Sauser, Wells headline Whiskey Off-Road

On the heels of last weekend's Sea Otter Classic, many of the top mountain biking professionals will head to Arizona to compete in this weekend's Whiskey Off-Road event in Prescott, Arizona. With a festival atmosphere and $30,000 in total prize money, with an equal payout for men and women, this has become one of the racers favourite weekends of the year.

Defending Whiskey 50 winner and former world champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized) will be looking to repeat. At last week’s Sea Otter Classic, Sauser looked to be on form. He was leading the race when he snapped a chain, preventing from winning two years in a row. Earlier this season, he and team-mate Jaroslav Kulhavy, won the 8-day, 700-kilometer Cape Epic Race in South Africa.

Sauser will be joined in Prescott by two talented teammates; USA Cross-Country Champion Todd Wells, and U-23 Pan American Champion Howard Grotts. Both have experience on this course and will be considered threats to win. At last weekend's Sea Otter Classic, it was Howard Grotts who forced former World Champion Nino Schurter (Scott) into a sprint finish after 34 miles of racing. Schurter won, but it was close.

The Specialized squad is likely to have their hands full this weekend with the Scott 3Rox riders. Geoff Kabush won the 2013 edition of the Whiskey 50, and team-mate Derek Zandstra, who finished second last year in a sprint finish with Sauser. While Kabush has historically been the stronger of the two, the opposite has been true so far this season.

Columbian Champion Fernando Paez (Raleigh Clement) will again be the dark horse in the event. Last year when Sauser attacked the leaders on the 7-mile climb out of Skull Valley, Paez was the only rider who could stay with him. He, unfortunately, gave up his chances of winning when Howard Grotts, Todd Wells, and Derek Zandstra hunted him down before the big descent back to Prescott.

Paez finished in tenth place at last weekend’s Sea Otter Classic, one place ahead of Kabush, and many places ahead of Wells.

The Whiskey 50 course is famously difficult. Overall, the riders climb 7,180 feet during the 50 miles. It begins at 5,300 feet with a twisty six-mile road climb, followed by further climbing on fire roads and single track. As riders crest a mountain pass at 7,000 feet, they are treated to a 10-mile descent into the small town of Skull Valley.

After refueling at the aid station there, they begin a 12-mile climb back up the valley, ending on a steep dirt climb appropriately called "cramp hill". After enjoying a brief view from "The Overlook", riders make their way through up-and-down single track before hitting the final pavement stretch of back into town.

In the women's field, all eyes will be on last year's winner, Chloe Woodruff (NoTubes Niner). Not only is she a talented rider, but also she now resides in Prescott and knows these trails like the back of her hand. It is fair to say that repeating as Whiskey 50 winner is one of her top goals of the season.

Last year she won in a sprint finish with Erin Huck (Scott 3Rox Racing) who has been racing better than ever so far this season.

Woodruff commented on the race, "Prescott is going to be overrun by mountain bikers this weekend for the Whiskey Off-Road, so without a doubt, this is one of my favourite weekends all year. I'm looking forward to defending my title and racing a stacked field on the classic course that is as rugged and challenging as ever."

She added, "And I promise it's not going to snow on anyone out there this year." (Last year's amateur race was hit by a freak snowstorm on Saturday.)

Two members powerful Luna Team are also considered favorites this weekend. Four-time Olympian Katerina Nash won the race in a solo effort in 2013, breaking away from the pack early with Chloe Woodruff. Nash has looked strong this season and had a win at the Fontana Pro-XCT HC event. She has been competitive in every race she has entered.

Former national champion and Olympic medalist Georgia Gould nearly won the Whiskey 50 in 2012 but flatted near the final stretch of pavement. That flat tire cost her $2,500 in prize money as Pua Mata sailed past her for the win. Gould is winless on the cross-country circuit this season and will be eager to notch her first win.

Luna's Maghalie Rochette, newly crowned U-23 Pan American Champion, will be a dark horse in the race. An excellent climber, the young rider will attempt to latch onto her more experienced team-mates and ride their pace.

Rose Grant (Stan's NoTubes) and Evelyn Dong (Sho-Air Cannondale) have also had good results at the Whiskey 50 and should be in the mix for podium positions this weekend.

Festivities kick off this weekend on Friday evening with the Whiskey Fat Tire Criterium. The course includes two difficult climbs, the first long and steep, the second a false flat at the top of the course. Last year thousands of spectators lined the streets with cowbells to watch Derek Zandstra and Chloe Woodruff take hard fought victories.

Founded in 1999, Epic Rides has become famous for producing events that celebrate mountain biking. Their races include the highly successful 24 Hours of Old Pueblo and the somewhat newer Grand Junction Off-Road.

Their blueprint for success includes coming up with amateur friendly courses, hosting three-day festival weekends that include concerts, bicycle industry expos, and fundraising for their charities (Yavapai Food Bank, Prescott Alternative Transportation, Prevent Child Abuse-Arizona, and the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance).

Check back with Cyclingnews for all the action from the Whiskey 50 this weekend.

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