The Nitty-Gritty: Racing the Whiskey Off-Road
Can the Whiskey Off-Road be both a throwback and the prototype for a modern, successful mountain bike race? The throngs of spectators and the 1,800 riders that participate in the amateur races make the feel like an event from mountain biking’s good old days. The fat-tire criterium and blend of music, food, and racing make the race feel like the future of off-road events. There’s a reason why the Arizona race has been around for 15 years. And, there’s no reason why it can’t carry on for another 15 years — or longer.
For starters, it’s inaccurate to call the Whiskey Off-Road just a “race.” Promoter Todd Sadow and his Epic Rides team have created a weekend-long extravaganza of all things off-road.
By midday Friday the Whiskey’s festivities were already underway. Vendors and teams set up their tents in downtown Prescott and pro riders prepared for the evening fat tire criterium, which speeds through downtown. There was also a kids ride and a 15-mile fun ride for beginner mountain bikers.
The criterium was the highlight of Friday night — a beer garden sat along the course’s start/finish, and the Whiskey Off-road’s pre-race briefing was strategically scheduled immediately after the event, to ensure that all participants turned out. Organizers patrolled the start/finish and fired swag into the crowd with those t-shirt cannons commonly seen at pro sports arenas. The men’s and women’s criteriums provided plenty of drama — it’s better to stand and watch the races than retreat to the hotel for some legs-up time.
The event’s beating heart is South Montezuma Avenue, a.k.a. “Whiskey Row” (now the race name makes sense, right?). The historic block burnt down in 1900 but was quickly rebuilt and his home to many classic — but not necessarily classy — establishments. The 50 Proof and 30 Proof (48 and 30 miles) races kick off on Whiskey Row, bright and early starting at 7:30 a.m. in five waves.
Those two routes cover a lot of the same ground, and arguably the 30-milers get the better end of the bargain. The 48-mile course includes a punishing out-and-back into Skull Valley that adds another 1,500 feet of climbing. Most of the singletrack is fast, rocky and loose. The course includes long sections of dirt roads and jeep trail.
The course utilizes some of the trails that have turned Prescott into a mountain biking destination. This trail network traces its roots in part to the Whiskey.
Two local riders, Robert Peoples and John Shoemaker, devised the original Whiskey course 15 years ago. They only had a small wedge of U.S. Forest Service land to use for the race, which attracted a few hundred participants. Since then, Shoemaker has found ways to improve the race course and add new trails, while still keeping some of the classic features, like Skull Valley. “It has driven mountain bikers to move here. And that was the goal all along,” Shoemaker said. “I knew what we had here and how special it was, and wanted to expose more mountain bikers to the town. We were a retirement destination and so we’re quickly becoming a mountain bike destination.”
“The Whiskey, that is the banner,” said Chris Hosking, Prescott’s trails coordinator. “Whenever we talk about building trails, we talk about economic development and bringing people into town. It’s the premier event for the outdoors.” Hosking coordinates more than 200 volunteers for the race. He estimates close to 150 miles of new trail has been built since the first Whiskey Off-Road.
The party rolled on after the racing with live music, a beer garden, and of course the pro races on Sunday, which attracted a surprising number of fans given how few vantage points there are on the long route.
Festivities aside, the Whiskey Off-Road is a serious race, and the attitude along the start line was predictably tense. When I lined up on Saturday I heard some idle chitchat as latecomers squeezed as close to the start line as they could — yep, typical bike race stuff. One racer even asked his girlfriend to set up a playlist on his iPhone for the ride. I don’ t think you’re supposed to race with headphones, but no one caused a stir.
The race started with a shotgun blast — a local group that reenacts the Wild West, called the Prescott Regulators, pulls the trigger each year.
Although a long, 48-mile day was ahead, my wave started fast — like cross-country race pace. We sped across five miles of pavement, which strung out the group, and led to an extended dirt road climb. By the time we reached the trail, bottlenecks were minimal.
Highs and lows
The early morning light was shining when we topped out at Trail 260, about eight miles in. The view down to Skull Valley was expansive. Better yet, after the intense climb to about 7,000 feet the fun, twisty, rocky singletrack descent was an ample payoff.
On the other end of the altitude/fun spectrum was the course’s low point in Skull Valley, which we hit after an 8.65-mile descent on dirt road. It was disheartening to look up at the mountain and realize how much climbing remained at the race’s halfway point. A bonus low-point for me was the “Cramp Hill” bypass trail, which turned out to be just as bad for leg cramps.
With all of the fire roads on this route, the pro riders ride the 48-mile route in blistering time. Keegan Swenson won the men’s race just a few seconds under three hours. Three hours. That’s about 16.5mph average! Annika Langvad won the women’s race in about 3:30 — about 40 minutes quicker than me, but who’s counting!? The pros rode a slightly different course than the amateurs, and believe it or not, it is actually a bit slower for them.
As my small group started climbing out of Skull Valley into the crosswinds I got to talking with one of the other riders, a guy wearing a jersey from a Tucson club. Who knows how it came up, but it turns out he was just 17 years old and he was damn fast. That was the last time I talked to him that day after he left me behind.
The course has three official feed zones, but there were other rest stops in the Yavapai mountains. Sitting atop the massive climb from Skull Valley was an aid station distributing whiskey and bacon. I nailed the whiskey feed no problem (I think it was Fireball). Unfortunately, I botched the bacon grab.
Then, on one final, short climb before the long singletrack descent to town, a few very empathetic fans were distributing pickle juice. Coincidentally (or not?) that was right where I suffered one of my most debilitating cramping episodes. Did the brine work? It wasn’t a cure-all, but that encouragement and a bit of placebo effect helped me carry on.
As I mentioned before, Epic Rides makes entertainment priority. Cannondale sponsored a petting zoo for the kids that featured goats, bunnies, and chicken. There was also the beer garden, the expo, and plenty of other activities.
The centerpiece of post-race festivities is the rock concert, sponsored by Four Peaks Brewing Company. Local bands Sugar & The Mint started playing at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, and music raged into the night. In total, the concert featured five bands on the main stage with a variety of music ranging from rock to Americana to bluegrass to funk. The local craft brewer Four Peaks served a variety of beers for post-race hydration, of course.
Racers gathered on the shady grass park outside the Yavapai Court House to take in the music. We riders blended with Prescott locals, who also came out to enjoy the festival. The vibe was relaxed, legs were tired. And more than few people still had the energy to dance.