Epic Rides put on their first of 4 Epic events this weekend with the Whiskey Offroad collection of pro and amateur races in Prescott, Arizona in the USA. The 15th running of the race had over 1500 amateur racers attend Saturday’s event and 150 Mens and Womens professionals toeing the start lines. Amateur racers were able to choose from 15, 30, and 50 mile distances. In order to qualify for their slice of the $31,000 USD payout over the weekend professionals are required to compete in a combination of the Fat Tire Criterium on Friday night and the “Epic” Marathon event on Sunday. Combined placing is not a factor in the overall although the criterium payout sweetens the pot with its own payout and with lap prime payout provided by El Yucateco Hotsauce for the entire season of Epic Rides Events; creating some seriously “hot” laps.
The Whiskey has in some years been plagued by marginal weather including rain and driving wind. This years event was perfectly warm and classic dry desert trail with wind building through the day; but with an early enough start that most riders wouldnt have to combat the wind too much.
The course is a single loop with an out and back along the Skull Valley section of dirt road and trail to a common turnaround. Riders typically use the return trip up the Skull Valley gravel as a logical attack point but in 15 years Whiskey has been won about every way possible. The heavily singletrack center section features two options as well (marked in red) with “Cramp Hill” being the second of two and the only other logical attack point which comes late in the race.
The mens race was attended by last years winner and American XC champion Howard Grotts (Specialiezed) who was present to defend his last years win. The pro start list was a who’s who of North American racing and many International riders with notables being XCM National Champion Payson McElveen (Orange Seal), Keegan Swenson (Pivot/ NoTubes), Geoff Kabush (Yeti Cycles), Nicola Rohrbach (Felt), and many more. Each race starts with a “neutral” rollout to exit Prescott town center before launching into an extended gravel climb up to nearly 6,000 ft of elevation, and then again punching singletrack to nearly 7K feet. Lowland racers would feel the altitude just enough to make things very uncomfortable if the pace didn’t suffice to do so! The group stayed very much together with Grotts, Swenson, Kabush, Rohrbach, Ryan Standish, and a handful of others contending near the front while many other riders hung on to their coats through the Skull Valley turnaround and through the first aid station. That group was perhaps 25 riders with another 30 maybe a minute behind.
Returning up Skull Valley the lead group would break apart with only a handful of 6 riders with a few more barely hanging on. Howard Grotts would push the pace with all others responding as best they could. Keegen Swenson and Geoff Kabush looked smoothest and most composed as the attacks began flying. Grotts would break free from this lead group and push the pace into a solo break moving up the 40 minute climb back up Skull Valley.
Once Grotts’ lead had grown to nearly a minute things would get serious. As part of the home-state Pivot NoTubes Team Swenson would feel the pressure and push clear of the ever decreasing chase group to nearly rejoin Grotts in the singletrack. In post-race he mentioned he could see the dirt still in the air with Grotts only a switchback or two ahead of him as the singletrack miles ticked close and closer to finish. Swenson would meet Grotts just shortly before the trail ended and the two would work together to remain clear from any other chasers; now including a solo attack by Nicola Rohrbach and a closely chasing Geoff Kabush.
Swenson and Grotts would come into the last few road miles neck and neck. The road of the crowd built as Swenson lept into the final corner just ahead of Grotts and sprinted across the line less than a bike length ahead of the Cape Epic winning Specialized rider. Swenson credited his training and particularly the long miles at the Andalucia Stage Race nearly a month prior for the speed over long distances which helped earn the win in a total time of 2:59:16.
The women’s racing at the Whiskey is as exciting if not more exciting than the men’s. Past winner Kate Courtney was present as well as other previous winners. As with Keegen many eyes were on Chloe Woodruff of Team Pivot/ NoTubes and her win in Friday’s criterium put a win in the cross-hairs for the Sunday’s Epic. The big splash in the US Racing pond however was that Specialized rider Kate Courtney brought her Cape Epic partner and Marathon World Champion Annika Langvad to the Whiskey for a little tag team punishment. Langvad was forced to pull out of the Fat Tire Crit with an asthmatic attack but was eager when I spoke to her to fire once again on all cylinders in the Epic. Woodruff, Langvad, and Courtney would be joined by Evelyn Dong (NoTubes), XC National Champion Erin Huck (CZ Racing), and Larissa Conners (Ridebiker, Felt bicycles).
Unlike the men’s race the women’s race broke apart quickly. In the early miles of singletrack a small group developed with Langvad, Huck, Woodruff, and Courtney all pacing each other until Courtney developed a flat tire. The flat was resolved quickly but would put Courtney on the back foot the rest of the day. At the Skull Valley turnaround it was only Langvad, Huck, and Woodruff with smaller groups of stragglers in arrears.
Returning back up Skull Valley Langvad would put in a substantial effort. When I spoke to her she indicated that she was concerned with experiencing another asthmatic attack during the marathon distance portion of the weekend after such an attack forced her out of the criterium. Arizona’s dry dusty climate paired with an altitude of around 6000 ft at the valley floor is cause for enough altitude distress to induce respiratory difficulty in many riders. At the finish Langvad described her plan to me to follow the wheels of her teammate and then other riders until the Skull Valley climb and then she would set as hard a pace as she could sustain and in her own words “everyone just fell off.”
Langvad would cross the finish line in a time of 3:27 with Woodruff not far behind in 3:29, Huck shortly after in 3:31.
Almost 1600 riders toed the line for the 15th Whiskey Offroad weekend. 150+ professionals from all over the world gathered in Prescott AZ for their share of a 31,000 USD price purse. Next stop on the Epic Rides calendar is the Grand Junction Offroad in Grand Junction CO May 18-20th.