The opportunity to travel far to race is not an opportunity that an amateur cyclist has very often. I had never heard of The Whiskey Off Road or Epic Rides until a few months earlier. Epic Rides is a series of endurance mountain bike events that take place in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. The events attract a 1000 or more participants ranging from professionals, serious amateurs and recreational riders looking to take in the scenery on shorter events. I traveled to Prescott Arizona to ride in the 50-mile amateur event on Saturday April 30th.
I became aware of the Whiskey Off Road after a conversation with my girlfriend. We were talking about the repetition of working full time and the fact that it gives you very little to look forward to. I turned 28 this year and took my first job with benefits and paid vacation. I was looking forward to taking a vacation, but traveling anywhere out of state seemed unrealistic. Molly is from Phoenix originally and her mom suggested we visit around my birthday because her friend told her there was a big bike race about 2 hours north. If we came visit her family airfare would be taken care, all I would have to do is get my bike out there.
I googled the race and found out that it was not a typical a cross country race, but a 50 mile event taking place in Prescott, a historic city about 2 hours north of Phoenix. I had been to Arizona before but only in Phoenix and neighboring cities. I had seen the desert landscape, but Prescott appeared to be more pine forest than desert somewhat similar to the New England landscape I’m accustomed to. It seemed like a unique experience and I committed by paying the $130 registration. A steep fee, but well worth it after seeing how well run and staffed the event was.
Growing up on the East Coast where everything is just a short drive away the idea of traveling usually gives me anxiety. Especially when checking your bike as luggage on a flight. Thankfully my bike arrived safely in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor air port with the help of a BIKND Jetpack I borrowed from JRA Cycles. After arriving in Phoenix we would spend a day hanging out with Molly’s parents before heading up north.
Phoenix is a city I have mixed feelings about. Both it’s natural and manmade environments make it an aggressive city. Phoenix is a sprawling city of over 1 million people located in a hot desert valley surround by rocky and sharp looking mountains. In addition to the heat, rocks and cactus, Phoenix was clearly designed around car travel and the amount of pavement and concrete is intense. Many roads in Phoenix are six lanes wide with 45 mph speed limits. Driving in the city at rush hour provokes a Mad Max fantasy. It feels unsafe, and coming from Boston I was surprised at how little people walk or bike as transportation. Arizona allows you to carry a concealed handgun without a license and outside of many stores you might see a sign that says no hand guns, something I found alarming.
Despite my contempt for Phoenix’s city design and car culture, there’s a burgeoning liberal and arts culture growing inside of a conservative bubble. What this means is there are a lot of exciting restaurants, coffee shops, and breweries popping up all over the place. Surprising was the amount of great vegetarian and vegan fare and I hate to say it, but it far surpasses Boston. Notable restaurants were the Coronado, Green and Nami.
After a day of relaxing in the sun and eating great South Western food we got in the car and drove up to Prescott. Molly’s parents suggested we take the scenic route, a 2 and a half hour jaunt up Rt. 60 and 89. Driving out of Phoenix is bleak as you drive through the sprawling cities immediately outside of Phoenix such as Sun City and Surprise. Big box stores, sandlots, cactus and freight cars line the roads for miles. Eventually you’re out on straight desert road that resembles something I’ve only seen in films, a straight road that you can see for miles on with mountains off in the distance. At a certain point you reach a demarcation line where you transition from cactus to evergreen trees. In the foothills leading up to Prescott National Forest you encounter towns that seem impossible. Small towns of mobile homes, or semi permanent structures. There are no stores for miles Questions race through my head, do they have running water or internet? Do fugitives live here? Eventually I have to use the bathroom and we pull into a vintage shop parking lot lined with disused tractors, old fashioned gas pumps, wagon wheels etc. The store was staffed be a very nice women and dog named Angel. She was happy to let us use the bathroom and pet her dog. We perused the stored momentarily and then set back onto the road.
The road stops going straight and starts to wind up a mountain into Prescott National Forest. The drive offers breath taking views and a landscape that is truly unique. It’s a mixture of desert, mountains and pine forest. After driving through the mountains we arrive at a room we rented through airbnb. The room was a studio apartment built into the back of someones house on a quite tree lined street just out of town. He was a gracious host and offered to let us hang out in his backyard. Unfortunately it never got warm enough to make this appealing. The weather shifted from 8o degrees in Phoenix to 40-55 degrees and raining in Prescott.
Shortly after we checked into our lodging I assembled my bike in the driveway. I got dressed and went for a short spin on the road with my mountain bike. I road downtown towards the start of the race. It was incredible to see so many people out on mountain bikes. Montezuma Street or “Whiskey Row” was closed to traffic for the weekend. In it’s place were tents set up by vendors including Scott, Pivot Cycles, Shimano, Devinci, Ellsworth, Clif Bar and others.
