A decade ago, Barry Wicks competed at the pinnacle of American off-road racing. Every summer he chased points at mountain bike World Cup events and in the National Mountain Bike Series; every autumn he raced alongside the
best cyclocross racers at the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross and world championships.
These days Wicks still races exclusively on dirt. His focus, however, has moved away from fast, multi-lap events toward the latest crop of off-road races: gravel races, enduro mountain bike events, and multi-day cross-country epics. Wicks believes these are the events that are currently driving the culture of American off-road racing. We caught up with him to help understand this world.
VeloNews: When looking at the wide swath of dirt races on the schedule, how do you choose which ones to do?
Barry Wicks: I’ve done World Cups and NORBAs and pretty much everything, and I’m at a point now where if I’m going to invest my time and energy I want it to be rad. The riding has to be really good and the race just needs to be fun. I’m not going to some park to race around in circles with nobody watching. I’d rather go camp in the forest and do a 100-mile gravel race. That’s what I’m looking for, and it seems like a lot of the other guys are looking for that. It has to be fun if you’re going to race bikes. And that’s where a lot of new events are really succeeding, like the Epic Rides series or the Sierra Triple Crown.
VN: The Epic Rides races (Whiskey Off-Road, Carson City Off-Road, Grand Junction Off-Road) now attract the country’s top pro riders. What is so attractive about the Epic Rides events?
BW: The first time I did the Whiskey Off-Road was six years ago. I had been hearing about it, that all of a sudden there was this rad 50-mile race in Arizona with a ton of prize money. The race does a great job with the media and its place on the calendar, and it just feels like the way we should be doing mountain-bike racing. There is a Fat Tire Crit for people to watch, and it’s a great format. That’s the whole reason I exist: to engage with spectators. It engages the community, and all of the people who are there. At other races you go to hang out and there’s nobody around, anywhere. At [Epic Rides] races there is this organized event to get people excited.
VN: What are the cultural differences that you see between the endurance mountain bike scene and gravel racing?
BW: They are pretty close. Both racing formats seem really accessible to people. The Lost and Found [Gravel Grinder] isn’t even billed as a race — it’s billed as a bike ride. It feels accessible compared to road racing, where you have to be a Cat. 5 to do this race or a Cat. 3 to do that race. It lowers the barrier to entry. At the same time, everyone at these races is racing. To me that’s been the biggest shift in racing over the last few years. These events are competitive but they are also non-competitive. It’s about coming out and doing a fun and awesome event because that is what is fun to do.
VN: These are competitive events, so people want to win. Do you ever come across tension with people bending the rules or being too competitive?
BW: Not too much. We’re in this golden age of this style of racing, and as riders we tend to take care of it ourselves. There’s always going to be some tension because people are competitive. Everyone who is racing at the front of these events has been racing a long time, and we can figure it out. Sometimes it’s not possible, and some type of ruling has to be made.
VN: What about when riders can’t find a way to settle things? There was the controversy last year at Dirty Kanza involving a rider who was disqualified for taking an illegal feed, for example.
BW: People are acting like Dirty Kanza is a World Cup and it’s not. It’s a gravel race in the middle of Kansas. So if you’re pissed that some dude took an illegal feed, then you shouldn’t be there racing. Get over it. It’s not the world championships. It’s a bike ride with your friends. If you start down that road, with making tons of new rules, then it takes the fun out of it. It erodes the goodwill and the good feeling, and it becomes too serious. Everyone needs to chill out. We’re not solving the world’s problems at Dirty Kanza; we’re riding bikes.
VN: Do you see yourself racing Dirty Kanza again anytime soon?
BW: I don’t think I’m going to go back ever. Once was enough for me. It’s a little too much. It’s cool but also not that cool. The vibe is fine, but it’s just a little weird to me. It’s this accomplishment type thing that appeals to Type-A personalities. That’s great. There are all types. But for me it just didn’t resonate. I just don’t relate to that as much as I relate to other types of events.
VN: So what’s on your Mount Rushmore of dirt races these days?
BW: I still have a really soft spot for the BC Bike Race, because that was my first big epic ride. I still recommend that, even though BCBR has become such a popular thing. It deserves to be on my list because the riding is so rad. Lost and Found has also made its way onto my list. It’s such a fun weekend and there is such a good vibe there. The Sierra Trails guys know how to put on a good event. Breck Epic will always be on my list because I think [promoter] Mike McCormack has the best idea with rules. The only two rules are: Don’t be a dick and don’t litter. Finally, the Grasshopper Adventure Series in Northern California is so fun. Everyone should do that. It’s the shit.