GNCC’S ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN BIKE EXPERIMENT
The largest pro purse in e-bike racing history
The GNCC, or Grand National Cross-Country race series, got its start in the 1970s when enterprising motorcycle race promoter Dave Coombs came across the small West Virginia town of Davis. Looking at the beautiful yet rugged terrain, Coombs realized it would be the perfect place to hold a motorcycle race. It would be a tough one where only the strongest riders and machines could even finish. The race was called the Blackwater 100, and over the years it built its own legacy as one of the more brutal off-road events held in America.
As time marched on, the GNCC added classes for three- and four-wheeled ATVs. They also pared down the races from 100 miles, which could often take five hours, to two-hour races for ATVs and three hours for bikes. There is now a full GNCC race series located at tracks around the Midwest and South, and fans can tune in via NBC to watch the races.
Since the tracks change year after year, competitors would want to try to scout the track beforehand. Motorcycles aren’t allowed on the track before the race, so the options are either to walk or to use a mountain bike. The mountain bike became popular for this. Then Barry Hawk, a star of the sport, asked the GNCC if he and his team could use electric mountain bikes (EBA, April 2018). The powers that be approved the request, and soon he and his team started using them for scouting. This e-bike idea caught on like wildfire, and soon many of the racers were also using e-bikes for scouting.
And, of course, since they’re all racers, soon enough there were e-bike races, too. In 2019, the GNCC e-MTB race series was started, often coinciding with other races. This year, in 2021, there were eight rounds, with round seven taking place at Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Tennessee.
It was over 95 degrees and what felt like 95-percent humidity. We had a chance to ride the 3.9-mile-long course for a lap, and it was a rocky, technical trail full of switchbacks, loose dirt, and some places barely between the trees. In other words, this was definitely not the ideal place for 800mm-wide handlebars!
The race grid started on the motocross track. Riders were sent off according to their class groups, with the pros going first, then each class following one minute later respectively. In the brutal heat and humidity, coupled with the technical track and really dusty conditions, there was no way this was going to be easy. It was still so hot that people were staying in the shade until right before they lined up on the grid.
Once they made it across the track and onto the trails, they had to ride as many laps as they could in one hour. Everyone seemed to be okay for the first lap, and you could see it on their faces. Many riders crashed or had mechanical issues. XC1 Pro Brian Lopes was leading in the beginning of the first lap until he got a flat tire that took him enough time to drop way back. Even the top three finishers all had issues during the race, either mechanical or crashes.
Cypress Gorry turned up the heat and took the lead at the end of the first climb, but made mistakes in one of the technical sections, allowing Charlie Mullins and Nick Mackie to pass. Mullins slid into Mackie at one point, allowing Smith to take the lead.
“Those last two laps, I did everything I could to get around Kyle, but I just couldn’t make it happen,” said Mackie. “I was putting up a fight, but he was shutting the door on me in every corner.”
Parts of the track were really dusty, and the timing area/finish line was preceded by a chicane designed to slow people down, and most of the spectators were lined up around that area. After passing through the timing area, there was a fairly steep downhill that led back into the woods where the less confident were overtaken by the confident riders.
Ultimately, the Pro class did four-plus laps in the hour, and when the dust settled, North Carolina’s Kyle Smith came in first, Nick Mackie got second and Charlie Mullins got third place. Smith wound up with $3000, Mackie won $2000 and Mullins earned $1000. The remaining $4000 was divvied up among the rest of the field. This was Smith’s second overall victory in two years.
Ned Overend—legendary racer, first-ever UCI mountain bike world champion and six-time NORBA cross-country mountain bike national champion—has embraced e-mountain bikes in a big way. We spoke with him at the race, and he gave us his thoughts:
“I had been reading about the GNCC e-bike races for a couple years, so I knew they had some momentum. It was amazing to see how the moto crowd has embraced e-bikes for their moto-course recon and just getting around the pits and RV park.
“I thought the course was great, with lots of variety, a lot of elevation changes, all kinds of cornering situations, some two-track roads that were good for passing and some high-speed descending in the woods to get the adrenaline flowing. The heat was a factor, with the temps in the mid-90s and the humidity about 90, too. It was a shock for me coming from Colorado where it’s dry.
“The level of competition was strong. From the mountain bike side you had Cole House, an accomplished mountain bike racer [national fat bike champion 2017], Cyprus Gorry [twice the U23 XC national mountain bike champion], and Brian Lopes [multi-time world dual-slalom and mountain cross champion].
“The guys who really excelled were the regular stars of the GNCC, taking 1-2-3 against some well-known names. Kyle Smith, Nick Mackie and Charlie Mullins battled it out at the front, followed closely by Cypress Gorry. These guys showed it takes some experience to excel at e-bike racing, bike setup, and knowing how to make the best use of the power assist, and being able to ride a heavier bike at higher speeds was key.
“The race was well-run, the course was clearly marked, and the results and awards happened shortly after the race. I kept the bike in Turbo mode for the whole race, and knowing how to get through the tight tree sections was definitely an advantage. The promoter is listening to the racers and improving the courses with each event. I strongly recommend novice e-bike riders and experienced racers give one of these events a go.”