Why the Epic Rides MTB series is booming
Todd Sadow has a bold plan for the future of American cross-country mountain bike racing.
Sadow’s vision centers on attracting the world’s top male and female racers from around the globe to his Epic Rides race series. Lured by the largest cash purse in the sport, as well as a collection of international media attention and crowds, top professionals from the Europe-centered World Cup would line up next to American ultra-endurance racers, single-speeders, and athletes from across the broad spectrum of off-road racing. When the starting gun fired, these men and women would speed into the backcountry to battle on a 50-mile single-lap course that harkens back to the brutal, technical routes from mountain biking’s good old days.
Sadow obsesses over this vision, and has already ironed out the finer details: There would be eight races; a season that stretched from March through October; and a sponsorship portfolio that included the biggest brands in the sport.
“If you are a pro mountain biker — I don’t care if you live in Switzerland or South Africa — you come to America to be a professional mountain biker,” Sadow says. “That is the expectation I have for my series.”
It’s an ambitious goal, and one that directly challenges the sport’s longtime structure. It’s been 20 years since mountain biking’s heartland migrated from the United States to Europe, where each year the world’s top athletes battle on the UCI World Cup. Since then, the best racers have increasingly come from the Alpine countries of France, Switzerland, and Germany, and their collective focus has been squarely on the Olympic Games. Gone are the long, technical cross-country courses of mountain biking’s primordial days; in today’s cross-country world, the top athletes spin multiple laps on short, punchy, courses that cater to spectators and TV cameras.
Sadow is a dreamer, but he’s no fool. He understands the challenges facing his vision. He’s already taken major steps toward achieving his goal. More than a decade ago Sadow had a similarly audacious vision to unveil races that challenged the trends in American off-road racing. In 2004 he launched the Whiskey Off-Road race, which became the template for his other Epic Rides races. Today, the three races that compose the series — the Whiskey Off-Road, Grand Junction Off-Road, and Carson City Off-Road — stand at the pinnacle of American racing.
The series attracts thousands of participants. The country’s top professional riders also flock to the races to fight for a $100,000 prize purse split equally between both genders. The 2017 Whiskey Off-Road featured a tight battle between Olympians Sam Gaze of New Zealand and Howard Grotts of the United States, with Pan American champion Kate Courtney winning the women’s event.
That’s all music to Sadow’s ears. While he doesn’t expect his series to fulfill his vision overnight, he believes that steady growth will someday get him to the finish line.
“Mountain biking needed an overhaul,” Sadow says. “Now it feels like we’re poised for this really shiny future.”
A DECADE AGO THE U.S. professional mountain bike racing scene was in a tailspin. USA Cycling still operated its National Mountain Bike Series — successor to the famed NORBA series of the 1990s. However, each season the series saw its sponsor portfolio and professional participation decline. The NORBA series’ heyday of cash payouts and TV coverage on ESPN were long gone; by the mid 2000s the professional racing scene had dwindled to a handful of teams.
The Ford-sponsored women’s pro team folded in 2007; longtime professional outfit Trek-Volkswagen disbanded in 2009; and stalwart racing brands GT and Mongoose pulled back from team sponsorship.
Sadow saw an opportunity amid the chaos.
While the pro scene was crashing, amateur mountain bikers were seeking new challenges. Like other race promoters, Sadow set out to discover what these riders wanted in a mountain bike race.
Had mountain bikers grown tired of two-hour, multi-lap cross-country races? Did participants crave a longer distance, or a different format? Across the sport, race promoters launched single- and multi-day events that replaced multiple-lap courses with adventuresome riding. In 2006 promoters launched the National Ultra-Endurance Series of 100-mile races; the BC Bike Race started in 2007; the Gunnison Growler debuted in 2008; and Breck Epic held its first stage race in 2009.
Sadow held the popular 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo race, and 50- and 100-mile races in Prescott, Arizona. He believed the 50-mile event, dubbed the Whiskey Off-Road, held the secret to the sport’s future. It boasted both a 25- and 50-mile circuit, with both races including a single, backcountry lap.
