Prescott, Arizona, is not normal. I had never been there before but I knew this to be true-blue fact.
I have met a number of people from Prescott in my days of travelling the west for Mountain Bike races. I was fresh out of high school and racing singlespeeds in Williams, AZ, when I met a gem of a character up for the race from Prescott. He was half crazy (making him full crazy, since he was half to begin with) telling me about all the riding in his hometown of Prescott, AZ. Right there on the start line he gave me his phone number and told me I could come live with him for as long as I wanted. I gave the proposition serious consideration although did not make good on the offer and delayed visiting the promised singletrack paradise for the time being.
It was a few years later that I was in the pits of 24 hours of Old Pueblo sharing space and equipment with another band of singlespeeders who all hailed from Prescott. Their team name was something to the effect of "The four black riders of the apocolyspe" or some such nonsense. We all hit it off and had a jolly riot turning laps around the course and laughing at each others misfortunes. They spoke more of a hidden paradise of trails where singletrack seemed to be laid out since the beginning of time and small crowds and year around riding where all they knew. They went home, I went home, and that was the last we heard from each other.
For 7 years now the "Whiskey 50 Offroad" has been taunting me. It has always fallen at a time of the year when I have so many other rides, races, and obligations that I have not been able to make the commitment to getting myself to the start line. Every year comes and I look over the website, hear from friends going , and have to be content with “not this year, but sometime.”
The time came this past May 2011. Todd Sadow, the event director, was putting on the biggest show yet. More money, more sponsors: bigger, better, badder. It was time to not sit on the sidelines any longer. I had found a bottle of Jack outside of work a few days before, it seemed appropriate to set beside my monitor as I paid my dues and registered for the 2011 running of the Whiskey 50 Offroad. I swear all I did was set it out.
Getting to Prescott is no easy task. It is not exactly on the way. In the normal way of things the bigger race format meant more people headed into town, which in turn meant more oppurtunities to car pool, and pool resources in general. It is a gorgeous trip across I-40 to Flagstaff and then turn it south, dowhill on I-17 until the final stretch west on Highway 89A into Prescott. This is the American West at it's finest. Big beautiful vast and unforgiving land continuously shifting its scope in front of you. Two thoughts always run through my head while traveling the West. Can you imagine how it would have feelt to be traversing the place 150 years ago? And can you imagine the ripping singletrack I could build on this stretch of earth? In both cases I can imagine, in fact my imagination can run wild. Dust storms, stampedes of buffalo, and the exaltation of rain or water. As well as multi drop lines, step ups onto rock shelves, and long carving descents with little need for brakes. From the time I was little through today I can pass endless miles of driving by picturing myself tearing across the landscape making impossible lines with ease and launching huge gaps with an unaccounted for speed. Before I knew it we were pulling into Prescott. The outskirts of town look like the typical suburban offerings but even then there is still the suspicion that lurking just ahead is something not quite average, that Prescott, Arizona is not normal.
Upon pulling into town me and my travelling mate did not stop to see the sights and mingle with the locals. We sought out the gold pot, that is, we crawled on our bike saddles and pointed our knobbies down singletrack. It was mere minutes of climbing from our parking spot at the local grocery store—where I had ammused a few passerbys by getting naked to crawl into my chamois in the parking lot—until we were on the first section of trail for the race. It was stellar. We climbed, descended, and traversed rocky bench cut singletrack hanging from old growth hillsides. It is not easy riding, not in the sense that you have to be a skilled vetran rider to ride the trail, but to ride it fast and smooth takes a lot of power. And as you know a lot of power only lasts for a little time. Smoothness , patience, and trail knowledge all will go a long way to making you fast and happy. After making a long hard scramble of a climb, stepping up countless water bars and slamming your way through rocky switchbacks, it is time to come down. Down hard and fast and fun, oh is it fun. There was good traction and with the trails well groomed for race day there was plenty of room to set up wide in the corners and dive through leaning hard and exiting wide, oh is it fun. The descent provided ample waterbar launchers and rocky steeps to keep the fun factor pegged at a 10.
We hit the road crossing and peeled off to spin home... wait, no we did not. We needed more singletrack. We made our way back from where we came. Oh it was good, even going the wrong way on the one way track. Back at the car we were slapping high fives and amped more than ever to race the next day.
The race provided three days of action. On Friday night we were treated to the highly entertaining spectacle of pro mountain bike racers racing a road crit. I found this hilarious. The rules were that you had to be on the same bike set up as you were going to race in the 50 but you were allowed to put on whatever tires you choose for the crit. The vast majority of racers did not bother changing tires, and they certainly did not bother drafting each other. It was just wild melley watching the free for all unfold. Racers were strung out across the course at all kinds of random intervals. Carl Decker was riding power wheelies up the main climb. Dejay Birch was taking bike hand ups each lap switching back and forth from gears to singlespeed. I am certainly no crit afficinado but I was laughing from a good healthy place watching these fish out of water. In the end Chris Sheppard sprinted off to win, but notably Tinker Juarez battled like the stubborn old dog he is and finished a highly respectable third. I could not help but wish that Steve Tilford was there to lap the whole field twice.
