Whiskey Offroad: So that’s what it feels like to ride smoothly for three hours.

I’ve been nervous about my form this year. It’s not something that normally bothers me – I’ll line up, race and finish where I finish. But there’s been a resurgence in US mountain biking recently. People are getting fast. The combination of the first generation of High School MTB racers aging into the Elite ranks, plus the rest of the mtb community turning its focus onto the races I’ve traditionally done well at, has had me scared that I’m going to be out of my depth in the fields I’ve normally excelled in. After a disappointing DNF at the Sea Otter last weekend, I didn’t get that “first race” out my system, and instead came into the Whiskey with some apprehension.

The Whiskey 50 has grown a lot since I first did it in 2012, but I ended the weekend in the same place: 13th in the pro race. Between that 13th place and this year’s 13th place, the Whiskey has changed dramatically. From being a regionally recognised race, it’s grown to being without argument the strongest marathon field in the country, and probably the strongest marathon race in the world away from the big championship races. For me, it seems like I’ve kept pace with it’s growth, and I set my sights for the weekend the same as I did back in 2012: I would have been happy with a top 20. But really, there was a more important but boring goal: I just wanted to finish smoothly. A clean, no mistakes race. I kept that front and centre all weekend, through the criterium and the main event, and the constant reminder to be patient and careful really paid off.

The Crit: Friday’s spectator spectacular went off in usual fashion. I managed to accidentally get a front row line up, and followed Levi Kurlander through the first corner, then got to the top of the famed Union Street climb first on the opening lap. No other reason than, why not? It was entertaining to be at the front, but I quickly backed off and found a more sensible group to race around in. I upped my cadence a lot and relaxed, enjoying watching the crowds get drunker and drunker on each lap past the hill. I finished at the back of a chase group, happy to have survived without major incident.

Bike set up: Epic Rides states you have to run the same bike for Friday’s crit as the main event on Sunday (great rule!). So I rode the Spark 900 RC SL. I didn’t bother putting slick tyres on the bike, as I wasn’t that invested in the result. I ran my normal IKON 2.2 tyres pumped to 35 psi (the most I’d risk putting in a modern tubeless MTB tyre).

The main event: I did an abbreviated warm up, still feeling fatigue from Friday’s crit and Saturday’s pre-ride. I got to the line early and found a warm sunny spot to watch as the field filled in around me. The course had changed since the last time I did the race, giving the pack much more room to spread out before the singletrack. I liked the new start, and liked that the immediate up hill limited the amount of time I spent being freezing cold before the racing got underway. I surfed the back of the field as everyone jostled for position around me, and then picked the right time to move up before we got to the dirt road section. I played the beginning of the race well, and found myself in around 30th place. Here was the hard part: once you’d found that position, the first section of singletrack locked you into a conga line of riders. No point wasting energy or stress on trying risky passes. Although I was being held up by a couple of people, I had to just calm down and be patient. It worked out quite well, and by the first open climb (about 5 miles into the race) I had space around me to get on with the racing. I found myself alone after about 45 minutes of racing, with a small group ahead of me (Todd Wells, Finsterwald, Ettinger) and a big group behind me (Payson McElveen, Christoph Sauser (!!!), Taylor Lideen and plenty more).

I wasn’t feeling good enough to attempt a bridge up to the next group, so instead settled into a rhythm, knowing that the bigger group behind me would swallow me up on the way down to Skull Valley. That’s exactly what happened. I got to the bottom of the long climb with sensations starting to come around. I’d had unusual stomach issues at the beginning of the race: a bit of cramping and nausea that I’ve experienced perhaps only twice before. I switched to drinking just water quite early in the day, and I think that helped clear my stomach. Skull Valley is a long climb. 12 miles and 2700 feet of climbing (that’s 19km and 820m). Payson and Christoph Sauser were doing a lot of work on the front, and I really wasn’t ready to commit my matches to pulling everyone around just yet. I stoically ignored Payson’s requests for me to pull through, and I didn’t realise he was taking those signal to mean I was cracking. But either way, it worked, and I happily sat in the group for a while as we started the climb. I came to the front of the group about half way up, and knew I needed to inject some pace if I was going to separate myself. Through the feed zone I put in a little pace and got a gap, only pulling Payson with me. We caught Finsterwald towards the top of the climb, and at that point I thought we’d ride together until the finish. I was feeling good though, so went to the front again and got some separation. Knowing how good both of those guys are on the way down, I wanted to stay ahead into the singletrack and hope to hold them up a little. That didn’t happen, and instead I gained a bit more time, and eventually caught Spencer Paxson on the last descent. We crossed the last (and famous) creek crossing together and revelled in the huge crowds dotted through the forest. I was pretty spent at that point, and the thought of a sprint finish filled me with dread. Paxson willingly did most of the work into town, and hammered up the final climb. I was prepared to duke it out, but he seemed unwilling to sprint, so I went to the line solo for 13th place.

Bike notes: Scott Spark full suspension. 55 psi front, 130 psi rear. Tires: Maxxis IKON 2.2 with 20.5 psi front, 21 psi rear.

Nutrition notes: 2 bottles of Kiwi lime carborocket drink mix, 4 bottles of water, 6 honey stinger fruit gels, 1 packet of honey stinger chews.

Clothing notes: This is the first year I have a thin “summer weight” jersey. In previous years I’ve raced in a thick, black jersey, and the difference is huge! I felt so much more comfortable today than any other time I’ve been out in the heat like that.

