By Brooke McFerren
The Sagebrush Safari is an iconic mountain bike XC race located in southeastern San Diego county about three miles from the Mexico border. The race dates back to approximately 1988(!) and has since been put on by several different race organizations. For the past four years, Quick N’ Dirty promoters have host the Sagebrush Safari. The racecourse itself is one of the reasons for the Sagebrush Safari's longevity and iconic status. From its relentless, paved uphill start, to its swoopy singletrack downhills and punchy, techy climbing, Sagebrush Safari has it all.
Even though it is a two-hour drive for me, I have made the Sagebrush Safari a must-do race for the past three years. It is such a spectacular course, really one of the best pure XC race courses I have ever had the pleasure of punishing myself on. This year I was able to convince my intrepid husband (and fellow Path Bike Shop racer) Peter to join me!
We recently bought a truck-bed camper and were eager to take it, our dog, our XC bikes and our gravel bikes and camp out at Sagebrush. Did I mention Quick N’ Dirty hosts a whole weekend of fun? Yep, they offer boondocking camping for the weekend; a 27 mile, 19 mile, and kids XC race on Saturday; AND a 40 mile gravel race on Sunday. After much deliberation, both Peter and I decided to sign up for the 27 mile XC race, and then ride part of the gravel course the next day for fun.
The weather was absolutely perfect for the March 26-27 weekend event. We arrived early and found a nice, level campsite that was in the shade for our doggo. Then it was time to get ready and race! Before we knew it the horn went off and we were charging up the first paved climb. Sagebrush is a mass start and it’s easy to get caught up in the frantic pace of the pack. However, one of my strengths is gauging my effort over long climbs. I didn’t panic and kept the pace smooth and steady over the entire climb, not caring about the competition. Sure enough, I was able to slowly gobble up the ladies that had surged ahead, without burning too many matches. Lo and behold, at the top of the 6.5 mile climb I found myself neck and neck with local pro racer, Amanda Naumann! I had no idea how seriously she was taking this race, but I was thrilled to be within striking distance of a pro. Sure enough and to my disbelief, I spent the majority of the race trading top spots with this amazing racer.
After the long first climb there are miles and miles of fun, swoopy singletrack that remind me of an extended version of San Juan trail. It's tempting to stop and soak in the amazing views. There are rock slabs reminiscent of Moab, nasty loose sandy sections, fire roads and two-tracks through beautiful low-lying meadows.
Around mile 18 the real fun begins, and the biggest struggle I have had previously in this race: a brutally steep and steady climb punctuated by relentless uphill rock gardens anchored in loose sand. This section was in better shape in March than it was last November when I last raced this course, having just received some rain, however it was still horribly punishing to encounter at mile 18. Even though I had timed my nutrition well and took efforts to control cramping, the relentless technical obstacles just wore me out. I found I kept making small mistakes as I grew more and more fatigued, and I eventually had to stop a few times just to slow my heart rate, take a few breaths and reset. It was here I lost sight of Amanda and knew she had broken me. It was fun while it lasted, but at that point I had to ride my own race within my own capabilities to avoid getting hurt! With that mindset, I finished up that section and was soon on the final steady fire road climb that led to the rad final descent on Kernan Trail. That last descent alone more than makes up for all the trauma of earlier in the race.
At the finish, exhausted but happy from a successful race, I found Peter and the pup. Shortly afterwards, we found that both of us had won our classes, and I had ended up being the second overall female behind Amanda. That was reason to celebrate, and we spent the evening by the campfire at “Sagebrush Saloon”, enjoying libations and swapping crazy stories (let’s just say, the neighbors are awesome, and maybe pyromaniacs).
The next day we watched the beginning of the gravel race, then (gingerly) hopped on our gravel bikes to check out the area. We ascended the same paved climb as the day before, but then branched out on a 10 mile loop that was part of the gravel course. The area is home to Lake Morena and Corral Canyon OHV trails, and the off-road network is spectacular. Aside from on the main access roads, there was not another soul to be seen on miles of gorgeous, winding doubletrack and fire roads.
All-in-all, Sagebrush Safari was a spectacular weekend that was well worth the drive. Peter and I loved it so much, we are hoping to go back to the area to camp and enjoy more of the trails and solitude.
I can’t say enough good things about Sagebrush Safari, and hopefully this report will entice more race participants! Unfortunately, despite the race’s storied history, the race organizers are not getting enough participants and are losing money holding this race. The Sagebrush is in real danger of being put on hiatus unless numbers improve. So, with that being said: to all my fellow racers, non-racers, and lovers of the sport, trust me on this one-you’ve gotta get out to Sagebrush Safari next year!