The sport of mountain bike racing has never been healthier in the state of Arizona. One thousand seven hundred and fifty mountain biking enthusiasts and pro racers will be taking part in the three-day festival and races put on by Epic Rides. The attraction is not only $30,000 in cash prizes paid out equally to the top ten men and women, but also live bands, a beer garden, and some of the sweetest riding that the state has to offer.
Race promoter Todd Saddow reports that "mountain bikers of all skill levels will enjoy a brief and steep climb on the pavement while making their way out to the endless singletrack offerings in Prescott National Forest. Once in the forest, participants will experience technical fast singletrack, smooth fire roads, quality climbing, and vistas that will leave them speechless." In it's eighth year, The Whiskey 50 is a joint collaboration between the town of Prescott, the Prescott National Forest, and Epic Rides.
Racing for the pros will start on Friday evening with a downtown fat tire crit. The format is twenty minutes plus three laps. The finishing order will determine the call-ups for the main event on Sunday. Last year Chris Sheppard (Rocky Mountain) and Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team) won the event in what turned out to be very competitive racing. While Sheppard is registered (and coming off a good result at the Sea Otter Classic), World Champion Cross-country champion Pendrel will not be attending.
The 50-mile event on Sunday is going to be quite challenging considering the distance and the higher caliber racers attending this year. With 7,180 feet of climbing at altitudes above 5,000 feet, racers will be in for several gruelling hours in the saddle. Racers will enjoy a blistering fast 10-mile descent into the town of Skull Valley but then have to turn around and climb back up the same fire road. They will also be treated to spectacular vistas including the view from the Sierra Preita Overlook.
Both the men's and women's fields this year are stacked. A total of seventy-nine pro men and thirty-three pro women will toe the line on Sunday. Geoff Kabush (Scott-3Rox Racing) is coming off an impressive Sea Otter Classic victory and an 11th place finish at the Houffalize World Cup. There is little doubt that most of the racers will consider him to be the favorite despite his lack of racing at the 50-mile distance this year.
Kabush told Cyclingnews "I am excited to be heading down to Prescott, AZ for the Whiskey 50 this weekend. It is always great to see a town get behind an event and I've heard great things about Epic Rides events. They do a great job of promoting mountain biking, it looks like a fun weekend, and they really take care of the athletes."
Kabush added, "The great purse put up definitely adds some extra motivation. It has been a while since I have done a 3hr MTB race but I am looking forward to the challenge. I think it will help build my form as I move towards the important next round of World Cup races with my SCOTT-3Rox Racing team."
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Trek) is a two-time marathon national champion. Both were raced at a 50-mile distance as part of the Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge, CO. He generally excels at altitude, particularly when a good deal of climbing is involved.
Chris Sheppard, last year's winner and former Canadian National Champion, appears to have revived his mountain biking career as demonstrated with his sixth place finish at the Sea Otter Classic. Barry Wicks will be bringing his three-man Kona team that includes Kris Sneddon, and Spencer Paxson. All of them are experienced in this type of racing format.
Alex Grant (Cannondale) is almost certain to ride with the leaders, as will Carl Decker (Team Giant), Jay Henry (Tokyo Joes), and Colin Cares (Kenda-Felt) who took second place last year.
On paper, it would seem that Pua Mata is the woman to beat. She not only caught and passed Catharine Pendrel during last year's Whiskey 50, but she also beat out Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Trek) and Kelli Emmett (Team Giant) to win the 2011 National Marathon Championship held in Bend, Oregon. Mata excels at long distance races but will have to face even more cross-country talent this year.
Georgia Gould name on the roster has raised some eyebrows. She has been the most dominant racer in the United States for at least the past five years. While she doesn't typically race this distance, she surely does plenty of four and five hour training rides. She can ride with power for a high average speed; climb with anyone in the field, and may be better suited for distance than her team-mate Pendrel.
Gould expressed her excitement to be racing "I am really looking forward to racing the Whiskey 50 this weekend. I've heard that the course is challenging and fun, the event is well organized and tons of people come out to race and watch.
She too commented on the prize money, "If you add to that a huge prize purse, equal payout for men and women, top pros from around the country, live music, beer...yeah, I am pretty sure it's going to be awesome!"
Heather Irmiger has previously won two consecutive Marathon National Championships by as much as ten-minute margins. She has been racing a full world cup schedule and should be bringing good fitness into the race.
Kelli Emmett bested both Mata and Irmiger at Sea Otter with a sixth place finish. Also likely to be in the mix is Gretchen Reeves (Tokyo Joe's), who finished fourth last year, and USA Cyclocross Champion Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant)
The fifty-mile distance makes for a quite interesting race. When the USA Marathon National Championships were held as part of the Firecracker 50, the top American world cup racers ran away with the victories. Over the past decade it was common that cross-country pros raced up to 40 miles. But, in the past few years, the Pro-XCT series has attempted to shorten the distances while making laps shorter to better prepare riders for UCI races abroad. When marathon distances are closer to the 100k (62 mile) international standard, endurance specialists such as Mata seem to have the edge.
Former World X-Terra Champion and USA Cross-Country Champion Shonny Vanlandingham had registered for the Whiskey 50 but will not be racing. She explained, " I was hoping to race the Whiskey but my newly constructed knee isn't quite ready. I had an ACL replacement late last Fall. Sure hope to get out there for that one soon."
Rebecca Rusch (Specialized), three-time World 24-Hr Champion and three-time Leadville 100 winner is not registered to race this year at the Whiskey 50.
Many of the weekend's events take place in a downtown area known as Whiskey Row. A massive fire destroyed all of Whiskey Row in 1900. Legend has it that patrons of the various bars took their drinks across the street to the courthouse and just watched it the block burn down. As the fire approached the Palace Hotel, bar patrons moved the huge back bar out to the middle of the square. It was later re-installed when the hotel was rebuilt. Whiskey Row continued as a notorious red light district until 1956.
The weather looks as if it will favor the riders this weekend. On Sunday it is expected to be sunny and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Cyclingnews.com will be on site bringing you full coverage of the Fat Boy Crit and Whiskey 50 races this weekend.