Racing Mountain Bikes with Lance – The Mellow Johnny’s Classic

The Mellow Johnny’s Classic at Juan Pelotta Ranch

The rider, already caked with mud, dropped down the slope and followed the line into the puddle just as many before her had. A thick plume of brown water shot into the air, coating the tires with another layer of muck. Clearly, the race wasn’t going to be as straight-forward as predicted.

The Austin weather predictions called for sunny skies and moderate temps leading up to the Mellow Johnny’s Classic race, held at Lance Armstrong’s Juan Pelotta Ranch. Instead organizers got “piss down” rain (as one would describe it) both Friday and Satruday, leaving the course rutted and worn-down for Sunday.

Which of course sounds like the perfect conditions for a mountain bike race.

Hundreds made the trek (pardon the pun) to Lance’s secluded Hill Country hideaway to participate in the Livestrong fundraiser, a highlight of this year’s Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association’s calendar. Doubtless many more were there to catch a glimpse of the Tour de France champion and his abode.

With the presence of Lance guaranteed both the crowds and the expo area saw a higher-than-average surge–it’s not your average regional mountain bike race where the Trek and SRAM pit vans are out lending test bikes to racers, and Trek Travel gave away a trip for two while Trek handed out a District belt-drive urban bike. Nuun, FRS, Rapha, Mellow Johnyy, Fisher booths and food vendors?–this looks more like a New England Mountain Bike Festival than a local race series.

Interesting is the gentrification of the sport–when I began covering mountain bike races in the 80’s the average racer was in their twenties, often living out of their car and eating ramen. A family event now, mountain bike races draw in whole clans including spouses, children and their associated camping gear. Many vanagons in the lot contained half-a-dozen kids from several families huddled around a portable DVD player. One pickup truck in the lot near my rental car was filled to the brim with a mix of mountain bike gear and plastic toys.

As the early-morning chill wore on endlessly the Cat 2 and then Cat 3 racers took turns flailing around the ultra-slick course coating their bike with the slow-drying muck. One racer told us after two laps on the eight-mile course that it felt like he was “being pulled backwards, even on the straightaways” by the mud.

Just before the announced Pro/Cat 1 crowds had begun to gather at the start line near which pro racer Dave Wiens stood vastly under-apprecaited as Lance’s kids rode up on an ATV. One of the under-12 category “men’s” class racers raced up to Wiens and asked for a photo while nearly every other set of eyes were focused on the approaching Armstrong.

The Mellow Johnny’s Classic at Juan Pelotta Ranch

For spectators hoping to get a view of Lance racing down competitors on his own home turf, it was not to be–as Lance would later tweet “Agh!!!!! Wha?!? Flatted out of the @mellowclassic – running second to @jeremyhk. I didn’t think the flat gods would do this @ my own place!”

It would not be a stretch to imagine this event gaining momentum and becoming the mountain bike equivalent of the Livestrong Challenge, albeit at a more mellow (ahem) level as trails can only accommodate so many riders.

But there’s never too much mud.