The final race in the NORBA National Championships broke down into separate chapters on Sunday. One focused on Lance Armstrong as a first-time mountain bike racer. Another on local hero Eric Jones. And the last on Tim Gould, winner of this year's grueling men's cross-country. Together they came together for one of the most memorable races in the series.
Armstrong is one of the best road cyclists in the country. Put him on a bike with skinny tires, on a paved course, and he can beat anyone. This was to be his first mountain bike event and, possibly, for him, more proof he's recovering. Armstrong sat out the entire 1997 season to undergo chemotherapy for testicular cancer. He'd even skipped this year's Tour de France to train.He was in Park City visiting a friend, officials said, and chose to enter the race. His entry was warmly received by both racers and spectators. He was, however, not expected to challenge the sport's best riders, not in his first appearance . . . but he did. At the end of the first big climb he was leading by five seconds. At the end of the first lap he'd fallen back to a respectable ninth, but pressed on the next lap and pulled into second. On the third of four laps he began to experience cramping and had to stop to adjust the chain on his bike. Again he fell back to ninth of 72 racers. Well into the fourth and final lap, however, he pulled out of the race and rode off the course.
Several officials at the base called it the most incredible performance they'd seen by a rider, to come into this, his first race, against this caliber of racers, and challenge the leaders nearly the entire race.
At the finish, in talking about his victory, Gould praised Armstrong's ride and suggested that with a little experience he could be one of the best.
"He started off too quickly and I think it cost him," said Gould, who rides for Great Britain. "Some of the riders who tried to stay with him at first also paid dearly. I held back. I think if Lance had held back a little in the beginning he would have had a top-10 finish, which is pretty impressive."
Jones did have his first top-10 finish. In fact, he placed seventh, which is eight places better than his previous best.
The Salt Lake City rider gave credit to the local crowd.
"Every time I'd go through the finish I could hear all of these people cheering and it gave me a shot of adrenaline for the tough uphill climb. I did most of my passing on the climbs," he said at the finish, surrounded by well-wishers.
Jones was 18th after the first lap. Finishing the third lap he'd pulled to 10th. On the last lap he passed two riders on the climb, then took the third after a downhill and another climb. "I could tell he didn't have a lot left at this point. I was hurting, but I kept going. Uphills, today, made it for me," he said.
After trailing for most of the race, staying as far back as fifth, Gould found himself in somewhat of a predicament with half a lap to go. He was hugging the rear wheel of his teammate Steve Larsen, the leader at the time, but had nowhere to go. The code among teammates is they look out for each other. In this case, Larsen was leading and needs points to stay in the overall title chase, where he is currently in second. Gould was content to follow Larsen to the finish, but Larsen didn't want it that way. Win it, he said to Gould as the two reached the top of the big climb.
And Gould did, with a time of 2 hours, 3 minutes, 14.21 seconds. Larsen, from Bend, Ore., came across in 2:03:44.22. Third was David "Tinker" Juarez of Downey, Calif., the current cross-country points leader, with a time of 2:04:38.63. Jones' time was 2:06:48.49.
The women's race belonged entirely to Ruth Matthes of Durango, Colo. She led from the start and was never really challenged. She won by a margin of nearly two minutes.
The race came down to who would win second. Rene Marshman of Lafayette, Colo., had the edge, but Lesley Tomlinson of Vancouver, B.C., was closing in. And given enough time she may have. She started slowly but steadily passed until she caught up to the group of bikers battling for second.
Matthes finished the three laps in 1:51:35.48, with Marshman at 1:53:17.50 and Tomlinson at 1:53:58.67.
The event drew more than 2,000 mountain bike racers from around the world. Several bikers called the Deer Valley race their favorite. The reasons ranged from the great courses to the beautiful scenery.