Testing physical limits and a purpose-built Santa Cruz mountain bike in the world's toughest one-day mountain bike race
"How many more miles do we have?" I ask.
I'm at the final aid station of the 2015 Park City Point-2-Point (PCP2P) mountain bike race, an off-road cycling epic unlike any other in the world.
"Does 10 miles sound like a lot?" the race volunteer inquires as a response.
I think about it for a moment. This means I have about an hour to go given my pace. That is, for the past eight hours, I've been averaging about 9 mph. Indeed, since the race began at 7 a.m., I've covered 70 miles of Park City, Utah's, finest singletrack trails, climbing and descending more than 10,000 vertical feet at elevations ranging from 7,000 to 9,100 feet above sea level.
All I have left is 10 miles, I tell myself. Just 10 more miles. You can do this, I tell myself.
The PCP2P is perhaps the most technical and physically demanding one-day mountain bike race in the world. According to race organizer Jay Burke, "The difficulty level is pushing a 10. The Leadville 100 [in Colorado] is maybe a six, but that's only due to the high elevation." I later confirm this comparison with riders who've done both.
Unlike Leadville and other events in this category, the PCP2P course is more than 90 percent singletrack trail. I can't actually recall riding anything but singletrack, other than to cross a road from one trail to the other. Which means there are no breaks, no rest for body or mind, no sitting in the pack to recover. You are constantly on, constantly focused on the trail and its various obstacles, from roots and rocks to switchbacks and aspen trees. Descending is every bit as taxing on the body as climbing, and a hail storm while traversing Park City Ski Resort at 9,000 feet didn't make it any easier. Then there's the atmospheric pressure.
A sea level, where I live, the air is much more...complete. There's more of it. I knew this going in, but I hadn't fully considered the challenge of riding a race of this magnitude with 25 percent fewer oxygen molecules than I'm used to. In fact, I signed up for the race just days before it started. My motivation was really twofold: First, I was making my first trip to Park City and wanted to ride as many of its IMBA-Gold-Level trails as possible. Secondly, I wanted to put a new Santa Cruz hardtail through its paces. Let's start with the bike.
Santa Cruz Highball 27.5 ($1,899): In choosing the Santa Cruz Highball as a platform, I set out to build a super-light hardtail that handles flowy trail riding just as well as endurance and XC races. Given my height (5'10") and riding style, the 27.5 wheel size strikes the perfect balance of speed and handling. I find 29ers to be too clumsy through tight, technical sections. Beyond the frame, there are three component choices that really define this bike: the RockShox RS-1 suspension fork, the Specialized Command Post XCP dropper post, and the SRAM XX1 drivetrain with Quarq power meter.
RockShox RS-1 ($1,865): This is an inverted fork design, which means the upper part of the fork (a single piece of carbon fiber) stays put while the lower fork does all the work. One way to look at it is that the wheel comes up as opposed to the handlebars coming down. And it's magnificent. I bagged a Strava downhill PR on my first ride. What's so different is the feel. You know the fork is working, but you don't feel it. It doesn't give you the same feedback as a traditional design, which lets you focus more on handling. It also corners with tremendous confidence. There were many times I thought my front wheel would slide out but didn't. That's because a huge 27mm axle in the integrated hub makes it stiff enough to hold lines under tremendous pressure. The fork can be set at 80mm, 100mm, or 120mm of travel. I chose the long setting for a more aggressive approach.
Specialized Command Post XCP ($450): It's quite possible I would not have finished the PCP2P without this post. By dropping the saddle a mere 35mm with the push of a lever mounted on left side of the handlebar, it drops your center of gravity and dramatically improves how the bike handles steep, technical terrain. In some ways it compensates for a lack of rear suspension through greater maneuverability. And you only give up about 200 grams over a fixed carbon post.
SRAM XX-1 drivetrain with Quarq power meter ($1,399): When it comes to mountain biking, Quarq is the only choice in power meters. While wattage data may not matter to most mountain bikers, it is essential to XC and endurance racers to gauge output, performance levels, and recovery needs. By integrating seamlessly with the XX1 crank and drivetrain, you have a complete system. The 1x11 gearing provides a huge range of possibility. I ride a 34t front ring at home, but for the distance and elevation gain of the PCP2P, I opted for a 32t. It's also simple and reliable, which is key for all-day suffer fests like the PCP2P.
ENVE Riser Bar ($160) and Mountain Stem ($265): For the cockpit, I opted for a carbon fiber bar and stem from ENVE. A handlebar naturally has a profound influence on how a bike handles. The combination of a wide bar at 760mm with subtle 23mm rise and nine-degree sweep is perfect for technical, long-distance trail riding. Combined with the Mountain Stem, you'll further improve handling through the vibration-dampening properties of carbon fiber. Together, the system weighs a mere 293 grams.
SRAM Guide Ultimate disc brakes ($450): With the introduction of the Guide disc-brake line, SRAM immediately leapt to the head of the pack. The big breakthrough is improved modulation through a new cam mechanism that allows braking power to be applied more easily and progressively, thus offering more control and less hand fatigue. In terms of total power, it hits well above its weight class (at about 720 grams per set).
SRAM Rise 60 wheels ($1,990) and Maxxis Ardent Race tires ($78): It's unfair to give the RS-1 fork all the credit for this bike's phenomenal handling. The wheels and tires play a huge role. First, these carbon fiber wheels are feather light at a mere 1,390 grams for the set, much like a set of road wheels. To say they're nimble would be a gross understatement. However, they are also incredibly stiff and durable. The Rise 60s are designed for XC racing, but I've been pushing them well into trail riding territory without issue. As for the Ardent Race tires, they pair with these wheels like a Bordeaux pairs with a porterhouse -- a perfect combination for the PCP2P. You get tubeless durability, low rolling resistance, and grippy handling in a single tire that weighs about 650 grams.
Finishing the Race: I roll across the PCP2P finish line at the base area of The Canyons Resort around 4:30 p.m. It takes me 9 hours and 28 minutes to complete, which is two hours slower than the winner of my class (40-something dudes) and nearly three hours ahead of the final finisher. This doesn't factor the 38 riders who started the race but didn't finish it. And that's really the point.
A handful of people compete, while the rest of us are checking a box on the bucket list. And if you're a mountain biker with any desire to test your absolute limit, the PCP2P is most certainly on your bucket list. You may just not have realized it until now.
Planning Tips: Registration for next year's event opens on February 24th at 7 p.m. MT and will sell out in a matter of minutes.
I recommend staying at the Montage Deer Valley, especially if you'll make the trip with your family. There is a kids club, top-notch spa, and other activities to keep everyone happy while you suffer through the better part of a Saturday. Plus, room service will deliver a pre-dawn breakfast and then the hotel offers a free shuttle service that will drop you at the PCP2P starting line. The race actually goes right by the Montage on the Mid-Mountain Trail about three hours into it.