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.



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.

The Whiskey 50

Prescott is somewhere worth visiting. I feel so lucky to travel around the US wearing my Red Ace kit, seeing sights and sounds that most people will never experience. The Whiskey 50, in Prescott, is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I have another post to write about the town and the experience, but I needed to write the race down, too.

A freak storm crossed the open Sonora desert on Saturday, stunning everyone. I watched the snow settle on the red dirt from the comfort of the house,  happy I had 24 hours until go time. I didn’t need to suffer – I didn’t want or need to battle the the conditions the amateur race dealt with. Call me soft if you want.

The start line. Everyone was looking at Sauser (the guy in the stripy jersey on the right).
I lined up a couple of rows off the front of the grid, the rainbow stripes of World Champ Christoph Sauser just in front of me. Such a superstar of cycling removed all the burden from my shoulders – I wasn’t here with expectations. All the eyes were on him. No-one expects me to do well, as most people still don’t know who I am. Confidence surged on this realisation.

Like in 2012, the race started gently. I sat in the centre of the pack, protected on all sides. People posed for the cameras at the front; they wouldn’t be the ones fighting for positions at the end. The tarmac’d road rose steeply to meet the dirt. The jostling for position was intense but I was at ease; I slotted into the singletrack behind my teammate Sam. The familiarity of his riding relaxed me; we rode to the rhythm of the smooth and tacky trail ahead.

Descending the ripping fast trail before the first real climb

We started the steep singletrack climb onto the ridge. Riders concertina’d back and forth, the gaps stretching and coming back together. I had time to eat and drink, taking down half a bottle before I’d even started working hard. The hard-earned gravity pulled us back into the ponderosa and scrub oak lined valley; 2000 feet of elevation to be rid of. The turns had been sculpted smooth by yesterday’s rain. No effort was needed to navigate at warp speed. My bike effortlessly did what I told it to as I followed Sam and Ben Sonntag downwards.

The descent threw us onto a wide and rolling dirt road – 12 minutes of grinding. I sucked down a gel. Yuk. This is where the race should have started happening. Our train of riders had let a group off the front. I wasn’t sure how many were up there, but slowly the chase started. The pace picked up. We rounded the final steep corners to the first aid station, friendly volunteers waving bottles in our faces. I grabbed some water, then sucked down a gel. Yuk.

Nine miles of downhill on loose gravel road. The small washes where infrequent desert storms run across the road were damp. We cruised down the road, bullets of gravel thrown from tyres stung at my face. The group swelled. We rode slowly, no-one wanting to pull along a huge group. The tactics had changed. Riders who had chased hard to get into the group now dwelled, not sure what to do. I started eating. I managed to go through a whole packet of Clif Bar chews, 200 calories of processed sugar. We cruised into the feed zone en masse. The U-turn at the bottom gave me a chance to see Mrs. York, Deidre’s Mum. She had her work cut out. With 40 riders coming through all at once, she had to find three of us and hand us the right bottles. I got mine smoothly and was on my way.

The feed zone was chaos. 40 people trying to grab bottles without slowing down. I went to the front to stay safe.
We were half way through the race and the race hadn’t even started. I went to the front of the pack and turned the pace on a little, helped out by Rotem Ishay from Jamis and Spencer Paxson from Kona. I was wary of doing too much work on the front; wary of people tucked away keeping their powder dry. As the gradient kicked up, I closed every gap that appeared. No one attacked, but the pace ramped up. I finally looked back at the feed station two-thirds of the way up the climb; We had dropped all but five people.

The Skull Valley Climb. This is where is started to get hard

I sucked down a gel. Yuk. Barry Wicks set the pace  to the top of the climb, where we dived into singletrack. I upped the tempo just before the trail narrowed, but somehow still managed to be the last one into the woods. I sucked down my final gel on the top of the smooth trail. Yuk. We battled on the top of cramp hill, legs resisting each pedal stroke, each rider elbowing out the rest to get a better position for the last DH. I still got relegated to last onto the trail. I need to work on that.

The final sprint. I really need to learn how to sprint!

The finale: two miles of downhill road to the finish. I was accompanied by two team Kona riders, two from team Jamis, and a lone Scott rider who none of us knew. My brain hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurt. We rounded a corner that lead into an uphill with a minute left, I had nothing left, but I laid it all down, getting a small gap. I thought it would hold, until someone else attacked behind me. We were all together with one corner left. 35 mph on mountain bikes. The sprint was a mess. Bars been thrown side to side. It was slow motion. I came across the line 3rd of five in the sprint. 11th place. Mission accomplished.

