back in 2019. But ever since then, we've been interested in riding in this race. Months ago, we decided we would and convinced Darren to join us. With my parents in town, they agreed to drop us at the race start and then drive Darren's and our cars back to the canyon to meet us at the end.
The morning of the race, we woke up at 3 am and made the drive to the start of the race. It was bitter cold in the early autumn air at 8,000 feet. Darren pulled up and hung us with us and my parents. By race start, right at the crack of dawn, the surge of riders started up from the base of Snowbowl Road (the ultrarunning race started about an hour after us. We joked the whole time that we needed to ride fast enough so that the first place runners wouldn't catch and pass us). The sky broke out in sky blue-pink. With beauty growing, we turned onto the AZT off the paved road and started hours of climbing up the subalpine zone on these of Arizona's highest peaks.
Janna and I alternated between hike-a-biking and riding up the AZT as it coursed between aspens, spruce, and pines. Cloud cover was building keeping the temps cool. I was really proud of Janna as she was riding as confidently as I've seen her on rocky singletrack. At the top of the climb near Aspen Corner, at well over 9,000 feet in elevation, we swung down and around the western flanks the peaks as they rose to a 12,650 foot prominence on our right. We spent the next portion of the ride alternating between aspen groves, grassy mountain flanks, and dirt roads punctuating pine stands. Blue sky broke out and the sun lit up all the meadows with a gorgeous backlit effect.
We barreled down the trail and caught up with Darren who cranked ahead to the beginning of the race. We rode together for the next bit alternating between pushing hard uphill and talking about life on downhills. As we reentered the northern half the peaks, Darren sped ahead and we enjoyed some of the best downhill singletrack I've every had the pleasure of riding through thick stands of aspen. The aspen eventually faded to pine which transitioned to juniper and grass as our elevation loss coincided with a change in landscape. We jumped onto some REALLY chunky dirt roads, immediately recalling the difficulties of riding up this same section of route when I did the Craters and Cinder Cones Bikepacking Route a couple of years ago.
With a big downhill on babyhead terrain, we entered the Babbitt Ranch lands and our first SAG stop. A large storm cell built in the distance leaving me to wonder our race would intersect with it. After fueling up, we took off with a strong tailwind across the high desert grasslands. The route took the new Babbitt Ranch singletrack of AZT that had been finished this year. I absolutely loved this new singletrack addition. It was curvy, smooth, and varied with the terrain. We eventually met up with the second SAG right as a massive storm was building overhead. I caught Darren for a quick check-in before he sped off. I grabbed some food with Janna before heading uphill to get some tree cover and out of the exposed grassland. No sooner had we entered the junipers than lightening streaked overhead and massive thunder claps followed.
A small drizzle came and went, but wasn't so bad. We passed by Russell Tank in sun before making our way to the Coconino Rim. It was then that the rain began to downpour in earnest as temps began to drop into the low 50s/upper 40s. Lightening and thunder continued. The singletrack began to decay into mud. Huge clouds descended to eye level, filling the distant first views of the Grand Canyon with their gray and black forms. We finally got through the drenching and cold rain and began the descent to our last SAG stop at Hull Cabin. There, we caught Darren once again. They had hot food of any type you could imagine, a fire, and some heaters going. They warned us that the storms cells were dropping inches of rain everywhere. There were some concerns about hypothermia among the racers, especially the ultrarunners who would be running through the night.
We climbed up Hull Cabin and the three of us decided to finish the last 20+ miles of the race together. We headed out towards Watson Tank as our wheels gurgled and glugged through miles of mud. But it was manageable. Towards the last few miles of the race, we came around the bend to find two of my students from Grand Canyon School running a ham radio station with the local ham radio crew about the race. It was early evening, but we knew we would finish and day with an easy end.
The storms from earlier produced a different outcome.
The closer we got to Tusayan, the more silt and deposition occurs along the route. The storms from earlier had dropped over an inch of rain. The flat double track rich in caliche soil had turned in not only peanut butter mud, but the worst death mud I had ever ridden in my life - the type that shears rear derailleurs off, cuts into carbon frames, works its way into hubs, and stops any wheel rotation. The water sat 2 - 6 inches deep, nearly constantly for last 5 miles to the finish, over the entire doubletrack roads we were riding. There was barely anything that could be done to avoid it. Climb high around it and you were pushing your bike through scratchy sage. Ride through it and you were wearing away your components.
I put my head down and just laughed and rode. But it definitely sucked hard. We stopped multiple times to grab sticks and scrape away whatever mud we could from our rear tires. At one point, I rode through what I thought was a thin layer of water only to sink into sludge up to my hubs and over my pedals. It was nuts. Eventually, every rider was forced off their bike, pushing through mud that rode calf-deep. I couldn't believe how much mud was catching on my back tires; I was grateful to have ample clearance provided by my Fargo frame. Another rider caught up to us and began to panic that he wouldn't be able to get his bike to the end because of the narrow clearance between his frame and wheel (it had effectively cemented with mud). Suddenly, Darren's bike did the same. Janna was way ahead of us at this point and pushed ahead to finish. She ended up taking 2nd place for women. I helped Darren and this other rider to flip their bikes, jam sticks in small places, and use our fingers to glob and scrape off whatever death mud we could.
Rounding the corner, we hit the outskirts of Tusayan. It was just dark enough to require lights and the air was cold given the rain showers. The AZT ascended a small ridge, which afforded an opportunity to leave the mud behind. On top, Darren, the other rider, and I made our way north of town before crossing under the highway and meeting the paved Greenway multi-use path. Here, it was simply a mile back into town on the Greenway to an easy finish at the IMAX theater in town. I bid adieu to Darren and the other rider who pushed to the finish. Instead, I went north along the Greenway. The race route proper was only like 97 miles and I wanted to hit my even 100. I rode into the dark black of night uphill towards the Grand Canyon. When I saw 1.5 additional miles had past, I turned around and coasted back to the real finish.
As I pulled in, the event organizers and my family called out cheers in the dark. The event organizer laughed when he realized I went on to do extra miles. I earned the belt buckle as did Darren and Janna. We all congratulated Janna for getting the official second place for women! As the cold and miles set in, I truly felt great, but I staggered over to the event tent for some hot squash soup and other food. Truly an epic ride and one that I'm sure I'll do again.