Just one of the amazing views offered by the trail systems surrounding Prescott.
The Whiskey Off-Road is an event I’ve been looking forward to racing for years. It is an incredibly challenging event with over 8,000 feet of vertical gain in 50 miles of racing. It is also one of the richest mountain bike races in North America with a $40,000 pro purse. As long as I could deal with the altitude, it was sure to be a great course for me.
The start and finish are held on Whiskey Row in Prescott, Arizona. Sitting at roughly 5,300 feet above sea level, Prescott is only about 5,270 feet higher than Philadelphia. No big deal. I typically adjust to altitude well. Or well enough anyway. Plus even if the racing didn’t go well, my father was joining me for the trip and we were sure to have a great time.
My father riding in the tall pines outside of town.
I started mountain biking with my dad around age 12. Most every weekend we’d load up our rigid aluminum bikes into my dad’s work truck and haul out to Michaux State Forest to rattle our way through the incredible trail network for four hours. We were in way over our heads but had it figured out soon enough. We’ve had some great mountain bike adventures since then and our trip to Prescott would definitely rank near the top of the list.
After a hectic morning of travel we arrived in Prescott on Thursday afternoon and quickly set about assembling the bikes in our tiny motel room. With the task finished we kitted up and set out for an easy spin around town. It felt great to spin the legs out after 10 hours cramped up in plane and car seats. Plus we got our bearings on the medium sized town of Prescott (pronounced PreSKitt, no idea why), scoping out the race venue and dinner options in the compact downtown area.
Having spotted it on our spin we decided to head to the Prescott Brewing Company for dinner and a beer. We had a great meal and finished up with an even better beer. IPA for me and a porter for my dad. I don’t understand his choice in beer at all but I guess we can’t see eye to eye on everything, right?
Back in our cramped hotel room I hit the sack early for a restful night of sleep. With two days of racing coming up and trying to adjust to the altitude, I’d need all the rest I could get. The Whiskey Off-Road is a two stage race with a Fat Tire Criterium on Friday evening and the main 50 mile marathon XC race on Sunday morning. Saturday is reserved for the several thousand amateur riders, competing in a variety of divisions on both the 50-mile and 25-mile versions of the course.
Friday morning was spent tinkering with the bike, drinking copious amounts of coffee and attending the pro riders meeting. Having been briefed on the course and rules of the race, I went out for an easy hour spin and back to the hotel for a nap before the evening criterium race.
For those unfamiliar, a criterium is a spectator friendly, multi lap road race, held on a short course of about one mile, usually in a town or urban area. Since the crit was a qualifier for Sunday’s race, we were required to race the same bike as we would use Sunday, i.e., a mountain bike. Not exactly your typical crit bike, even with slick, narrower road tires installed.
To make things even more exciting, the field was absolutely world class with the current marathon XC MTB world champion, the US, Canadian, and Colombian national champions, as well as more former Olympians than I can count on my fingers in attendance. After a thorough warm-up and a couple of recon laps on the course I made my way to the starting line. I got there early enough to sneak into the front row between two Scott Factory Team riders.
The course contained six corners, two on the incredibly steep uphill half of the course and four on the screaming fast downhill section. To insure the pace would be ballistic from the gun, the promoters offered up $100 cash for whomever led through the start and finish on each of the first two laps. Never one to pass up a chance to make some money, I fought hard to stay in the top 10 riders on our first ascent of the 20ish percent grade hill on course.
Hitting speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour every lap, the Fat Tire Criterium course required absolute focus. Photo by Kathy Thomas.
Halfway up the opening climb, US national champion Todd Wells attacked the field. As my legs were feeling great, I jumped on his wheel and counter attacked, taking the lead a couple hundred feet before the crest. I kept my head down and drove the pace as hard as I could. Just before diving into the right hand corner which begins the descent back to the finish two riders passed on my inside. So much for that quick cash. With four corners and speeds hovering around 40MPH, there’s not much passing to be done on the downhill.
This probably for the best as I would be spending the downhill part of each lap recovering from being completely freaking hypoxic. While I could still put out good power on the all out, two minute climb, the lack of oxygen meant that it took me much longer than normal to recover from the effort. Smash hill. Recover on descent while not crashing into spectators. Repeat.
Leading the field during the Fat Tire Criterium. Photo by Kathy Thomas.
This is how the whole race went until with three laps to go I looked back. I was surprised to see our 12 person front group were the only riders in sight out of the roughly 100 pros that started. At this point I went completely cross eyed as one attack after another was launched. The group splintered and after losing a two up sprint to the finish, I rolled across the line in 10th place.
It was a fantastic finish in a top-notch field and I was more than stoked on my performance. Even better, my finish guaranteed me a start in the second row in Sunday’s main event. Starting at the front of the field is a huge advantage and I was hoping to make the most of it.
I awoke Saturday morning to my dad chuckling as he looked out the window. It was snowing. Unbelievable considering it had been sunny and 75 degrees the day before. Feeling sorry for the amateur racers on course, we went into town for breakfast and coffee. At the cafe we heard that while the promoters had shortened the amateur course they were still forced to bus large groups of hypothermic riders off the mountain.
