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MTB stars head to Specialized Cactus Cup for early season racing

The Arizona stage race kicks off on Friday with a stacked start line and equal prize purse.

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For the mountain bike pros looking for their first race effort of the season, this weekend’s Specialized Cactus Cup is sure to deliver.

The three-day stage race at McDowell Mountain Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Arizona boasts a stacked start list that includes Olympic long team riders Erin Huck, Haley Batten, Hannah Finchamp, Christopher Blevins, and Keegan Swenson, as well as cross-country superstars Sofia Gomez Villafane, Rose Grant, and Russell Finsterwald.

The Specialized Cactus Cup has been rolling through the Saguaros since 1991. Photo: Courtesy Cactus Cup 

Sage Melley, the race director and owner of the Cactus Cup, says that she’s beyond stoked by the amount of attention that this year’s edition of the race is getting from the pros.

“We want to showcase that this is your season opener, as it was in the original days,” she told VeloNews. “This was where everyone started and then spread out over the world to do their things for the rest the season.”

The Cactus Cup debuted in 1991 as Arizona’s first mountain bike stage race. Always held in early spring, by the mid-90s the race had attracted thousands of riders and fans, desperate to ride in warm weather in a Seussian desert landscape. The list of past winners reads like the signage at the mountain bike hall of fame: Dave Wiens, Juli Furtado, Tinker Juarez, Ruthie Matthes, Ned Overend, and John Tomac all partook in the desert MTB revelry.

After a brief hiatus in the early 2000s, the Cactus Cup returned in 2017, when Todd Wells and Christopher Blevins went 1-2 for the win. Both will be back this year.

Melley says that around 50 pro men and 20 pro women are registered for this year’s event, along with 300 age groupers for Saturday’s XC race. While the race is typically a festive, family-focused event, part of the COVID mitigation strategy for 2021 was to dramatically cut the number of registrations.

“Numbers are very limited and we sold out 30 days ago, so tons of people have been begging to get in,” Melley said. “This year, we limited the field by more than half.”

In addition to a smaller field, the race has precautions in place that are becoming the new industry standard: masks at the start line, a spaced-out expo, signs indicating distancing when in line for packet pick-up or the portapotties, as well as small wave starts.

The Specialized Cactus Cup features a time trial, XC race, and Enduro stage. Photo: Courtesy Cactus Cup 

In 2020, the event was rescheduled from March to October with an even more streamlined approach, and Melley says that it went off without a hitch. She hopes that in the near future, “hopefully next year,” the event can return to its full self, which includes family-friendly activities, in addition to the world-class caliber racing. This year, the race is trialing an e-bike class in the XC race since e-bikes are legal in the McDowell Mountain Park.

For the pros who are coming out to win the Cup (and the cash prize), they must complete all three days of racing — beginning with a time trial on Friday, a 40-mile XC race on Saturday, and an Enduro stage on Sunday.

From FKTs to gravel racing to laps at the bike park, the unique and unconventional training and adventures that many of cross-country’s pro riders have undertaken in the last year should make for exciting racing this weekend. Couple that with the history and tradition of the Cactus Cup and the warm desert sunshine, and everyone is a winner.

“Arizona is so important in its impact on the mountain bike community,” Melley said. “It’s [the race] just a celebration of those roots of mountain biking and then, when you tie this in as the season opener, it’s the place to be.”