I just got back from Prescott, AZ where I finally got to be a part of the Whiskey 50 event in Prescott, Arizona. I'd heard about this event a few years ago and finally put it on my schedule this year. I will also be racing their other events in Grand Junction in May, and also here almost on my doorstep in Carson City in June. I decided to commit to mountain bike racing this season and take Xterra off the schedule for a while. I still love to race Xterra, however on any given day I would rather ride my bike so decided to see what it was like to be a single sport athlete. So far I love it, and I feel like I am training with more focus and seeing the improvements that come with that. I'd been pondering for a while on whether to race in the pro field this season, and I decided to commit to it for the epic rides series as I felt like I was ready to challenge myself a bit and start learning from the very best by racing with them.
Epic Rides sets up their race as a 3-day event with a festival, expo, bands, and beer gardens to go along with the racing. They have chosen unique towns, with character, culture, and history to partner with for their events, which just happen to have incredible trail systems that allow racing to start and finish right downtown. While the pre-race meeting had all the usual 'know the course, don't cut the course, be courteous to others, ride smart, don't litter' type aspects to it, it also included a fascinating look into the epic rides philosophy. They want their events to develop the sport both for the amateurs and pro's alike. Pro's in mountain biking, even the very best, don't get the opportunities right now to be earning a living as a professional athlete anywhere near the level of athletes in the more visible and lucrative sports like golf, tennis, soccer etc. And if you look at it objectively it kind of makes sense - sponsors put their money where they can be seen and if events only have a hundred on the start-line and the spectators consist of only the families of those riders at best then it's not worth the sponsors putting their time, money or efforts there. Epic Rides wants to play a part in changing that. They create events on trails that people want to race, and that people want to watch. They hold a Fat Tire Crit on the friday evening of event weekend - any pro that wants to toe the line for the main event on sunday needs to race the crit to earn their place on the start line. For most mountain bikers, a crit is somewhat out of their comfort zone, but it's good for us, and really the main point is as a showcase for the weekend and for the town to come out and watch the fast paced exciting event and kick off the weekend. All I have to say is, it works. The town came out in force - the course was lined with people cheering, most notably up the union street climb which by the third lap feels like a mountain, and while it was possibly the longest 20minutes + 3laps I've ever ridden, I loved it. I was far from hanging onto the front pack, or even the second, but rode hard, learned a lot and felt very satisfied with the effort I gave.
The saturday of an epic rides event weekend brings the amateur race - my husband, Dennis, was racing so we headed into town early saturday morning to get him going under very dark stormy clouds. It was definitely a festival atmosphere and with several hundred riders was a huge event. With some amateurs there to race, and others to experience the incredible trail system that prescott national forest has to offer, people were riding back into town through the finish line from late morning all their way through late afternoon and the crowd stayed throughout. Even with rain, cold temperatures and a bout of hail, the amateur event was quite the spectacle, and one which the whole town embraced.
Sunday is the main pro event - the 50mile backcountry race -with separate start waves for men and women. For mountain bike events, this draws a large pro field - over a hundred in total with two-thirds of those being men, but even so, 25 pro women on a start line of a mountain bike event it pretty big. I hadn't seen the course at all before so I was riding blind, but that just added to the adventure. I was ready to work hard, stay focused, enjoy the trails, and race the best I could on the day.
The pace out of town on the road was solid but I worked to stay with the pack and almost made it to the turn onto dirt but it soon splintered up into a few smaller groups and some individuals. The singletrack was lined with spectators and for most of the course it wasn't too long before we came across more cowbells or various other noise making devices. The pace was fast, but I could see women ahead and behind me so this became my race - there was always a reason to keep pushing hard and made myself work. The trails were technical and challenging - nothing out of my comfort zone but I definitely couldn't carry the speed I wanted to without knowing what was around the next corner. With as little outdoor riding as I've done in the last few months I was extremely happy with how I rode the technical trails - piles of room for improvement through the summer however! Dennis manned the bottle hand off for me at the halfway point turnaround to climb out of skull valley - it's a long climb and I knew what was coming as I'd just pedaled all the way down it, and it was great mental focus to stay pushing and pedaling despite it seeming to go on forever and with the last part of the race in sight it's so tempting to back off. With girls ahead of me that I knew were still in striking distance, and a few behind I knew would catch up if I backed off I had plenty of motivation to push my limits. With the summit of a 12 mile climb it threatened to downpour, and while it rained some and got a little cool, the final descent on technical singletrack back into town was a fast and fitting way to complete a tough but rewarding day on the bike. I finished 21st of 25 in the pro field, with time gaps to move up a few places not all that large and with almost complete satisfaction with how I had performed on the day. I know how to improve, and season on season gains in both fitness and technical speed-carrying skills are made with consistency and patience. If I had raced the amateur race I would have been fighting right at the front of the field for the win, and it would have been a very different experience, but I was ready to see things from a different perspective and set myself new challenges.
Racing aside, I came away from the event with huge respect for the epic rides organisation, and the town of prescott for welcoming us all to town for the weekend and letting the crazy world of mountain biking take over. Not once did I hear complaints about the road closures that persisted from friday afternoon through sunday afternoon, and the supporters for us at the crit, and on the trails on sunday were definitely more than just racer friends and family -it was the town fully embracing the event and actually thanking us for being there. I can't wait to race the grand junction and carson city events and only hope those communities embrace the event even half as much as Prescott did this weekend.