The Epic Rides Series of marathon mountain bike races heads into the unknown this weekend with a new race in an unfamiliar locale: Bentonville, Arkansas. The inaugural Oz Trails Off-Road will feature the strongest field of pro riders in the four-race series. Up for grabs is the biggest prize purse of the season. But nobody is quite sure how this one will play out.
Before we get to the unknowns, let’s begin with one big known factor: the $71,000 prize purse. That money is primarily on offer in Sunday’s 50-mile backcountry race — $60,000 split evenly between genders — then $10,000 will be awarded to top-three in the series, with the final $1,000 in primes for the Friday night El Yucateco fat tire crit. The Oz Trails Off-Road may offer the richest purse ever in American mountain bike racing history.
To get that payout, North America’s top mountain bikers will face an undulating course with 5,900 feet of climbing primarily on singletrack trails. Most of the riders who have been pre-riding the course agree that it will be deceptively hard.
“It has a lot of subtle loose stuff, holding speed on fast rubbly trail — loose rocks,” said Geoff Kabush (Yeti). “It’s hard to carve corners. It’s going to be a lot of finesse, maintaining speed through all these rollers and fast winding stuff.”
The other three Epic Rides events feature major climbs that serve to break apart the race. For instance, the first series race, the Whiskey Off-Road, usually hinges on a massive 4,000-foot climb out of Skull Valley at the halfway point. Instead, Oz Trails is expected to gradually wear down riders with twists, turns, ups, and downs.
“Compared to the normal Epic Rides it’s very rolling,” said Amy Beisel (Orange Seal). “The trails are rolling and short punchy lots of corners you have to stay focused the whole time.”
Beyond the trails that twist through the dark Arkansas forest, there is another major unknown: Who has form this late in the year?
It is unusual for pro riders to target a major race in early October. Mountain bike world championships were about a month ago. Some haven’t done a marathon-distance race in months.
Erin Huck (Construction Zone) is one such rider and with a 12th-place result at XC worlds in September, she’s the top worlds finisher in either gender to line up in Arkansas. However, she’s not approaching the big-money race with specific ambitions given that her last long-distance mountain bike race was the Whiskey in April.
“I’m still motivated to race,” Huck said. “At this point of the season, racing is still fun for me and I think that goes a long way.”
Other riders like Katerina Nash (Clif Bar) have moved on to cyclocross season. The Czech Olympian will try to translate that into a payout on Sunday.
“I made a push for the early [cyclocross] World Cups in the U.S. and I’m on good form there,” said Nash who won the Sunday race at Jingle Cross. “It will be interesting to see how it translates to that 50-mile mountain bike event. I tried to keep up with some mountain biking and long rides but my focus has been speed and intensity the last few weeks.
“Physically, it’s definitely doable. For me the harder part is mental. After an hour I’m like, ‘Oh man we’ve been here for a while!’”
None of the top pros seem sure of what to expect when it comes to their autumn form or the undulating race course. Despite that uncertainty, a few familiar names come up when predicting favorites for the Oz Trails Off-Road.
“Anytime there’s a course that’s a little bit unusual, Geoff [Kabush] is really good,” said Payson McElveen (Orange Seal). “Anytime there’s something that takes different thinking, tactics, pacing, he has so much experience that he always seems to have a little inside line on the rest of us. He’s also a bigger dude and this is absolutely power course one that’s more a race of attrition. He’s so good at conserving energy.”
McElveen himself should be noted as a favorite. Like Kabush, he is more of a power rider and is the two-time reigning U.S. marathon champion on a similar course in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Although he’s a slightly built climber compared to McElveen and Kabush, Howard Grotts (Specialized) will also be one to watch. As the men’s series leader, he will be fending off Russell Finsterwald (Clif Bar) who is second overall, 5:31 back.
“Hopefully I can try to put some pressure on Howie [Grotts] in the technical stuff,” Finsterwald said. “He’s got a good chunk of time on me but I’m not going to just settle for second.”
Like Grotts, Huck is coming off a European stint. She doesn’t necessarily see a direct connection between world championships success and the Oz Trails Off-Road. Instead, she has her eye on Chloe Woodruff (Stan’s-Pivot), who didn’t even start the championship race in Switzerland.
“My top pick would have to be Chloe,” Huck said. “She didn’t get to start at worlds due to a concussion. I know that she’s super motivated to get out and race and has a fair bit of race motivation and fitness. Not to mention she’s particularly good at tight twisty bike-maneuvering courses.”
The women’s series leader Evelyn Dong (Spry-Stan’s No Tubes) also comes up as a favorite. She has yet to win an Epic Rides event this season but has a comfortable 14:27 lead on Crystal Anthony (Liv) in the overall.
Given that their seasons often tread a familiar path from one well-known race venue to the next, the pro riders seem eager to take on a fresh challenge in Arkansas. And having a rich prize purse definitely helps keep them motivated as well.
“It is a lot of money, that’s why everybody’s happy to keep on riding and racing even though technically mountain bikers are typically done after worlds,” Nash added.
“It’s motivating and that’s cool to see.”