Saturday was the the big one and it was all play. Racers started gathering on the line early and I was happy when they called the singlespeeders to the front because I jumped ahead about 12 rows. It is always a great sight to see all the colors of bikes, jersey, and gear massed together at a start line. Encouraging spouses drug out of bed to tend to your needs and gather your warm up clothes before retiring to a day of hurry up and wait. All the sights and sounds of racing I have come to love are displayed right there on the Whiskey Row start line for all of our nervous energy to feast on. Being nervous before a race is part of the experience. It is good, but of course do not let yourself get carried away by them, recognize your emotions and thank them—for being there and for being a buffer between you and the effort ahead. In a way I believe it is that energy that allows you to make a transition from standing on the start line to slamming full force ahead and not just having your body go rigid in a big fat cramp from shock.
The race took off with an explosion, literally, as the Wild West cowboy mayor fired off some big rickety-looking gun and one of his buddies—no doubt unable to withstand the thought that he would miss out on firing his own gun on mainsteet—blasted off his own just after the Mayor. We were off and spinning down the street and quickly out of town. The route begins climbing on the pavement basically immeadiatley. The pace is high but still the group carries along together, no one is too excited to burn matches on a road climb at the begininning of 50 miles of racing. Up through the outskirts the road turns to dirt and gets steep. Here, contenders form at the front and the days positioning begins to take shape. Singletrack begins and you nearly feel the sigh of relief from the tribe of fat tire racers. We can only carry on with road/gravel so long—actually I should say so-short—before we all start getting antsy. Narrow trail defines the mountain bike experience and, as mountain bike racers, it is our quest to sort out who is the fastest through the trail on the day. If we wanted to see who can out climb each other on a gravel road we would have looked elsewhere. I know these sections have to be part of many races and they serve there purpose, but singletrack is the business.
We raced through the trails I had ridden the day before. The trails twist and turn across the hillsides at unusual and entertaining angles. For the most part 2 decades of trail riding has left me adept in knowing where likely the trail will be headed based on reading the terrain in view. Trail builders often resort to the line of least resistance for obvious reasons. This does not hold true in Prescott. I was pleased to find unexpected dives drops and switchbacks that were keeping me on my toes and engaging me deeper into the trail experience. The last descent of this section was a watery-eyed full throttle riot. From there it climbs a stair stepping double track. This is a key moment to try and get in some calories and hydration that you, if you are anything like me, have been neglecting in favor of keeping your two hands occupied in the piloting of your craft at unusually high velocities down the dirt corridor.
The climb stair-steps to warm you up before hitting a consistent positive grade, in fact at the top it becomes so positive that it is negative. Once on top you pass through a check point where you can recieve outside handups and turn the nose back down for a long dirt road descent into Skull Canyon. This is a descent that really rewards you for taking some chances, as long as you succeed. The gravelly surface does not provide superman confidence but it is always fun to go fast downhill. A few little kickers keep your legs from thinking the day is over. Down and down into the little village at the bottom. Then the sinking realization that you spent your check before you got paid. Gravity bucks are out and it is time to climb yourself out of this hole. You climb and climb and finally are back at the check point to realize that you did not read the fine print and interest rates are high. The road continues on for what feels like forever. I am not to proud to admit that I threw it down in two-heel drive and did some hiking. I was cramping and sad for myself because I was climbing like a walrus. When you hit points like this in a race you generally get angry and think about all the time you trained and the money you spent and the worrying over miniscule details you did, then it just floats away. Oh well, I am going to ride my bike to the finish line and have a blast.
The top did eventually come and there was a well supplied aid station there waiting just for me. I enhaled two bags of Famous Amos cookies, drank a Gatorade, and ate a few handfuls of pretzels. I was feeling much better immediately. I chatted with the folks at the top and learned that it was basically a long descent all the way home. The last singletrack sections is a ripper. It was more open and steep, you can take some big chances and let it hang out. Down towards the bootom you have a few fun creek crossing with a crowd gathered to instruct racers on the proper line and watch the inevitable carnage that crossing the slick rocks will cause. I love seeing people gathered on a course to watch people wreck. I always think back to one of my earliest races, it was down in Oklahoma and my dad had taken me and a crew of friends down to race. My dad raced as well, and after piling it up on some sketchy descent with the onlookeers gawking above him, he got up and freaked out yelling, "Are you happy now, Got what you came for!" The poor folks were to stunned to even reply and my Dad rumbled off. I bet they laughed uproariously after he left. I always do thinking back on it.
The singletrack ends to soon, it always does. The trail spits you back out on paverment to sprint a few miles downhill back into town, back onto Whiskey Row, and across the finish line. Your prize for finishing is a custom Pint glass, and about a half a block away is the beer garden, I can put two and two together.
This event event only will grow, all the ingredients are there and you need to not delay, go get yourself involved. Prescott is for you, you are not normal.