When I won the Whiskey Off-Road last year, it felt like a bit of an upset and I even surprised myself. This year, I worked on internalizing the idea that I was the rider to beat. It helped that I was still riding a wave of confidence from my early season results and that I had the race course in my backyard. Additionally, my support and equipment were dialed. I was ready to execute the best race I could.
My parents made the trip from Colorado to watch me race and my Dad commented that he’d never seen me so composed on the start line of any prior race. While that’s coming from my Dad, it’s telling. I felt composed. I wasn’t thinking about the outcome, I was just ready to put together the race I’d been practicing in my head and during training.
For this year, I opted to race my Niner Jet 9 RDO with Fox Factory 32 suspension front and rear and my Stan’s Valor wheels. I selected my full-suspension bike over my Niner Air 9 RDO because I knew I’d be significantly faster over a few critical segments of the course. Plus, over such a long race the full-suspension bike would give me some extra recovery and if the race played out like the year prior, things would shake out on the final downhill from Sierra Prieta to the finish line (~2K of descending). For tires, I went with a conservative pick and I ran Maxxis Ikon EXO’s despite experiencing zero flats or punctures while training on lighter tires.
My race plan involved breaking the race into segments, each with a specific goal. Fifty miles is a really longs ways for a cross-country racer like myself so breaking things down into segments helped me stay focused. So the first segment was from the first singletrack to the bottom of Trail 260. This encompassed Trails 327, 48 and 260. I wanted to lead through these sections to see if I could a) create separation b) keep the pace high and c) hit a PR time down Trail 260. Plus, these trails are my favorites along the course and I was looking forward to a race run.
While it took a big effort through the Camp Pearlstein, I was able to enter the singletrack first with Georgia Gould and Katerina Nash just behind me. From there on, I focused on riding the best I could while keeping the pace high enough to discourage passing where we encountered any double-track. Georgia and Katerina are both incredible descenders and while we broke away from the rest of the field, I couldn’t create any daylight between us. Due to the overnight rain prior to the race, the trails were in great shape, but soft on the climbs. I had ridden Trail 260 a handful of times on the wheel of one of our best local riders, John Shumaker, trying to turn my inclination to slow down and pick the safe lines into a more aggressive approach. Essentially, I’d been learning how to have fun on a descent that scares me. The Jet 9 RDO helped. The trail conditions helped. In fact, one of my biggest ‘pat myself on the back’ moments during the race was realizing I smashed that descent, and loved it too. By looking at my Strava file, I learned that I took 45 seconds off my race time from last year. Sometimes the small victories mean as much as the big ones.
After Trail 260, I found myself in a group with Katerina and Georgia. We had about 15 minutes of climbing (Copper Creek Trail) before descending down Copper Basin Rd to Skull Valley and the turnaround. I was happy with being outnumbered as it gave me a bit of a free pass on pace setting. I was content to let our group grow after this point as anyone chasing back on had to put in some extra work. It also became clear that the climbing was going to be SLOW. The dirt roads around Prescott hold moisture for about 24 hours after a good rain. It rarely gets muddy, but what is typically hardpacked gets very soft. I was expecting an extra 10+ minutes of climbing from Skull Valley to the summit. Clearly, Georgia's record time from 2012 would stand another year (that time is a really big carrot for me and while I'm getting closer,I'm still not that close).
Up to this point in the race, I’d already had one Clif gel and a ½ package of Clif Bloks. Myron from Team Clif Bar handed me a Clif Organic Energy Food snack as we approached the turnoff to Copper Basin Rd. This was also the spot where Niner's photographer, Ian Hylands, setup for a shot. So I had this oversize gel hanging out of my mouth for a bunch of photos. Oops! Oh well, the Organic Energy Food sweet potato packet was the perfect fuel for such a long race. There are some other great flavors available (Banana-Beet, Banana-Mango, and Pizza) but I’m a big fan of the salty sweet potato. For one, that packet alone has 200 calories.
Onwards from Feed Zone 1, I tried resting up as much as possible before the turnaround and hour-long climb to the Sierra Prieta overlook. Rose Grant caught us shortly after starting the descent and we became a group of four at that point. It was great to see Rose in the group. She’s an incredible rider and has put in some serious work over the past couple years while raising her young daughter, Layla. I wasn’t surprised she bridged up to us and knew she’d be a factor on the climb, especially as the only one in the group on a hardtail. We cruised into Skull Valley, fueled up once again at Feed Zone 2 (more Clif sweet potatoes thanks to Kenny) and the we started the grind up to Sierra Prieta.