I scoped out where registration was and watched a little bit of the Pro Fat Tire Criterium. In order to start in the Pro Race, riders have to at least start in a criterium race in the town center on Friday Night. It’s the same format as a traditional criterium on road bikes, however racers must ride on MTB’s. Some racers swap out MTB tires for 40c commuter tires to get a little less rolling resistance. The crit doesn’t count for much but it features a very steep climb and is short enough for 1:30 min lap times. Good primes are announced to keep the pace fast and the crowd entertained.
I continued to get on my bike to spin out my airplane legs on rural roads and was almost immediately told by someone driving a pick up truck to get on the sidewalk. In Boston we would have just exchanged “fuck you’s,” but in Arizona you have no idea who is carrying a gun so I kept my mouth shut. I tried to keep my ride flat but gained almost 1,000 feet of elevation in 45 minutes; it’s that hilly in Prescott.
In the evening Molly and I went to get my registration packet. To my surprise the race plates have a timing chip in them and the registration bag was filled with goodies including the latest MTB magazines, some Stan’s fluid and a few nutritional bars. We headed out to dinner and came back for the mandatory safety meeting.
The next strike against Prescott was it’s utter lack of food options. Molly and I live a vegan lifestyle, and in most major city and even very tiny towns in the North East we never have a problem finding good food. We went to a cafe called the Raven which advertises it’s vegan friendliness and promotes local and organic food. We asked if the veggie burger was vegan and the waiter could not have been more clueless. “It’s not vegan, some sort of grain in the burger makes it not vegan.” “Ok, we’ll eat somewhere else,” we said. We left and ate at Chipotle because it was the only option in town. The following night we got frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. The town of Prescott resembles cool New England town’s like Burlington Vermont or Northampton in its layout, but it couldn’t be further from the aforementioned towns in its progressiveness. The bars in Prescott have great tap lists, and is home to a few breweries, but forget it if your lifestyle deviates from the norm. In addition to the lack good food, there’s also a lack of decent coffee which led me to drinking Stumptown Cold Brew from a can the morning of the race.
At 8pm we attended the mandatory amateur racer safety. My largest critique of the race was safety meeting. When a race is at 7:30am it could have been held earlier in the evening. Beyond that the content of the safety meeting was extremely self explanatory and could have either been given over the loud speaker the morning of the race or through an e-mail. They went over how to pass in a mountain bike race. If you’re signed up for a 50 mile mountain bike race you’ve done group rides before or perhaps a cross country race or road race. They went over course markings, hydration stations and had an announcement from people who work in the town. The whole meeting could have lasted 20 minutes but lasted an hour. The people from the conversation land and city of Prescott kept there speeches short and sweet while Epic Rides President Todd Sadow rambled on about nothing for 40 minutes and threw swag at guests. Finally we were released and could go bed.
Waking up at 5:30am Arizona time is extremely easy if you’re still on East Coast time. I was rearing to by 6:15 and spun down to the start line. It was cold for Arizona about 50 degrees. Like a true New Englander I only brought bib shorts and jersey, expecting it to be warm. I was a bit chilly, but this was par for the course New England weather. Other riders were visibly cold wearing warmers and jackets. I thought I had showed up early enough to secure a good spot in the starting pen, however I was way in the back perhaps behind 300 other riders. On the initial pavement start going into the woods I put in hard work and attempted to go around the masses.
Prescott is 5,300 ft above Sea Level which is not particularly high, but does make a difference if you live at Sea Level. I did not think it would make a difference but I felt it almost immediately trying to make moves in the initial pavement climbs. In about a half hour we had climbed 1,000 feet and my heart rate was pegged. You go off the pavement and into a fire road for a while until you hit the first single track section. This were you first notice the immense traffic that is a 500 participant 50 mile race. I chose a bad line and had to stop and watched about 40 riders pass before I could get going again.
The first single track was in a dense pine forest, it was tight and twisty and resembled East Coast single track minus any rocks or roots; totally buffed out. It was fun and fast. Shortly after we came out to some fire road and climbed for a very long time. The fire road transitioned to uphill single track and came to infamous water bar section. There were tight switch back climbs with water bars and roots you had to ride your bike over or bunny hop. I did not find this section technically challenging but many riders had problems with the roots and water bars and stopped traffic dead. At certain points I was walking with my bike because it was faster than constantly dismounting because someone botched the climb.
