The fast, punchy cross-country circuit around Laguna Seca is worlds apart from the long, high-altitude climb out of Skull Valley at Whiskey 50. However, Sea Otter Classic showcased many of the top favorites for Sunday’s first round of the Epic Rides Off-Road Series in Prescott, Arizona.
Specialized teammates Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney — first and second, respectively, in the Sea Otter women’s XC, are favored for the women’s race. A third Specialized rider, Howard Grotts, is one to watch in the men’s race after his second-place result at Sea Otter last Saturday. Plus, Swiss rider Nicola Rohrbach (Goldwurst-Power-Felt), third behind Grotts in California, will be out to take on the high-desert course.
Whiskey 50 is arguably the most difficult of the four-race marathon mountain bike series, with 6,700 feet of climbing over 48 miles. And with a $30,000 prize purse evenly split between men’s and women’s races, competition should be fierce.
Danish champion Langvad is a first-timer at Whiskey, and the former world champion is eager to experience the popular event.
“My teammates have been racing it and they speak highly about it so I’m excited to get going,” Langvad told VeloNews at Sea Otter. “When I heard that the team was going I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do Sea Otter because fits perfectly into the World Cup schedule.'”
“Annika’s obviously always one to watch, but there’s so many women that can win any time and that’s what makes it exciting,” said Courtney.
Although she’ll sit out Sunday’s race, Katerina Nash (Luna) agrees that Langvad will be a favorite. Nash won the 2017 Epic Rides series.
Having teamed up with Langvad to win the eight-stage Asaba Cape Epic mountain bike race in South Africa, Courtney, the defending champ at Whiskey, is also one to watch in Arizona.
“I think it was a bit of a risky preparation for the season for me; we’re still trying to see how my body reacts,” said Courtney, referring to Cape Epic, “but I think [Sea Otter] really proved I’m on form.”
A few local Arizonans will look to crash the Specialized party. Amy Beisel (Orange Seal) noted that Chloe Woodruff (Stan’s NoTubes), winner of the 2014 and 2015 Whiskey 50, is always a favorite. And Beisel’s teammate Payson McElveen similarly pointed to Erin Huck (Construction Zone Racing) as someone who excels in the Prescott race.
“Erin’s gonna rip it. I fully expect a death battle between she and Kate [Courtney],” said McElveen. “This is Erin’s terrain. She loves the high elevation big climb type of stuff.”
Two-time winner Grotts will thrive on climbs
In the men’s race, Grotts is the third key Specialized rider who is riding high after winning Cape Epic. Fellow riders have been heaping praise on the Coloradan for his talents as a pure climber.
“Howard’s like, he’s the real deal,” said Anton Cooper (Trek), who won the Sea Otter XC. “He’s hands-down the best American cross-country racer at the moment. He’s a very, very strong climber.”
Grotts’s friend and training buddy McElveen goes a step further, wagering that the 25-year-old is the best climber in the world on a mountain bike.
“Especially after Cape Epic there is consensus that he is the best pure climber on dirt in the world,” said McElveen. “When it’s just watts per kilo, he’s head and shoulders above everybody else.”
Soft-spoken and humble, Grotts might not make such a bold claim himself. Instead, the rider who won the 2015 and 2016 Whiskey 50 as well as the 2017 Epic Rides Series overall points to Rohrbach as a threat.
“Nicola [Rohrbach] too he’s also really strong we were racing together at Cape Epic. It’ll be a fun battle with him next week at Whiskey Off-Road,” Grotts said after Sea Otter. He also noted that McElveen, the U.S. national marathon cross-country champion, is well-suited for long distance races.
Between the healthy prize purse and fun vibe, Whiskey 50 has a way of attracting an impressive field of pro racers.
“The vibe is definitely less intense. It’s more fun, more casual,” said Huck, who won the Friday fat tire crit before Whiskey in 2017.
“I’d be lying if I said the prize money wasn’t a big factor, but it’s good training, it’s a solid day on the bike.”
Geoff Kabush (Yeti) also notes that the series attracts close to 1,900 amateur riders with fun venues that make a weekend trip worthwhile.
“Like everyone I like to go where there’s cool places to ride. That’s why I think the Epic Rides are successful,” says Kabush. “They’re in cool places where everyone wants to take the family and hang out, make a weekend of it. It’s fun to be at events like that.
However, not every top pro can fit Whiskey 50 or one of the other Epic Rides events into his or her calendar. Often, the long-distance, non-UCI-sanctioned events are at odds with the World Cup calendar.
“They look really exciting and they have got a great reputation, but I’ve got to get back to the races that give you the good points,” said Cooper, referring to the UCI points that are crucial for position on the start grid at major events like world championships.
“[Whiskey has] big prize money, absolutely, but the reality is you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get World Cup start positions.”
Huck also said she’ll miss the second Epic Rides series race, Grand Junction Off-Road, due to a schedule conflict with the Albstadt, Germany World Cup, May 18-20.
Regardless of their personal ambitions on the World Cup or longer term at the 2020 Olympics, the consensus among top pro mountain bikers is that Whiskey 50 is a must-do event.
Even Cooper, who hails from the other side of the globe in New Zealand, admits he is drawn to the Arizona race: “It’s a bucket list event these ones, I’d love to do it but it’s just going to be a matter of when and where it fits the schedule; I’d never write it off.”
Racing begins Friday, April 27 with the pro fat tire crit in Prescott. The Whiskey 50 Backcountry race is Sunday. Then, the Epic Rides Off-Road Series continues with racing at the Grand Junction Off-Road in Colorado, May 18-20; Carson City Off-Road in Nevada, June 15-17, and the Oz Trails Off-Road in Bentonville, Arkansas, October 5-7.