My goal on the Skull Valley climb was to conserve as much as possible up until Mile 8 (we started at zero and finished the climb 11.7 miles later, where the photo above was taken). From Mile 8, I’d start setting the pace with the goal of leading into the final downhill (and hopefully making our group smaller). The climb was slow, as I'd predicted. Typically I'd use my timer to help pace myself but I had to ignore it in case I’d start feeling slow. The wind also prevented anyone from steadily working and, I’ll be honest, I wasn't very concerned with the size of our group in the lower half of the climb. In my head, the race didn’t really start until after Mile 8. So up we climbed.
As planned, I helped push the pace from milepost 7.8 onwards. I was a little apprehensive as we had a bit of a headwind on the exposed parts of the climb and I had a hard time gauging how hard Rose and Georgia were pedaling. I put in a few mini-attacks which were probably pointless but they helped my confidence at that point as I still had plenty left in the tank. Katerina had been fighting a cold since Sea Otter and we had a small gap over her from Feed Zone 3 onwards. As we neared the summit, I was surprised when Rose took a strong pull at the front. Clearly she was still riding strong. That gave me a moment to take a breather before the accelerations into the singletrack at the top of the climb.
Georgia is one of the toughest competitors out there. She’s the one rider you know will never give up. Her performances are some of the grittiest out there (no matter where she's placed). I’ve been inspired and pushed to improve from many riders but Georgia’s toughness is right up there as the biggest inspiration. As a rider who has given up many, many times, it helps to have someone like Georgia to set the bar for perseverance, toughness, grittiness or whatever you want to call it. It’s awesome. So I'd prepared myself for a lot of scenarios in the last 35 minutes of racing (approximate time from Sierra Prieta to the finish), and I knew that it was going to be a tough battle with Georgia.
Ideally, I could ride away from my competitors in the first singletrack off of Sierra Prieta. That didn’t happen. No surprise. Georgia was right on my wheel as we hit the fire road sections past Trail 327. Another good scenario for the finish was coming in together as I am pretty confident in my sprint and find close finishes exciting and fun. In order to do that, I’d either have to lead the whole descent or keep Georgia in my sights on Cramp Hill.
Cramp Hill and I have an ugly history and I have yet to pedal up it cramp-free. In 2013, I faded from 3rd place to 6th place on that hill. Last year, I cramped badly and had Erin Huck make a move that I thought was the race for a few moments. This year, I was feeling pretty good as I hit cramp hill but knew that Georgia would likely make a move there. She did. And I felt some familiar cramps in my legs. Some minor cramping isn’t that bad and I focused on riding smooth and mistake free up the steepest pitches. Once the hill leveled into a false-flat uphill, I checked the approximate time gap to Georgia and started chasing (she had about 8 seconds). At the time, I was pretty focused on pacing myself and never had an 'oh shit, I just got dropped' moment. I quickly started making up time in the last few minutes of climbing.
I caught Georgia just before the entrance into another singletrack and quickly put some time into her. I didn’t think about it a whole lot, I just kept racing. Later, I learned that Georgia had some sort of mechanical on Cramp Hill. That was kind of an ‘oh that makes way more sense’ moment but it does not mean I’d otherwise have been out of contention. I’d played out that very scenario a few times (because Cramp Hill and I have a history) and I was prepared for a chase down Creekside Trail and a very close finish. The best scenario in any race is when your competitors have the best days they can and I was bummed to hear there was a mechanical. But, that’s racing.
What ended up transpiring is that I had a decent gap in the last six or so minutes of singletrack. I had a blast on Creekside Trail on my Jet 9 and rode it better than I had the past couple years. The crowds along the trail were awesome (even in the pouring rain) and it was pretty special to be the hometown rider. Once I hit the pavement, I kept pedaling and kept looking out behind me (in case Georgia was suddenly right there). I was clear to finish and got to sit up a bit and enjoy the last couple corners.
I can’t thank my support crew enough and all of our friends we got to catch up with that weekend. I especially want to thank TJ, my parents, Kenny, Shu, Brad and Ian for all the support over the Whiskey Off-Road weekend and preparing for the race. Thanks!!!
Of course, I owe a big thanks to my sponsors: Stan's NoTubes, Niner Bikes, Castelli, Maxxis, Fox Racing Shox, Lazer Sport, Crankbrothers, Fizik, G-Form, Wolf Tooth Components and Oakley.