Prescott diaries

We look across at each other – its now official, I’ve set the record. Never before have I pushed my endurance this far, and I’m sure this is a new experience for Jason, too. It started just after Noon, and now the sun is arching its way towards the pine clad hills in the distance. I take another sip of coffee, I can’t believe I’ve been sitting in the same cafe for five whole hours.

The Whiskey 50 provided me with some unique challenges; what do you do in a riding mecca when you’ve already done all the riding that you can do before race day? How can you take in the beauty of the town that is Prescott without being on your feet and wasting energy?

We chose a combination of caffeinating, chocolate cake consumption and people watching. Along with exhausting the outer limits of the interwebs to stay occupied. It was certainly a challenge of endurance.

The Whiskey 50 is an event, not a race. To view it as the time between the start and the finish of competition would be to miss 90% of proceedings.

For me, the event started with leaving Boulder on Thursday morning. Although the Interstate highways of the western US pass through some amazing countryside, they really do not do it justice, and 80 mph fatigue can set in really quickly. Instead of wander what is on the other side of the cliffs, canyons and hillsides, the passing scenery becomes a blur of desolations and beige colours. The weather on the drive did not help – waves of red sand being blown at force across the road and dancing in patterns I normally only see during ski season. It was a bleak and windy journey, but I had to remember the beauty of those places when viewed outside of the car.

Things improved greatly when Blake suggested a diversion; potentially quicker but potentially getting us lost in a sparse square of Arizona. We turned off I-40 and into the ‘town’ of Winslow, past the people walking slowly down the derelict streets, and out the other side. The question of ‘”what do people do for employment in Winslow?” was answered when we drove right by the Winslow correctional facility; a sprawl of barbed wire and low slung, flat roofed buildings. We drove out into the desert, and slowly it transformed into trees, and from small trees into big trees that eventually turned into a beautiful pine forest. As we climbed and gained the ridgeline, we drove 2 hours through the green and lush Sitgreaves national forest.

I was surprised. My only previous experiences in Arizona have been the Cholla of Tucson and the dry Grandeur of the Grand Canyon. This was different and new, and more like the descriptions I had been given of the Prescott area. We dropped into Camp Verde and made the short haul to Prescott on some busier roads. As we drove up through the valley with the sun setting, the shape of the rolling hills belying the trails that must snake through them.

Riding bikes on a budget of approximately zero dollars also provides some challenges, including the dirtbag scrounging involved when you drive 900 miles across the country with only a vague idea of where you’ll be spending the night. The Jamis factory team gave up some floor space for our tired bodies on day one, and some hospitality of the highest order from Ben Jones, a friend of a friend, allowed us a bed on days two and three.

With the drive out of the way, and an eight hour sleep to refresh, we awoke on Friday to take in the view across Prescott Valley, and a date with a course pre-ride. After much breakfasting, we finally pull ourselves out of the house and into town. We’re soon pedalling our way through spread out neighbourhoods of large houses interspersed with pine trees that would dwarf anything in Colorado. The trail starts and I realise the Whiskey is a real mountain bike race.

The beginning trail is fun, and I soon turn off my ‘pre-ride’ brain and firmly engage in ‘riding’ and eventually ‘trail-riding’. The trio of Jami (not sure the collective noun for Jamis riders) bring me back to the task at hand and soon we find ourselves sprinting the last 5 miles into town for the mandatory riders meeting.

This is where it begins to hit me. This race is big. The town theatre has been converted to briefing station, and the 200 or so gathered pro’s sit in awed silence as we’re told about the accommodations the town has gone to for our racing. I’m amazed by every little detail that’s been thought out. I’m amazed that the whole town is willing to shut down for three days to allow bike racing. I suddenly realise that maybe I’ve been in Boulder too long, when I assume that anyone who doesn’t ride bikes hates bikes. It turns out that down here in Prescott, there are people who don’t pedal, but LIKE CYCLISTS. Is that such a crazy notion after all?

Somehow it gets to 3pm before I know about it, and its time to think about the Crit. Its being touted as a ‘Fat Tire Crit’ which is seeming more and more perverse as I see everyone else around me fitting the skinniest tyres they can to their Mountain Bikes. As I pedal around the town pretending to warm up (My legs were tired and I’d just eaten a pound of pasta…) the crowds grow – The last half of the women’s race sees deep crowds around the entire three-quarter mile circuit, and by the time Bruce Dickinson on the microphone has wound up the crowd for our race, the atmosphere is charged. Jason and I had managed to slip on the front row and get a few good photos out of the deal, but as soon as the gun (Shotgun, obviously, this is the wild west) went off, the idea of being in the lead pack died rapidly.

