After a two year hiatus, I decided to return to Prescott, AZ for the 2011 Whiskey Off Road marathon. A proper 50 mile beat down in the beautiful pine forest North of Phoenix, the Whiskey is a throwback to ‘old skool’ mountain bike racing; long climbs, technical descents and breathtaking mountain vistas along the entire course. This year promised to be especially exciting, as race promoter extraordinaire Todd Saddow promised a $20,000 cash purse for the professional category—with equal payout to men and women.
I arrived in Prescott—along with my partner in crime, Tonya Bray—on Friday afternoon. In addition to Sunday’s main event, pros were tasked with racing a downtown criterium on Friday evening; acting as a prologue to show off riders in front of the fans and media. The crit course was surprisingly tough, with two blocks of climbing at a 14% grade, and a 40mph descent back towards the historic Whiskey Row start/finish area. After a few lung-searing laps (Prescott is at ~6000ft… Los Angeles is not)—enough to open up my legs and lungs—I decided to call it a day and head to the cabin for a hot meal and some recovery.
Sunday morning brought clear skies and a cool breeze that rustled the pine trees—perfect weather for a 50 mile romp in the forest. I rode to the start line on Whiskey Row with Tonya, where all 70-some pro men were anxiously awaiting the adventure ahead. That familiar humbling feeling washed over me as the front row was called up: Chris Sheppard, Tinker Juarez, Barry Wicks, Dave Wiens, “Jungle” Jay Henry. There would be no settling in to a comfortable pace today—it was sure to be fast from the gun.
From the word “Go” we roared away from Whiskey Row at a blistering pace, winding our way through the foothill neighborhoods in a 75 man strong peloton. Within a few miles the pavement gave way to dirt fire roads, and eventually we hit the first leg of singletrack. The field was blown to shreds at this point, and the familiar sound of clanking chains, humming disc brakes and heavy breathing—lost amidst the pine trees—was all that reassured me I was not alone.
After several miles of technical singletrack climbing, I began the first descent—a steep, switchback laden blast from pine forest into the yucca and bramble of Skull Valley’s upper reaches. Groups of riders were coming back together at this point, favoring those who could let go of their brakes longest and keep their tires filled with air. Thankfully, my decision to run Bontrager 29-3 TLR rear tires proved effective. The robust TLR sidewalls meant I could ride wide-full-open through the rough stuff, and the ability to run 25psi kept me right side up in the loosest of corners. One final (and steep!) switchback turn put me back onto a rolling jeep road climb en route to aid station #1.
Aid station #1 came and went without so much as a passing glance at the tables of fruit, chips, gels and bottles—I was gunning for a solid ride, and time spent grazing was out of the question. Instead, I opted to top off the tank on the 10 mile descent to the bottom of skull valley. The bottom of the seemingly endless fire road descent was the home of aid station #2, where I again hastily rolled through, taking only a fresh bottle in the process.
And then came the climb… A real sonofabitch that would make even a season pro say, “it’s how long?!” 12 miles, to be exact. From the bottom of the desert floor to the 7200’ peak of an alpine forest. Sure, I’ve ridden longer climbs—but never in a race. In the age of 5k cross country laps whose climbs can be counted in crank revolutions, an hour-plus grind to the top of a mountain is downright shocking. Luckily for me, going uphill for extended periods is my forte, complemented nicely by my feathery Superfly hardtail. So off I went, with a fresh bottle in my cage and a belly full of Trader Joe’s gummy penguins (top secret endurance fuel…) The rest is what one might expect for such an effort: mental drift, burning legs, sore back and anticipation of the summit.
Many miles and gummy penguins later, I reached the summit and began my descent towards downtown Prescott. A technical, shale-strewn singletrack was a bittersweet reward for my efforts; on one hand it’s a world-class bit of singletrack, but after a mind numbingly long climb into the thin air I was hardly in the mood for such a taxing descent. Down I went, playing the “no brakes game”, trying my darndest to keep it rubber side down on the few remaining technical bits. Eventually the trail gave way to pavement and I time trialed into town. I crossed the line, depleted from the inside out and barely able to gulp down a full breath of air, but satisfied with my effort.
My 50 mile adventure in the wilds of Prescott took a respectable 3:49 to complete; good enough for 44th place. (Side note: all mountain hard-man, Mark Weir, finished in 43rd) Granted, it’s not the sub-3:30 I had hoped for… but there’s always next year.
The Whiskey Off Road is undoubtedly the best mountain bike race I’ve yet to participate in. Between the warm welcome by Prescott’s residents and the spectacular race course, it was everything a mountain bike race should be: fun. I’ll be sure to make the voyage to Arizona every April.
Alex Boone is a Professional mountain bike racer for Trek 29er Crew by night and a product manager in aerospace by day. He joins us as our resident sommelier, brewmaster, pairing expert and language police. When he’s not tasting coffee, chocolate, beer, wine, Bourbon and cheese, he’s riding. Alex made his debut as a sommelier with his Belgian beer tasting for Peloton Magazine.We hope you enjoy his style.