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An epic ride for MTB race promoter Epic Rides

The Oz Trails Off-Road marks the Epic Rides series first event after a 19-month hiatus.

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After 19 months of COVID-induced close-calls and cancelations, this weekend Epic Rides is squeaking one of its signature races —  the Oz Trails Off-Road — into the 2021 season.

The event kicks off in Bentonville, Arkansas on Friday with the beloved Epic Rides format — pro and amateur bike races set against the backdrop of a weekend-long party. The XC MTB race promoter is introducing some changes at this year’s event in northwest Arkansas, and one important thing remains the same: Pro riders will duke it out for a $62,000 prize purse. The start line is stacked.

Also read: Finsty or Swenson? Nash or Grant? Riders to watch at Saturday’s Oz Trails Off-Road

For many riders, this year’s Oz Trails Off-Road is a bonus in a season that, while more robust than 2020, was still subject to the whims of the pandemic. For Epic Rides founder and director Todd Sadow, however, it’s been an epic ride to get there.

A 19-month hiatus

Until last weekend when it hosted the Tour of the White Mountains in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona, Epic Rides had seen all of its events go dormant since February 2020’s 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. Normally, stoke for Epic Rides’ other signature events — Whiskey, Grand Junction, Carson City, and Oz Trails Off-Roads —  follows 24HOP in close succession. Because of pandemic uncertainty in 2020, that didn’t happen.

So, Sadow had to make some difficult decisions. Cancel or postpone? Defer or refund? Like all race promoters, Sadow had to act in a timely manner rather than just sit and wait. With the gravity of the pandemic still weighing heavily into early 2021, canceling events became the only option.

The harder issue was what to do with riders’ money.

“We were sitting on registration fees and said ‘Hey look, we’ll give you a partial refund,'” Sadow told VeloNews. “We’d already spent upwards of a year getting ready for Whiskey [Off-Road]. We said, ‘Hey please let us keep your entry fees. On average 85 dollars. It was a reasonable request in my opinion. Most were OK with it, but a small percentage — 13 percent to be precise — said [expletive].”

As other marquee domestic bike races like Unbound Gravel and the Leadville series announced their 2020 cancelations with various refund options, Sadow’s ask became even more controversial.

“We were in a really awkward place, we’re not Life Time, not Ironman,” he said. “Sure, we’ve punched in their weight class, so everyone sees us as one of them. For Life Time to give everything back, no big deal. But if we give you your money back, this company is gone, and I’ve saddled my family with a lot of debt.”

After canceling the first four events of the 2021 season early in the year, Sadow had two races left to bank on — Oz Trails and early October’s Tour of the White Mountains. Even those felt like a crapshoot. Yet Sadow soldiered on and witnessed joy and gratitude at the Tour of the White Mountains. He hopes for a similar reception in Arkansas.

A new and improved Oz Trails Off-Road

Despite the challenges in merely holding this weekend’s Oz Trails Off-Road, Sadow has managed to remain true to one of Epic Rides core tenants: evolution.

“In putting on events, every year we’re building it,” he said. “It’s not a puzzle, these are the ten pieces, you put them in place and you have the events. Every year we have an event, you learn things, you learn the community and what they want and how to make it better.”

After the 2019 Oz Trails Off-Road, Sadow received feedback from participants that they wanted more opportunities to ride during the event weekend. Epic Rides races are largely destination events, with over half of registered riders traveling from out of town to participate. The events themselves are structured like a festival, opening with Friday’s fat tire crit followed by Saturday’s amateur races and Sunday’s pro race.

Sadow said that for many people who wanted to take in all of the action, there wasn’t enough time to hit the trails and just ride.

“We know that 80 percent are not there to race, they’re there to ride the trails,” he said.  “We kept hearing, ‘I wanna ride more,’ so we were trying to crack that nut on Sundays. We’ve also gotten feedback from pros that they want to race on Saturday. Finally, the stars aligned — ‘let’s do guided rides on Sunday.'”

This weekend’s backcountry racing will all occur on Saturday, with pro men starting at 7:15 a.m. and pro women starting five minutes after. Amateurs will take off at 8:00. Awards for everyone will take place on Saturday afternoon, followed by live music. 

On Sunday, a half dozen local organizations will lead nine group rides of varying lengths and difficulties. Anyone can sign up on the Epic Rides Facebook page

Despite the financial and emotional costs of bringing this year’s Oz Trails Off-Road to fruition this year, Sadow’s vision for the weekend remains clear.

“I’m looking forward to bringing the community together,” he said. “and looking forward to seeing everyone.”