By mid-afternoon the snow had stopped, the temperature risen and the sun even came out. Having swapped my slick road tires out for the standard knobby models, my dad and I loaded up the rental car and head up the mountain to check out the opening half of the course.
A perfect ribbon of fresh cut trail we found just off the course itself. Sometimes getting lost has its perks.
While the snow squall had made it miserable for those racing earlier in the day, the sandy trails were now perfectly packed and rolling fast thanks to the much needed moisture. After driving up the opening road climb, we parked and dropped into the huge trail network surrounding the town.
We climbed nearly to the top of the first 12 mile climb on course. We stopped so I could practice some of the harder technical sections on course and to check out the stunning views of the Prescott Valley. After about two hours of mostly easy riding, we head back into town, grabbed a quick dinner and got back to the hotel to prepare for race day.
Checking out one of the early technical features on the course.
Sunday morning rolled around all too quickly. I made sure to wake up early enough to find coffee, eat my usual pre-race peanut butter and Nutella sandwich and warm up for 45 minutes. Arriving at the start 15 minutes before the gun(literally a six shooter in this old west town), I was quickly called up to the second row. I confidently slotted in behind marathon XC world champion, Christoph Sauser of Switzerland.
Following some old west gunfire and a film crew helicopter flyover, we were on our way. Because of the longer length of the event, the pace immediately after the start wasn’t very high but the constant jostling to stay at the front of the field made things hectic. After a long fight to keep my position at the front, which included liberal use of sidewalks and drainage ditches to move up beside the field I managed to exit the opening five miles of hard road climbing in the top 15.
We entered the first section of single track trail and I had moved up to between 10th and 12th place. Unfortunately, a rider in front of me had let a gap open between himself and the rider in front of him. By the time the trail had widened enough to allow for me to pass, there were 8 leaders out of sight up the trail.
Head down, focused on the task at hand. Photo by Kathy Thomas.
Guessing that the leaders were still less than a minute in ahead, I went to the front of our now chase group and drove the pace. As the trail steepened and became more technical, I kept the pace quick but manageable. We crested the first 12-mile climb and began the shortest of the day’s three descents. As I rocketed down the rocky and twisting trail, I would occasionally catch sight of the front group, roughly 3045 seconds ahead.
An intimidating course profile to say the least.
Try as I might, I couldn’t shut the gap and I soon let off the gas, drifting back into our chase group. Following a short 15-minute climb we began our 9-mile dirt road descent into Skull Valley(no, seriously). The out and back to Skull Valley is the decisive feature on the course, with the 12 mile climb back out of the valley nearly always forcing the winning attack.
Our chase group ballooned to nearly 20 on the descent and about 2 minutes before the turn around we saw the group of eight leaders go by. I grabbed a fresh bottle from my father who was in the feed zone and then began the long climb back out of Skull Valley. Focusing in on the task at hand, I put my head down and sat second wheel in our group. I tried to stay out of the wind as much as possible while jumping on the wheel of anyone who attacked.
Our chase group beginning to fracture 12 miles into the 16 mile climb out of Skull Valley. Photo by Kathy Thomas.
I hung tough for 50 minutes before my oxygen starved muscles began to lose power at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. I drifted from near tenth place back to twentieth in the next few miles, trying to manage the damage as well as possible. Nearing the top of the 12 mile Skull Valley climb, I grabbed a bottle of flat coke from my dad. Chugging it would spike my blood sugar just long enough to get me through the remaining 40 minutes of the race.
Blasting through the next eight miles of the single track descent was amazing. After a little over 25 minutes on some of the best trails I have ever ridden, including one rocky stream crossing lined with hundreds of spectators, I was spit out onto the hard road which led back to town.
Going into time trial mode, I put my hands in the center of my handlebars and my helmet nearly on my stem. I rode alone, staying as low as possible, rocketing back towards the city. As I neared the finish line I could see another rider just up the road. I quickly caught him and after sitting on his wheel for 30 seconds I attacked with everything I had left.
I got a decent gap and as I rounded the last corner the thousands of people lining the finish straight went completely nuts. Rolling across the line in Prescott was an amazing feeling. Equal parts adrenalin from the crowd, exhausted and extremely satisfied. I’d left it all out on the course and finished in a respectable 19th place, 10 minutes down on the winner and world champion Sauser.
Draped over my bike, I congratulated my fellow racers on their day as I coughed violently from the dust and altitude. A few minutes later my dad found me and offered more congratulations and some much needed water. We quickly ducked into the Lone Star Cafe to sit down and recover, and I woofed down a breakfast burrito that was bigger than my head as well as roughly eight cups of coffee.
Content and numb from my massive effort and meal I reflected on our trip so far. The race and my performance exceeded my expectations and getting to spend the trip with my dad made the trip one of the best I have taken in the past few years. While there’s no doubt that I’m happy with my race, I’m still hungry. You can count on me coming back next year having worked harder and smarter, hunting for the win.