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The 1990s were the heyday for mountain bike experimentation, whether it was weird technology like the Slingshot frame or unconventional race formats — anyone up for a head-to-head eliminator race on the Kamikaze downhill? One offbeat race format did survive those salad days: the fat tire crit.
Today, the fat tire crit is a staple of the Epic Rides Series race weekends, and unlike those Tioga disc wheels, it stands the test of time.
As the name suggests, a fat tire crit is a short-circuit race, usually held in a downtown area, but the riders are all on their mountain bikes. These races were common throughout the ‘90s with the Cactus Cup’s crit perhaps the most prestigious.
“I am not a sprinter, being more of a climber having to do those things were sort of a hassle, I didn’t mind smaller fields but at Cactus Cup the fields would be huge,” said Ned Overend.
After the 1996 debut of cross-country racing in the Olympics, the mountain biking world began to narrow its focus and fat tire crits became less common.
Instead, race weekends started to include short-track cross-country events. Perhaps these races were better suited for remote venues at ski areas where there weren’t as many options to design a road course.
Then, prior to the eighth edition of the Whiskey Off-Road in 2011, race promoter Todd Sadow had an idea: Bring back the fat tire crit.
“The whole idea behind the fat tire crit — and the whole Epic Rides Series format — that’s all going back to the origins of mountain biking,” Sadow said. “We’re just going back to our roots. The fat tire crit is part of the roots. There was a time when mountain bike weekends had a fat tire crit.”
As well as a homage to mountain biking heritage, the Friday night pro-only crit was a way for Sadow and his crew to bring the race to the masses. Every year, fans line the streets in Prescott, Arizona to spectate. Locals without any cycling experience see the race as an opportunity to throw a house party on the course’s steepest hill.
To make sure the race lived up to its goal of putting all the top riders in front of a large crowd, Sadow made the race mandatory for anyone who wanted to race Sunday’s pro backcountry race.
That first year, a few riders didn’t realize they had to race and were given an eight-minute start delay for the Whiskey Off-Road. But overall, it was a success, and now all four of the series races kick off with a Friday night fat tire crit that’s popular with riders and fans alike.
“I love the fat tire crits,” says Keegan Swenson (Stan’s-Pivot), who was second in this year’s Whiskey fat tire crit and went on to win the backcountry race. “I think it’s a good opener. I think it’s also a great chance for everyone to come out and watch a bike race.”
Chloe Woodruff (Stan’s-Pivot) lives in Prescott and she’s seen how the racing has captured the imagination of the locals.
“I love inviting people down to watch the fat tire crit, and over the course of the years, I have heard people mention how awesome it is to see us race,” she says. Woodruff won the Whiskey and Carson City fat tire crits in 2018.
While the 48-mile backcountry race on Sunday is not spectator-friendly, the crit is, and the riders recognize how valuable that is.
“It’s another great opportunity for us to put on a show for the fans and connect with everyone in town,” said Geoff Kabush (Yeti), who won the Grand Junction crit in 2017. “Most of the backcountry races are out there — it’s really hard for the spectators to see us and it’s another great opportunity to showcase our sponsors in front of crowd.”
However, like any fast, elbow-to-elbow racing format, crashes can sometimes spoil the fun, and the risk is a bit more apparent since mountain bikes aren’t quite suited for criterium racing.
“Maybe it’s a little sketchy with mountain bikers with wide bars,” added Kabush.
He feels that riders should be on slick tires for the event — rules require them to race the same bike in both the crit and the backcountry race on an Epic Rides weekend, but they can change tires. Other pros agree.
“I think the slicks are safer because the knobs can roll and be a bit sketchy at times,” Swenson said. “It’s not like it’s a big expense to have one set of slicks and swap them back and forth.”
On the other hand, Sadow sees the advantage in keeping it simple and prohibiting tire swaps. As you’d expect, slicks are also a significant advantage in the crits.
“I think for simplicity’s sake there’s merits to everybody being on the same tires they’re going to run Sunday,” Sadow said. “I don’t have a conclusion on it yet, but it’s certainly a conversation.”
Despite questions about knobbies versus slicks, despite the fact that the fat tire crit might not technically qualify as “mountain biking,” this product of the ‘90s lives on at Epic Rides. And next Friday, the newest event in that series will kick off with a downtown pro fat tire crit in Bentonville, Arkansas, once again bringing the race to the people.