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Following up his win in Friday’s fat tire crit around Prescott Arizona, Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s) took a convincing victory in Sunday’s 48-mile backcountry race at the Whiskey Off-Road. Swenson also won the Whiskey Off-Road last year.
Russell Finsterwald (Clif Pro Team) was second, a distant six minutes back, and Georwill Perez (Trek Puerto Rico) finished third.
This year, race organizer Epic Rides changed the route for the Whiskey Off-Road, the first of four races in its marathon mountain bike event series, and also the oldest, in its 16th year. With more singletrack at the end and less out-and-back fireroad into Skull Valley, the racing was more aggressive, which suited Swenson.
“I like to ride my own race and not worry about what else is going,” he said. “If I can get off the front or ride with just Russell [Finsterwald], that is pretty nice. Just be able to keep it smooth and not worry about anyone else.”
The tactics definitely played out in Swenson’s favor as he, Finsterwald and Howard Grotts (Specialized) left the field behind after the high-speed, rocky downhill into Copper Basin, about 10 miles in. They crested the steep, dusty climb before the descent into Skull Valley, which this year was abbreviated to add more singletrack to the end of the route. On the way back up, climbing the fireroad they descended, Swenson turned the screws.
“Keegan was riding an awesome, hard pace up Skull Valley,” said Finsterwald. “I just knew if I went with that it was going to be the end of my day. I just rode my own pace up Skull Valley.”
Swenson reached the course’s high point, the Sierra Prieta overlook with about two minutes’ advantage on Finsterwald with 19 miles to go.
Behind, a battle was heating up for third place with Fernando Riveros (CZ Racing) driving the pace ahead of Perez, Grotts, and Kohei Yamamoto (Dream Seeker).
After that sunbaked five-mile climb out of Skull Valley, the racers descended a bit before the short, steep climb aptly named Cramp Hill. There, Swenson had a bit of trouble but pushed on. Even though his lead was multiplying he wasn’t entirely secure.
“I started to have some cramp twitches coming up Cramp Hill, a little bit, per usual,” he said. “I just felt them a little and downed some gels and that kind of went away. I heard the wind behind the trees — is that a rider, is that wind? I didn’t know what that is. For all I knew, Russell [Finsterwald] was 30 seconds back, I had no clue.”
In fact, by the time he’d reached the final 10 miles of new singletrack through Spence Basin, his lead had ballooned to five minutes. Though Finsterwald had paced himself conservatively, he admitted the trails were draining.
“All that twisty singletrack was super-hard, just trying to stay focused, just trying to hold your flow and make sure you were riding fast but riding smooth — and not wasting energy was key out there,” Finsterwald said.
“It’s harder in a different sense [than the old course]. Last year was more physically hard. This one is a lot of physical and mental, just staying focused at the end was pretty tough.”
The race of attrition was also underway in the group racing for third-place as former Whiskey Off-Road winner Grotts faded from the picture, eventually finishing 20th. Yamamoto also lost touch before the final 10 miles of racing but held strong to end up sixth.
Perez made his move on one last climb, about seven miles from the finish, completely surpassing his expectations for the day.
“I was trying to do a top-10, and third was super!” he said. “It’s a big result for me. I know well the course, but it’s a tough one; you never know how it’s going to go with the climbing, but I felt good. I really like more singletrack.”
Finsterwald also scored a career-best result with his second behind Swenson, and he too thought the new course suited him. After a few setbacks due to illness in the first few months of 2019, this was a confidence-booster.
“This was definitely a great ride, especially with the spring I’ve had, it’s nice to get a good result and hopefully build on that momentum.”
With his win, Swenson took the overall lead in the four-event Epic Rides series, but he’s not expected to race Grand Junction Off-Road, May 17-19. That leaves Finsterwald in the driver’s seat. However, this year’s series overall will be determined by points, not cumulative time. Plus, the final race in Bentonville, Arkansas, Oz Trails Off-Road, will be double points, opening up the possibility for a dominant rider like Swenson to miss a race but still factor into the series standings.
1. Keegan Swenson (Stans-Pivot), 03:12:29
2. Russell Finsterwald (Clif Pro Team), 03:18:46
3. Georwill Perez Roman (Trek Puerto Rico), 03:21:24
4. Ben Sonntag (Clif Pro Team), 03:21:32
5. Fernando Riveros (CZ Racing), 03:21:48
6. Kohei Yamamoto (Dream Seeker), 03:22:46
7. Stephan Davoust (Giant Factory), 03:22:46
8. Nic Beechan (Trek-Shimano), 03:23:07
9. Taylor Lideen (Pivot-Infinit), 03:23:45
10. Payson Mcelveen (Orange Seal), 03:26:38