As cynical as I was over riders botching the moderately technical climbs, I was put in my place on the descent. After climbing for this long we had to go down. We descended for about 20 minutes on a wicked fast descent full tight turns on loose rocks. Unfamiliar with the dirt in Prescott I took the descents slowly. The trails were lined with cactus and sharp rocks, not to mention on the some of the trails if you went off you would fall off the side of a mountain. Sidewall slashing rocks were a plenty coming down. I descended slowly while riders on hard tails ripped down with reckless abandon.
After descending there was a fire road climb that took us up to 7,000 feet of elevation. At the peak of the hill was the last aid station before Skull Valley. The Whiskey Off Road is infamous for it’s 20 mile out an back into Skull Valley. You descend for 10 miles turn around and climb back up. The descent into Skull valley was one of the weirdest things I have every done on a MTB. It was mostly a smooth dirt road, and you scream downhill for nearly a half hour averaging over 20mph. I hit 40mph at one point during the descent. As you descend down at speed you see some of the leaders making their ascent.
At the bottom of Skull Valley there is a church and a traffic cone. Some volunteers inform you that it’s time to turn around and you get ready for a long climb back up 7,000 feet. It had started to rain and get incredibly windy. At this point I was no longer judging other riders for bringing jackets. I toughed it out despite my hands and core getting incredibly cold. The Skull Valley climb was where the elevation started to kick my ass. Early on the climb I was putting in a big effort and keeping the pace high, however as the climb got steeper and we got higher up I started moving at a snail’s pace. I started looking at my Garmin and I noticed whenever I went over a certain heart rate I started to feel ill. This was at an intensity I can easily hit at any other time, but on this climb I actually had to keep a watch on my heart rate to make sure I didn’t blow up.
We reach the aid station that we started the descent into Skull Valley. I grabbed as much water and food as I could and we started to climb the infamous Cramp Hill. Cramp hill is like an add on to the 10 mile climb out of Skull Valley, just when you thought you couldn’t climb anymore it goes uphill for several more miles. Spectators frequently tell you that you’re almost there or just “one more mile until it goes down” By this time I’m shattered and my hands are cold. I take in a goo a few more shot blocs, way more than I would ever eat training or in a race, but anything to keep me from dying.
You finally hit the top of the hill and get into some single track. At first it seems like flowy single track but quickly transitions difficult rocky descents. My hands were frozen and I could not operate my shifters or my dropper post. Luckily I could still get a grasp of the brakes. Some riders behind me were clearly not as cracked as me and I let them go by watching them take the single track at an aggressive pace. The last 10 miles of the course were mostly single track. It was a death march for me. I let a lot of people pass as I navigated the single track into town as if I were drunk. I kept it upright and only had to dismount for places were the risk and reward of riding it were not equal.
After what felt like forever we were out on the pavement. Some riders passed me on the pavement at this point it wasn’t worth it to try to hammer it back to town. One of the most exciting parts of the race was descending into the town center. People who lived in the town gathered in their driveways, balconies and decks cheering on riders. I was at a low point after riding nearly 50 miles of brutal, climbs, win and rain; I just wanted to be done. There was a section of road that went uphill right before the finish line it was a minor gradient, but it felt insulting at this point. The cheers of spectators helped me sprint the final incline despite cramping legs, just to get it done. After crossing the finish line I could not have been happier to get off my bike and get into some warm clothes.
The Whiskey Off Road was the hardest ride, race or event I have ever done on a bicycle. The amount of climbing combined with the elevation made the race physically challenging to a level I had never experienced before. I expected the single track to be buff and easy, but it was technical enough to keep you focused the entire time. During the nearly 5 hour time span I spent on the bike I literally thought about nothing other than staying a live and Molly giving me a hug and a flannel shirt at the end of the ride.
The Whiskey was an incredible event to coordinate. Results were posted instantly and e-mailed you thanks to timing chips. This was not a New England event, the race course went deep into the forest. Marking the course for this event must have taken hours if not days. Shuttling volunteers to work the aid stations in the middle of nowhere took hardworking individuals and extreme coordination. The City of Prescott and its Police department did an amazing job of shutting the down the town and directing traffic to keep the riders safe. I have never seen a city be so welcoming of a cycling event before.
It was also amazing to be wrapped up in a mountain bike festival for the weekend. Prescott Arizona is a beautiful place, with a fantastic network of trails however if you come from a larger city you may be left wanting a lot in terms of food and amenities. Am I itching to go back? Not exactly, however given the opportunity to go out and race the Whiskey again, I’d do it in a heart beat. This is the race that’s given a new perspective on what difficult is. A bunch of folks complained about the climbing at our local XC race in New Hampshire this weekend, but after the Whiskey I was happy with any climb that wasn’t 13 miles long.