LOEWS LAKE LAS VEGAS RESORT, NEVADA - Defending XTERRA U.S. Pro Series and three-time World Champions Conrad Stoltz and Melanie McQuaid proved once again to be the best in the sport by surviving major challenges from a loaded pro field at the Loews XTERRA West Cup at Lake Las Vegas, Nevada this afternoon.
It marks the third straight year that Stoltz and McQuaid have won the West -- the first regional championship of the season and the kick-off event for the new eight-stop, nationwide XTERRA Cup Series.
Fireworks couldn't have jump started the year any better than this race did, as a cool desert breeze greeted more than 350 racers to the 68-degree, clean and clear 1.5-kilometer point-to-point swim in Lake Las Vegas. It all started elegantly enough below a row of palm trees on a white sand beach in front of Loews peach-colored Mediterranean style resort.
After the familiar XTERRA cannon blast ushered off the pros in the first wave, swimmers u-turned their way out of the Loews beach cove and around the 8th hole of the Jack Nicklaus' designed Reflection Bay golf course to another white sand beach a mile away that opened up into the great wide open of the southern Nevada desert.
Christine "Big Fish" Jeffrey beat everyone out of the water -- even the top men -- in a little over 20 minutes. "You gotta love Craig Evans," joked Jeffrey about XTERRA's top men's swimmer. "We turned that first buoy and he veered off into the middle of the lake and everyone followed him. I looked up and saw the buoy was well left of his mark and had a nice easy uninterrupted swim to shore."
The early morning sunshine made it tough to see the buoys (in Evans' defense), but one racer after another commented on how nice and enjoyable the swim was. The lead pack of men were just moments behind Jeffrey with Evans, Stoltz, Seth Wealing, Branden Rakita, and Dan Hugo all coming out together, with Ironman standout Jasper Blake just a few strokes back.
The bike was all South Africa early with Stoltz (pictured here courtesy Nils Nilsen) up ahead and Hugo close in tow until America's best XTERRA racer Josiah Middaugh entered the fray (he was about a minute behind the leaders at the swim-to-bike transition, which represents perhaps his smallest gap out of the water in his career).
"I had a great swim. I've just been swimming and biking all winter dealing with this IT band (iliotibial band) so that's worked out good for my swim" explained Middaugh, who hasn't run for more than 20 minutes outside of a few races since the initial injury last August.
The bike course is a non-stop barrage of short, steep, one and two-minute climbs followed by quick descents -- all on a virtual moonscape highlighted with the various shades of red, sand, and grey that the desert dishes out. There are more than 2,000-feet of climbing on the 30km bike course (1,000+ per lap) and lots of room to pass.
"When Josiah passed me I thought it was Chris (the course manager) on his dirt bike, seriously, he was going that fast," said Hugo, the eventual third-place finisher. "Those two guys (Stoltz and Middaugh) were on another level today, just really flying. Nevertheless, I'm stoked to be here, to see friendly faces and enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie that XTERRA has."
Middaugh caught Stoltz, who was riding strong but wasn't perfect, just after the halfway point as the two rode past the XTERRA village area to the cheers of fans and spectators.
"I had a couple hiccups today," said Stoltz. "I dropped a chain and had to stop and fix that which probably cost 30 seconds and I took a digger too, and that didn't cost much time but it sure was humbling. It's interesting because at first I thought this course would be too easy because it's not real technical, but then with all the riders churning up the dirt it really made a lot of sections loose and tricky."
Middaugh held and even extended his lead on the bike and headed out on the 10km run with a little bit of a cushion, but not enough. Stoltz caught up and the two traded paint Nascar-style for much of the way, creating some of the most exhilarating back-and-forth, spectator friendly racing XTERRA has seen in years.
"I was really excited when I caught Josiah and very surprised, because I thought he'd run away with it. I didn't know his run wasn't in top form," said Stoltz. "He's' really a great competitor and during the run we'd be side-by-side and he'd find the right line and I'd be in the jagged rocks and it was great racing."
Middaugh certainly had the fitness to pull off the victory, but without the top form run training he just couldn't gather enough leg speed to hold off the "Caveman."
"I'm feeling good and could hold my own on the climbs but Conrad would catch me on the downhills and the flats. I'm strong, just not fast, and halfway through the second lap on one of the steep downs he just took off and put 30 seconds on me in a heartbeat," said Middaugh, who finished in 2nd place just 32 seconds back.
