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Photo: Dave McElwaine

Whiskey Off-Road’s added singletrack promises longer, harder race

Less of the Skull Valley climb might actually make Whiskey Off-Road harder, and with some pros focused on the Olympics, Sunday's race should be unpredictable.

Some feared it, others flew up it.

Regardless of how riders felt about the Whiskey Off-Road’s seemingly endless Skull Valley climb — a painful and exposed out-and-back section of fire road — the long climb helped define the Epic Rides’s iconic race, which again sends riders racing out of Prescott, Arizona this weekend.

For this year, organizers have given Skull Valley a trim, and have removed the lower section of fire road in favor of more singletrack at the end of the 48-mile route.

Top pro riders are still trying to determine whether the new course makes the Whiskey more or less painful. Some riders said the new section may make the race even harder.

“Skull Valley and Cramp Hill are the least of your problems,” says Sofia Gomez Villafane (Pivot-Stan’s). Cramp Hill is a short but appropriately named kicker that comes after the course’s high point, at the end of the Skull Valley ascent. “Attacks will go on Skull Valley or Cramp Hill, but if you crack, you still have a long way to go. It’s a lot harder I think, both physically and mentally.”

Gomez Villafane, the Argentine national cross-country champion, is part of a deep women’s field that is headlined by 2017 Whiskey Off-Road winner Kate Courtney (Scott-SRAM), who is also the reigning world cross-country mountain bike champion. Although Courtney is a top favorite in every race she enters, she says that this year, the Olympic chase and World Cup races take priority.

“I love going to the Whiskey. The atmosphere is really special, the course is really fun, a longer race, a great day of training,” Courtney said. “For me, this is one of my kind of picks for a race to train through. It’s not a priority but it definitely serves a purpose in the build to the World Cups and helps me top off my base fitness before we race the most important XC races of the season.”

Courtney named Erin Huck (CZ Racing) as a top favorite to win Sunday’s race. Huck was second at the Sea Otter Classic XC Olympic race earlier this month and is clearly on top form. But she too is keen to make the Tokyo Olympic team. That could open the door for someone like 2015 winner Chloe Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s), who lives in Prescott.

“It’s Chloe’s home course, and she knows it like the back of hand and races real strong in front of the home crowd,” Courtney said. “We have so many strong women it’ll be a big group for some of the race.”

Geoff Kabush (Yeti) has experienced the tricky balance between Olympic dreams and the lure of major events like the Epic Rides series, which attracts 2,100 mountain bikers to Arizona each April to see the pros and race the same course themselves on the day before. He’s raced three Olympics: 2000, 2008, and 2012. In his final appearance at the London Games, he finished eighth. Nowadays, he is more focused on races like Whiskey Off-Road, BC Bike Race, and the occasional enduro event.

Kabush said the upcoming Olympics may give him an opportunity to win the Epic Rides races, since Olympic hopefuls such as Keegan Swenson and Howard Grotts will likely prioritize the shorter cross-country races over the long backcountry events.

“That’s what’s really tough these days is balancing the Olympic goals, and the highest profile races in North America are not UCI points races,” Kabush said. “It’s definitely a challenge for athletes on North American teams to balance the marketing goals of companies supporting them.”

Kabush pointed to Swenson, the defending champion, as one of the top favorites for Sunday. Swenson likes how the new course will make for a harder day of racing, maybe 15 minutes longer than in years past, according to his estimates.

“It’s definitely more singletrack at the end which is pretty cool,” Swenson said. “I think it’s going to make the race more interesting. Normally it comes down to Skull Valley for the most part. The race is not over at the top of the climb. There’s a couple more climbs at the end — one or two more little ‘cramp hills.'”

He has a few favorites in mind, such as Fernando Riveros (CZ Racing) and Russell Finsterwald (Clif Pro Team). Unlike a lot of the marquee names on the start list, Finsterwald is focused on racing the entire Epic Rides series, not World Cups.

“Over the last couple of years, Epic Rides has gained quite a bit of traction here in the U.S.,” Finsterwald said, noting that his Clif Bar team had prioritized the four-race marathon mountain bike series. “Being able to win the series overall shows you’re a consistent racer, and I’d love to be able to say I won the overall.”

Despite differing schedules, across the board, pro riders agree that the course change will make for more fun on Sunday, and regardless of their racing priorities, few would miss the Epic Rides Off-Road Series kickoff in Prescott.

“I think they can skip the whole thing of Skull Valley if it was up to me,” said Katerina Nash (Clif Pro Team). “I’m excited for more trails. I just like riding trails rather than climbing fire roads — that’s tough both physically and mentally sometimes for me.

“It’s becoming that classic race — people go from Sea Otter to Whiskey; it’s neat to see.”