Prescott, Arizona’s distinctive rock outcropping, known as Thumb Butte, is the first thing the sun touches, around 5:45 in the morning in late-April. Three and a half hours after I had my pre-race coffee at dawn, the morning of the Whiskey Off-Road, I was again looking up at this cliff castle, except I was on the wrong side of it, miles from the finish, with a flat tire and a tube that wouldn’t quite fit.
I had returned to this first round of the Epic Rides Series hopeful that I could redeem myself after last year, when leg cramps had me howling in pain on the side of the trail.
Things were more promising this time around. The course was significantly different, which I thought was in my favor. Instead of going all the way down into Skull Valley, turning a 180, and climbing the interminable fireroad back to the top, at Sierra Prieta Overlook, organizers added about 10 miles of singletrack to the end. Unfortunately, this is where I found myself stranded in the midday desert heat, but more on that in a second.
What’s notable is that these new trails through Spence Basin (cool name, right?) are, in part, thanks to the Whiskey Off-Road. The Prescott Mountain Bike Association (PMBA) started meeting with the U.S. Forest Service nearly 10 years ago to plan out trails in the area northwest of town. Over the past two years, Epic Rides raised money through its Hail the Trail fundraiser at Whiskey Off-Road to support PMBA, the Over the Hill Gang trails group, and volunteers in their plans to build 30 miles of new trail.
The end result is a wealth of riding options in Spence Basin that have transformed the race route.
Let’s face it though, this is still the Whiskey Off-Road. We still had to climb about five miles from midway down Skull Valley. We still had to take on the nasty, steep Cramp Hill a little thereafter. I was nervous.
So, I devoted myself to hydrating even better than before with ample electrolytes the day before and the morning of the race. Well, as is always the case, if you have to use the bathroom a few times before the start, you end up toward the back of the group. Right off the bat, I was trying to make my way up in the group, nearly taking myself out by clipping a temporary road closure sign.
Thankfully, I was okay, and I settled into a steady pace up the first technical climb on the Moby trail and the fast descent into Copper Basin. Down into Skull Valley and back up, I realized I was feeling good and the pace was no problem. This year, I’ve been equipped with a Canyon Lux bike, which is great for this type of marathon cross-country race. I locked out the front and rear suspension and spun my way up to Sierra Prieta as if I was on a gravel bike.
Still wary of Cramp Hill, I took a swig from a little bottle of pickle juice I had in my pocket as we rode a flat, smooth trail into the base of the little kicker. Again, I was amazed at how the legs were responding. In part, I might attribute this to a more relaxed pace over the last five miles or so. Unfortunately, with the new race route, the timing was a little off, and our group of riders in the 50-mile race had to pass a number of people who had started later in the 30-mile event, that shared a lot of the same course. Race organizer Todd Sadow always says that passing in a race is like a dance — well this day it was a pretty frantic jitterbug.
Things thinned out in Spence Basin, and I kept on cruising. Maybe I let my guard down. Maybe I was feeling a bit cocky after a quick shot of whiskey from some trailside fans (how could I refuse?). Either way, coming around an innocuous corner, a sniper rock punched a hole in my rear tire.
Last year I flatted at the Grand Junction Off-Road, also in the midst of a great race. I’ll admit that was more a result of my reckless riding than anything. I also had a quick puncture at Oz Trails Off-Road, which fortunately was remedied by a quick plug and some air from my CO2.
I whipped out the tire plugs and popped one in. With a little air, maybe I wouldn’t lose much ground. But it didn’t hold. My other, larger tire plug? It got lost in the scramble to fix the puncture. What about a tube? I hurriedly pulled the tire off the bead, getting sealant all over. Then I realized the carbon rims on my Canyon were slightly too deep for this old-school spare tube. I should have checked.
Out of CO2, with a useless tube, I began to walk toward Thumb Butte. I wish I could say I was in its shadow, but it was instead the broiling 12 o’clock midday sun.
Fortunately, my savior arrived about five minutes later, a local rider named Jack who wasn’t racing, just out on the trail to help out and alert organizers if anyone had real trouble. Did he have a tube that fit? Yes. And a pump? It was small, but yes.
My fire had gone out by that point. All I wanted to do was coast down to the finish and call it a day. In hindsight, I hadn’t really lost that much time or that many places. That just goes to show that anytime you have a number tied onto your bike, you should never give up.
I suppose that’s just one of a few lessons I’ve taken away from the Whiskey Off-Road. I’m not sure which was worse — last year’s cramps or this year’s flat — but perhaps in 2020, the third time will be the charm.
What I rode:
- Canyon Lux CF SLX 9.0 Pro Race
- 22 pounds