The championship win is Stoltz' 27th dating back to his rookie year in 2001.
"It's great to see XTERRA attracting such a top notch field, this line-up was loaded. The level of competition in XTERRA seems to just get stronger every year, and I’m really looking forward to the new Cup Series. It’s nice to have all these new and interesting destinations to race at like this. And my hats off to Josiah, he really made me suffer," said Stoltz at the awards ceremony.
Mike Vine, just a couple weeks removed from a runner-up performance at XTERRA Saipan, had a solid day to finish in fourth and fellow Victoria resident Jasper Blake (former Ironman Canada champ) placed 5th in just his first-ever XTERRA. Also of note is 39-year-old father of five and mountain biking legend Steve Larsen, who placed sixth in his return to XTERRA racing after a several year hiatus, and former XTERRA pro Justin Thomas -- who posted an impressive 7th place finish after a few years off. Three-time XTERRA European Tour champ Nico Lebrun from France was looking strong and likely would have been in the top five but an un-fixable flat on the bike forced him to withdraw.
McQUAID IN FINE FORM FOR EARLY SEASON TEST
Melanie McQuaid (pictured courtesy Nils Nilsen) was put to the test by a handful of very fast, very fit women, and "had there been one more hill, I wouldn't have been first," she smiled.
McQuaid came out of the water near the front and tracked down Christine Jeffrey by the second big downhill on the first lap of the bike and never looked back. Well, maybe she looked back. The beauty of this desert course, described as "lunar technical on baked clay", is the multitude of times where you can see your opponent around the turn, just up the hill, or coming one way or another from out-and-backs on the run.
"It's a fun course to race on because you see people everywhere," said Shonny Vanlandingham, who inched her way to within striking distance of victory but ultimately came up just 23-seconds behind McQuaid in second.
Vanlandingham seems to just get better and better at XTERRA (she is now in her second full season after an unprecedented run on the U.S. mountain bike circuit) and was 9th out of the water but crushed the bike course to move into second place by the bike-to-run transition.
"I was maybe a minute-and-a-half back out of transition and just started plugging away. I was really happy with my run and feel great, could have kept going," said Shonny V, who is in a similar situation as Middaugh with a lingering injury (ankle) that makes run training tough. Her solution was water running all winter long and it has paid off for endurance, if not speed.
Out on the run, and out of nowhere came Lesley Paterson, the petite Scot living in San Diego who is also in her second season with XTERRA. Paterson blew by Vanlandingham and looked well on her way to chasing down McQuaid except just one thing, "I thought it was one lap," she smiled. So, towards the end of that lap (the first of two 3-mile loops with 500+ feet of climbing each) when the volunteer slid on the scrunchie that shows a racer has done the first, "I kind of said to Shonny, hey did you know there were two laps". And then she blew-up.
Paterson hung on and didn't explode completely as she was able to hold off the hard-charging and always speedy Renata Bucher for third place.
"It was certainly wild out there and felt good to be within reach," said Paterson. "That's the thing I like about XTERRA is all the courses are so different. In Alabama you're in the middle of the forest and all these trees and then here it's just you and the landscape with nothing."
Bucher, the current and 3-time XTERRA European champ, spent the last month in the Northern Marianas and won XTERRA Saipan and the Tagaman road tri the last two weekends. Her fourth place finish is a tremendous result considering the travel and depth of the field.
Jeffrey, who has just been riding mountain bikes since 2007, was solid on the bike and hit the run in 7th place to leap-frog past Jenny Tobin and Rebecca Dussault and finish 5th.
Emma Garrard was 17 seconds behind Jeffrey in 6th and Dussault (Olympic skier from Colorado who said "there's still snow in my front yard, there's 18 inches at 10,000-feet") put in her first swim and second mountain bike ride of the season today and still finished 7th overall.
"I thought this was one of the hardest XTERRA races ever," said McQuaid after the win. "There was just no place to hide and no place to rest and not a second to catch my breath. I've never been more tired in my whole life. The girls are just top notch and in great shape and have a couple races under their belts. I'm in pretty good shape but need to get faster. This is going to be a really exciting season and you can expect some more battle royale's coming up."
Complete results: XTERRAPlanet.com.