Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Whiskey Off Road 2016

The Whiskey -- quickly becoming my favorite race.

What is The Whiskey? 

What is the Whiskey Off Road? Iceman was the beginning the spark that led me to startlines and singletrack. Leadville is the once-in-a-lifetime event turned annual nearly sacred pilgrimage. But The Whiskey…The Whiskey is the secret party at the club with no name on the door. Everyone knows it's there, all you need to do is sign up and get yourself to Prescott in time for the start. All the cool kids with the hats and the shirts and the beards and the funky websites are there.  Singlespeeders, 69ers, Klunkers (and yes, the guys on the Klunks may just beat you on your carbon fiber racer). Even some famous people. Guys with names like Todd, Tinker, Brian, Troy and Nino. Girls with names like Chloe, Georgia, Rose, Evelyn, Sonya...if you're into that sort of thing (and you should be...they are amazing to watch).

The Whiskey is a fun-bomb wrapped around a race that is a hell of a lot harder than it lets on. 5000' of altitude and 7000' of climbing in 50 miles are no joke. Neither are the 7000' of true MTB descent. Even the paved roads require attention as they leave you gasping for breath, or scattered on the pavement if you're not ready. The race itself is what a mountain bike race is meant to be.  Big mountains with amazing views, trail obstacles that even the best riders can’t clean every time, fans that heckle your ability to clear streams, and a start/finish venue that resembles a music festival as much as it does an athletic event. 

That is not an easy profile..

The entire weekend could be spent in Prescott getting deeply into the mountain bike scene. Pro crit Friday with all kinds of spectating options, 15 mile fun ride Friday, 50 and 30 milers Saturday, all day outdoor concerts that last well into the night after the Saturday race, and then the big boys and girls put their knobbies on the line Sunday morning.  Just when you were feeling good about your finish, you can watch them fly through the final stream crossing like it's smooth blacktop...but the fun of cheering is just ticket to recover from an epic day.

That weekend report is for another time. Because I've never made it happen. I drive up, race, and come home on the same day.  That is my life.

This year my race was enabled by the incomparable Laurel Darren-Simmons. She picked up my race packet on Friday, allowing me to work and take care of the family. Laurel is amazing. She has an ability to be inspiring, intense, insane, and incredibly humble all at the same time.  She and Fatty may never realize what inspirations they are, but that's yet another story for another day.  If you want some of that Laurel Darren-Simmons sparkle in your life, get on down to the valley of the sun and have The Wild Bunch Desert Guides take you out for a ride....

Lots of prep and worry

Here's the thing about weather at 5000-7000' in late April:  it's unpredictable. I've done the Whiskey in 80 degree desert sun, 30 and dumping snow, overcast, and brilliant 60 degree spring days.

Forecast for 2016:  60 and rain after 11am Perfect racing weather! 

Of course, I was ready for anything and everything. Thermal knickers, thermal tights, light arm warmers, Fatty arm warmers, GoreTex jacket, rain jacket, and ski parka were all options.
No rain jacket for me, right?
Thanks to some advance planning, everything was in the car Friday night. All I needed to do was put the bike on the rack, mix up my CarboRocket/itsthenerve magic potions, and hit the road. So even with all that decision making to be done, I had the entire 90 minute drive to the start to stress about it and figure it out.

I went with Shadetree Bumblebee jersey, Fatty arm warmers and socks, and my old reliable TwinSix shorts.  I stared at my rain jacket for a few minutes, took it in and out of my jersey pocket.  Tried sticking it in by bib suspenders.  Took one more look at the big grey clouds and decided I would just be wet anyway from sweat or rain, so just left it in the bag.  Foreshadowing?  Perhaps…

I seem to have timed everything correctly. I had low stress no rush bike prep, no line for the portos, and about 15 minutes to chat with people at the start. Perhaps several years of taking mountain bike racing “seriously” has me actually knowing how this all works.  I even got a picture of Shadetree bikes owner Joey D smiling. I assure you. This is very rare.