A lifelong cyclist with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Sadow distributed marketing surveys to riders after each race. He saw a promising trend with finishers of the Whiskey’s two distances: The range in experience reached from newbies all the way to seasoned veterans.
“We saw people who had just been racing for a year or two,” Sadow says. “It was an entry point for the sport.”
The Whiskey Off-Road race was an experiment that blossomed into a success. Launched in 2004, the race doubled in participation in its first three years, attracting nearly 2,000 racers, including 104 in the pro field, by 2007. Sadow chose Prescott because the community showed up in droves to watch the race, and because the local trail system was a favorite amongst Arizona riders. Each year, Sadow tried to grow the event from a race into a festival. In year four, he added a rock band and beer garden. Then, he asked the fastest riders to participate in a fat-tire criterium around downtown. Participants and locals flocked to the events.
Gradually, word spread throughout the mountain bike community that the Whiskey Off-Road boasted a unique experience. The trails were fun, the racing was a challenge, and fans showed up to watch. Pro riders began to show up simply to race on the fun trails, and to engage with the amateurs. Sadow didn’t even offer a cash prize.
Sadow was friends with several pro riders, and saw an opportunity to create a new competition for the country’s top athletes. He put cash up for grabs, and began to reach out through his connections to bring even more pro riders to the races. They were amazed by what they saw.
“It felt like a big party,” says multiple-time national champion Todd Wells, who first participated in the event in 2012. “These are trails you’d ride for fun if you lived in town. Most people aren’t going to go race four laps of a NORBA course just for fun.”
BY 2012 SADOW WAS convinced that the Whiskey Off-Road format could be successful in other communities. He set out to find similarly sized host towns that were interested in holding a race. In 2014 he launched the Grand Junction Off-Road with a comparable weekend-long festival. After a tumultuous first year, which saw modest turnout due to an odd spot on the calendar, the race switched to an early May date and began to thrive. The 2016 event attracted 715 participants. So that year Sadow expanded again, adding a race in Carson City, Nevada.
The format that spurred the growth is simple in concept, yet challenging to execute. Epic Rides races are equal parts party and athletic event; the festival format funnels amateur and pro racers into a town’s center where they mingle with fans.
It’s a strategic plan: Sadow wants as many people as possible to congregate around local businesses and race sponsors.
The weekend kicks off on Friday night with a fat-tire criterium around downtown for the professional men and women. Fans show up to watch the race, where they’re served food and beer along the route. At the Grand Junction stop, title sponsor Bellco Credit Union even paid for fans to eat for free.
All pro riders are required to participate in the race; if they forego the event, they are handed a five-minute penalty for the 50-mile race. In the pre-race meeting with professionals, Sadow asks the riders to contribute to the entertainment. If they cannot race at the front, they should wave to the crowd, do wheelies, or give high fives.
“As a racer you get pumped up with that many people,” says Katerina Nash of the Clif Bar Pro team. “The community wants to see us race.”
The professionals are rewarded for their efforts. Sadow helps find host housing for those pros who lack major team support, and offers similar assistance to members of the media who show up to cover the athletes. He dedicates volunteers to distribute food and water to the top-20 male and female racers during the backcountry race. He even dedicates a staff person to work as a liaison with the elite racers throughout the weekend to help them with everything from mechanical problems to finding local grocery stores.
On Saturday morning the amateur racers congregate downtown for the start of the backcountry races. Each Epic Rides event features courses that are 15, 30, and 40-50 miles in length. When the riders return, they are greeted by another festival; this time Sadow has a lineup of bands to entertain finishers. The party rages long into the evening, with fans and locals alike staying to enjoy the headlining act.
On Sunday morning the professional men and women then stage downtown for their backcountry races. After three hours or so, they return to town, where fans are encouraged to show up for the finish. The focus on each town’s city center benefits local businesses as well as sponsors.
“You tend to have more time to interact with people because they come back every day,” says Sue George, who oversees marketing for the bike transport company Bikeflights.com, which sponsors the series. “It’s an environment where you can have conversations with customers to develop those personal connections that last longer than most marketing initiatives.”
