The Epic Rides organisation, located in Tucson, Arizona, has helped to reinvent mountain bike racing in the Unites States. Their formula for success harkens back to the heydey of USA mountain bike racing, when there was plentiful prize money, festival weekends and great courses to ride.
While USA Cycling's Pro-XCT (formerly NORBA) series has struggled to return to its glory days, Epic Rides now has a three-race series in Prescott, Arizona; Grand Junction, Colorado; and Carson City, Nevada, that break new attendance records every year. It is expected that Epic rides will add up to two more venues to that list in the coming year.
The "secret" to attracting large pro fields was quite simple: give them enough prize money so they can cover their expenses and make a living in the sport. While front row racers may draw a salary from their teams, racers farther back on the starting grid often have to cobble together enough support to get them through their seasons.
With $30,000 awarded at each event (evenly split between the men's and women's fields), and another $10,000 awarded for the Overall Cash Purse, a large number of pro racers are attracted.
In fact, it appears that the men's field will reach 80 racers, and the women's field will be close to fifty. The total number of registered racers is 1,850.
Racing for the pros will start on Friday evening with a hilly downtown fat tire criterium. The format is 20 minutes plus three laps. The finishing order will determine the call-ups for the main event on Sunday. Last year Evelyn Dong (Cannondale) and Todd Wells (SRAM-Troy Lee) won in two highly competitive battles.
The Whiskey-50 race on Sunday is going to be quite exciting considering the distance and the high calibre 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. They will enjoy a blistering-fast 10 mile descent into the town of Skull Valley but then have to turn around and climb 12 miles back up the same mountain range. All along the course, they will be treated to spectacular vistas in the Prescott National Forest.
US Champion Howard Grotts (Specialized) will be looking for his third consecutive win on the Whiskey course that is almost tailor-made for his climbing abilities. He showed last weekend at the Sea Otter Classic that he is on good form
US Marathon Champion Todd Wells, who finished third last year, told Cyclingnews, "The Whiskey 50 has always been an awesome weekend of mountain biking. The depth of the pro field increases every year, adding credibility to the event. The pros and amateurs do the same course so you can compare your times. There are awesome bands and great parties all weekend long where everyone mingles in a laid back atmosphere.
Wells added, "Epic Rides just gets it, it's everything mountain biking should be and I'm excited to be a part of it again this year."
Also expected to be in the hunt for podium spots this weekend are Ben Sonntag (Clif Bar), Sam Gaze (Specialized), former World Champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Chris Blevins (Specialized), Keegan Swenson (Cannondale), Fernando Paez (Rotor-SRAM), and former Whiskey winner Geoff Kabush (Scott).
The women's race is perhaps even more competitive and difficult to predict than the men's. Last year's winner, US Marathon Champion Rose Grant (Stans-Pivot), has looked strong but had a long winter of rehabbing surgery.
Grant commented on the race, "With Chloe, Rose, Katerina, and Kate Courtney all toeing the line, the competition will be fast and I anticipate some fun, hard battles out there. I always enjoy the atmosphere of the Epic Rides events!"
Twenty-two-year-old Kate Courtney (Specialized) shocked many by winning both the Bonelli Park UCI-HC race and the Sea Otter Classic so far this season. Everyone expected that she would arrive at the top of North American standings, but perhaps not quite this soon.
She has beaten the likes of double World Champion Catharine Pendrel (Cliff Pro Team) and Olympian Emily Batty (Trek), which is no small feat. What has yet to be determined is whether Courtney has the endurance needed to win a 50-mile event.
USA Champion Erin Huck could pull out the victory if she is with the leaders on the climb out of Skull Valley. She has the endurance of a seasoned veteran, plus skills which will serve her well on the final descents.
Cyclingnews caught up with Huck, who remarked, "I'm really looking forward to racing Whiskey for my second time. I've heard the course has changed slightly since the last time I did it in 2014 so it'll be fun to see the new additions. I've heard there's more singletrack, so I will be racing my Cannondale Scalpel SI full-suspension. "
Prescott resident and two-time Whiskey-50 winner Chloe Woodruff will be looking to make it three wins. She not only knows the trails better than anyone else, but will be cheered on by the large crowds of locals.
Also in the hunt for podium spots will be Katerina Nash (Clif Pro Team) who won the last Epic Rides event in Carson City. She always seems to put herself into a position to win. Nash commented, "The field is really competitive this year and many riders are on great spring form. I'm coming off a big break after cross season. Sea Otter was a great warm up and I'm looking forward to riding the trails around Prescott."
Evelyn Dong (Cannondale) and Maghalie Rochette (Clif Pro Team) are also expected to be in the hunt for podium positions.
Hundreds of amateurs will also be racing, primarily on Saturday. Up to 12,000 visitors are expected to enjoy the racing, but the Four Peaks Brewing Music Festival, a beer garden, and a bike industry expo along Whiskey Row.
Epic Rides founder, Todd Sadow, expressed enthusiasm for this weekend, "With 2016 Epic Rides Off-Road Series returning champions Rose Grant & Todd Wells confirmed; plus past Whiskey Off-Road champions Chloe Woodruff, Howard Grotts, Christoph Sauser, Sam Gaze & Geoff Kabush all in Prescott…we're sure to see some good ol' fashion gun slinging in the Prescott National Forest and at the start/finish line on the infamous Whiskey Row in Downtown Prescott."
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.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for photos, results, and race articles from Prescott this coming weekend.