Mission accomplished. I raced smooth and patiently. I was conservative on the downhills, and lost a few places there, but got them all back by the end. I proved I’m in the shape I need to do for both more Epic Rides events (Grand Junction in May and Carson City in June), and some World Cups (details TBD, but hopefully Andorra and Lenzerheide). More importantly, I got to see that the Mountain Bike community is alive and well, and filled with very fast young racers that will be beating me handedly in the near future! That’s what it’s all about!

 

 

The Whiskey Off road – 2015 edition.

 

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Another year in the high desert of central Arizona to really kick-start the mountain bike season. I’ve told everyone in the last few weeks that it’s a nice time of year to come down to the desert – that starting the season among the cacti is a good introduction to the new year. But the truth is that the high desert surrounding Prescott is anything but forgiving. The arid hills get little moisture, except in the spring. Last year we dealt with unlikely snow, but this year the weather wasn’t that far from normal for the region; on and off thunderstorms for three days straight. The crushed granite hills take the moisture well, though, and we rode some amazing under threatening skies.

Continue reading The Whiskey Off road – 2015 edition.

Prescott, Arizona.

I collected up most of my friends and went to the Whiskey 50 last weekend. Prescott, Arizona is located half-way between Phoenix and Flagstaff, tucked into the northern edge of the Bradshaw Mountains. A high desert outcrop of hills covered in Conifers and scrub oak trees. They stick out from the Sonoran Desert, a strange bump on the cactus riddled plains of Arizona. As you drive north from the disgusting sprawl of Phoenix, you’re released into a huge valley, with the chain of mountains running along the western edge. You wind between towering Cardón cacti, climbing from the desert floor to 5500 feet, 1600 metres.

Prescott was the territorial capital of Arizona in the 1870’s. The huge town hall in the middle of the square is a reminder to its grand origins. It’s now home to a mix of bars and restaurants in the compact downtown, a big old theatre, and huge desert-style houses spreading out in the foothills in every direction.

The view from our house above Prescott

We’d rented a big house in the hills to fit our 12 friends into. We wound our way up the driveway in the dark on Thursday night, wondering where on earth we were going. To wake on Friday to the expansive views was exactly the introduction to the weekend I needed. The wind whistled gently against the gargantuan conifers, the warm sun filled me with energy to ride.

Friday was a packed day. In the morning we checked in with team sponsor Carborocket, who was one of the first companies to get set up at the expo. Brad from Carborocket looked after us really well; handing out recovery drink after the crit, and giving us ice cold water after the main event. I wanted to ride as much trail as possible on Friday – I wanted to remember the ins and outs of the course. My memory had shortened every aspect of the course. I had to go back and put the details in place. We rode for two hours in the morning, arriving at the Elks theatre in time for the riders meeting at lunch.

The fat tire 'crit' around downtown Prescott. Thumb Butte in the background

Friday afternoon was the “Fat Tyre Crit”. A spectacle for the locals, something for the amatuer racers to watch. A 50 mile race doesn’t lend itself well to spectating, so this is the organisers way of making Mountain Biking a little more accessible. We started in the town square, riding a two-minute loop up a steep hill, then careening back down to do it again. For 30 minutes. I metered my efforts from the gun, choosing to avoid the chaos of the lead group, and settle into a nice rhythm. It paid off, as I moved through the field, never getting out the saddle, never digging into those precious reserves. It’s great to race around with so many people cheering you on. It makes me feel like my extravagant past-time of bike racing is actually worth something.

Bike prep before the big show on Sunday

Saturday morning. I’d prepared for some bad weather. I’m pretty certain that Bryan spends all of his free time browsing the NOAA weather website; he’d told me to expect rain, and I’d packed accordingly. I wasn’t expecting the weather we woke up to, though. As we surfaced inside our warm mountain house, the driving rain was pushed down the valley by a vicious wind. The town below was obscured by clouds, and rather than warming as the day progressed, the rain turned white. Through hail, sleet and finally an inch of snow, we waited inside, knowing the mass participation amateur race was supposed to be going on. To give you an idea of what it was like for them, read Kate Ginsbach’s report of her trials in the forest.

The snow came and went within hours. A bad dream for anyone trying to race on Saturday
The irony of snow in the desert; by 2pm the sun was out. The temperature had climbed from -2*c to 15*c. The wind was still high, but it had wiped the snow right off the ground, leaving behind dry, tacky dirt. This is the kind of things mountain bikers get excited about – good dirt. Hero dirt. Grippy and smooth and sculpted by the rain. We headed out to ride for a little bit in the afternoon. Spin the aches and hydrogen ions out of the legs from the criterium the day before. We found a piece of singletrack at our front door, and proceeded to ride a couple of laps up and down until we were forced to pull ourselves away, to save the energy for the big deal tomorrow.

Sunset over the Bradshaw Mountains in the Sonoran Desert

A house of professional cyclists eats a lot of food. It’s difficult to plan for three days of meals – it gets expensive to go to the supermarket everyday without having huge amounts of left overs. We tried our best to avoid waste, but it happened anyway. We were really lucky that Deidre’s Mum Lorraine came down to help us. She just quietly got along doing all the things no-one else wanted to. Such a stress reliever.

My race report from the Whiskey is here. Read it at your own peril. I’m yet to master the art of writing about races without including all the details. Everything went so smoothly on Sunday that I don’t even know what to write about. Perfect temperature to race in, no stress or hassle at any point, and coming home with a cheque for $500. We piled into the minivan after the race. Every position I tried to hold was uncomfortable. I drifted into a dazed sleep as we cruised back toward Phoenix. I’m so happy I wasn’t driving home. These interludes of racing squeezed into normal life are surreal. I was sitting in the office on Monday morning surrounded by colleagues who have no idea what my weekends entail. It’s kind of nice to have that alter ego.