After each event, Sadow provides a long list of metrics to his business partners, which he collects from post-race surveys. He charts each race’s overall participation and crowd size, along with media hits. He also surveys the participants, asking whether or not they use the products offered by sponsors.
According to Ashley Gross, community marketing manager for Bellco Credit Union, those metrics help justify the event sponsorship.
“[The sponsorship] supported a larger community event that was also an economic driver for Grand Junction,” she says. “Even if people weren’t riding they could still enjoy the event, the concert, food trucks, etc.”
MIDWAY THROUGH THE 2017 Carson City Off-Road, Katerina Nash felt her legs lose power. Fearing she might exert herself too hard on the 50-mile course, the four-time Olympian sagged back on the climbs as two riders pedaled away from her. She finished third but still managed to win the series overall, and admitted that the distance had delivered a serious challenge.
“Managing that pace over four hours is the challenge — I can push myself extremely hard for 45 minutes,” Nash says. “I go into these races with the plan of surviving.”
The pro riders who line up for the Epic Rides races repeat the sentiment. Racing a mountain bike across 50 miles of singletrack is hard work, especially when the pace gets faster each year. The effort lasts between three and five hours, depending on the course.
The distance and pace create a challenge for both mainstream cross-country racers and the endurance riders who target longer 100-mile events, like the Leadville Trail 100. Press the effort too hard too soon and you risk imploding in the middle of nowhere.
The series’ prize money — each race pays out $5,000 to the winner — and growth in national prominence has attracted the country’s cadre of young Olympic hopefuls. Howard Grotts, America’s sole male mountain biker at the Rio de Janeiro Games, won the Grand Junction round of the series this year, and finished a close second in Prescott. Sponsors gave Grotts the green light to tackle the entire series this year, since the Olympics are still three years away.
“It seemed like a good year to step back from the World Cup scene somewhat and go to a few races that I haven’t been able to in previous years because of scheduling conflicts,” Grotts says.
As to whether the series could become Grotts’s primary focus is yet to be seen. The three-hour effort is unlike anything Grotts sees on the World Cup, where races are often no longer than an hour and a half.
“The number of [cross-country events] and particularly the depth of the competition in Europe is more conducive to becoming a better cross-country racer,” Grotts says. “I don’t think racing a 50-mile race leaves you too fatigued, and it can complement training for a World Cup, but it doesn’t really prepare you for the race-specific demands of a World Cup.”
Beyond the difficulties of the races themselves, the scheduling conflict may prove to be the insurmountable hurdle for Sadow’s ambitions to attract the world’s best every year. But even if Olympians like Grotts only show up sparingly, the series has already won a regular corral of stars. In fact, it has become the go-to destination for North American riders who a decade ago targeted the World Cup and Olympics. Wells, Nash, and Geoff Kabush are regulars, alongside Carl Decker and Barry Wicks.
Without the Epic Rides events, these riders may have retired years ago.
“As the [Epic Rides] events have grown into the premier races, it’s been perfect timing as I’m transitioning away from the World Cup,” Kabush says. “It’s the kind of races I want to do, and it’s what the sponsors want to buy into.”
Winning over domestic professionals marks a huge step forward for Sadow and the series. After all, when it started, the Whiskey Off-Road was an oddball race through the Arizona backcountry. Today, it’s one of the most important events in the country.
That perspective is what keeps Sadow striving to fulfill his vision. He understands his ultimate goal of reshaping global off-road racing is still years away. He will need to add events to his series — a fourth Epic Rides event will likely launch in 2018 at a yet-to-be announced location. Sadow will need to attract more industry sponsors to increase the prize purse. He will need to create a media platform in order to woo the top riders to his events. And he will need to craft a competition calendar that allows elite riders like Grotts to balance their ambitions.
It’s a tough task. Sadow says he isn’t worried.
“We’re picking up mountain biking and dusting it off,” Sadow says. “Racers want this. The industry wants this. We’re onto something.”