A narrowing of the course and a 22% hill brought me to my senses, and I sat up as people flew by me. With each lap lasting just over a minute, I knew I would have plenty of time for the lactic to accumulate without encouraging it. As the laps drew on, and the crowd went from polite cheering to heckling, and finally beer feeding, I worked my way through the field until I could see the leaders again. Progress. Short lived progress. With three laps to go and no chance of being pulled, I eased back and spun around the course, narrowly avoiding being lapped as the leaders screamed through to the finish.

A wilfully inadequate warm down was followed by a hastily consumed burrito and then quickly to bed. As I lay there with calves twitching, I was dreading waking up to sore legs and lots more energy expenditure on the Saturday ‘off day’.

It wasn’t as expected. Jason and I were on the same page with pace of movement, and we slowly made our way to a coffee shop for some breakfast. Reading the newspaper and watching the stream of lycra’d and leg shaved people coming in and out, I wondered to myself what it must be like for the people who live here. Their little corner cafe swarming with high energy and strangely dressed people. A town with almost no through traffic seeing thousands of bicycle-adorned cars lining the streets.

We finally dragged ourselves away from caffeine and newsprint and went for a ride. We found a trail map and solicited some advice on where to stretch our legs – a strict criteria of an hour and a half ride time and not too much climbing.

With advice in hand, we blindly ignored it and headed for the longest blue squiggle on the map.

Prescott sits in a bowl, and the ridge is riddled with trails. The one we found, known to us only as 9415, looked freshly cut and unused since the last rain. It was a blast. A 5 mile, 2000 feet descent of a blast.

A check in the box for bike ride, next was calorie hunting.

So now here we are after sitting in the Wild Iris cafe for 5 hours. It turned out to be the local cool kids hang out, probably attracted by the same combination of free internet and comfy chairs as we were. The day was a success, and although it was hard to stop pedalling and relax, I was feeling rested and calm – where did those race nerves go?!

Dinner was an experience. As with any mountain bike race anywhere in the US, most of the Boulder crew can be found in town. We met up with Brandon, Ben, Amy and Brett for an Italian experience at ‘Rosie’s’, most likely served by Rosie herself. After eating a massive slice of chocolate cake at 3pm, I wasn’t overly hungry and chose lasagne to fill the small gap. Good choice, as I went to bed feeling great – sleepy but not aching and nothing to distract myself from racing.

After reading this far, I’m sure no one is interested about the details of my race. There are more important things to pick out anyway. Like why a thousand people had also woken up at 8am to watch us start… or why the geriatric police crew lining the roads, however well intentioned, were so terrible at separating competitors from traffic.

Once we were out of town, the race was on. The road gave way to single-track, and the single-track gave way to steeper single-track. I had one thought running through my mind the entire time: DONT TURN YOUR BRAIN OFF. It worked. I didn’t make any silly passes or expend any energy chasing back onto the fractions of groups. Panic struck as I realised the spray coming off my front tyre wasn’t from the trail but from the Stan’s sealant spewing everywhere. I just kept riding – It sealed, I breathed deep and pedalled some more.

The famous 16 mile climb from skull valley was about as horrendous as everyone had warned me, but I made progress – perhaps not on the leaders who put a good 3 minutes into me on that section – but the people that mattered were going backwards as I was going forwards.

The race finished better than I could have imagined – after passing a lot of people in the final stages of the climb, I held on and pedalled through some cramp to finish 13th. I had set a rough goal of Top 20 and 3:10 for the time. 7 places and 7 minutes up was a great way to finish the weekend.

Although, the weekend wasn’t really over… we regrouped, piled into the gas-mobile and headed off for a shower. It was difficult to get the motivation to get on the road, especially with the temperatures approaching 80 degrees and a constant sweat appearing after every movement. As we settled into the drive, though, it went ok. We took shifts, I tried to sleep, tried to take in the buzzing scenery that I hadn’t seen on the way out, all that land that was now bathed in a golden evening sun.

We stopped at McDonalds. I didn’t enjoy it, but at 11pm on a Sunday, in Santa Fe New Mexico, there really wasn’t much choice. I spilled Mcflurry all over myself in the process of eating and driving.

We got back to Boulder at 4:30am on Monday morning, a solid 4.5 hours before work. I slept really well.