Joey Smiles.  Because he's not dealing with a bike I broke

Under the gathering clouds Kaolin and the gang whipped us up.  Guys shotgunned beers in the back, really fast guys stretched a bit, nudged each other for starting position.  I wondered if I had lubed my chain appropriately, if I had remembered to tighten my seat bolt, thought about going to the bathroom again, and remembered this is a real race, so I should probably eat something before I head off into the mountains for 5 hours. I pulled the Kind bar I had grabbed from the pantry on the way out the door out of pocket and thought “mmmm….chocolaty goodness here I come”.  Note to self and loving wife:  the Kind bars in the pantry are stale.  I muddled through though.  No quitting.

The racers compressed as we approached the start, everyone pushing forward a little bit and setting their bikes in the correct gear.  On my right side was a guy from Boston.  He was wearing shorts and a jersey.  No warmers of any sort.  The guy on my left had knee warmers, thermal shorts, Goretex vest, and a balaclava.  One of the three of us was doing this wrong.

The course was rerouted for 2016. Overall, great changes as there were very few backups that have plagued previous versions.  Somehow by adding singletrack the organizers managed to create FEWER bottlenecks. Oh, that's because they also added mileage at the beginning, going straight. Up. Hill. Ordinarily, adding a few miles of climbing off the line is something that a slightly twisted mind like mine loves. Uphill where I don't have to worry about grabbing the correct wheel, handlebars hooking and people crashing?  A stiff climb that allows me to gap big chunks of the field?  Yes please! Woe betide anyone stuck behind me on the descents....they should have pushed harder on the climb.

Except this year. This race. I'm not in shape. I've been on 16 flights in the last 6 weeks. My training plan is a shambles. I'm busting my tail at work to launch what I plan to be a pretty amazing team -- and create some opportunities for special people at the same time. Stress levels are high -- and since I am gone so much I can't bear to be gone Saturday and Sunday mornings to train. My diet is unmm...spotty.  While I'm ready for the travel of work, I've not yet been able to establish a the evening and/or morning workouts are ground out on a spin bike in the work gym.  Good for mental toughness I guess, but not good for the watts/kg numbers. I need a beater bike.  I need a full set of lights.  I need to be less afraid of riding in traffic in Silicon Valley.  I need to get to Reno more.

Not exactly what you would call optimal run up to the Whiskey.

My goals in races are usually the same.  Get the top ½ of my age group.  I made a mental note to ride hard. Not super hard, because really, I wasn’t RACING this year, I was just trying to do a hard ride. Besides, I’m still kind of fast…so going like 90% should still put me in the top half right?


And I dropped the hammer off the line trying to pass as many people as I could up the strating straight, as we turned right and kept going up, then turned left….
….and now I’m gasping for air as the 5000’ of elevation and general lack of effective training caught up with the 5 minutes of near sprint off the line.

I reminded myself it was OK. I was not really racing, and I seem to have put myself with my cohort.  People tapping out a pretty steady rhythm either mashing or spinning…a few huffing and puffing, but most focused on cranking out the watts as we kept.  Going.  Up.  Hill.  But maybe I am racing?  Don't know. Trying to go a little faster than I am every minute?  I guess so. So maybe I was racing.  At any rate, racing or not. I was in until the finish.

The Whiskey is a serious race. It's also serious fun. There are options of which route to take. Huh?  This is a race, why do you need to make a decision?  I think this was all to help with the bottlenecking, and it certainly worked.  I was very happy that the signs were clearly labled “shorter” and “longer” – a fact that would make my actual race far less stressful than I thought it would be if I had to remember, “OK, Wolverton…then Jack Pine, or was that Circle Trail…then 260.  Wait, which trail?  I have no idea…is there a bacon sandwich on that turn?”

At the first choice there was the clear sign “SHORTER”  and “LONGER”.  I hesitated for moment, thinking, “hmmm…I heard the longer trail was really cool”, but then I noticed the “SHORTER” sign also pointed downhill.  So downhill it was…because I was really tired of going uphill. 

This was a great section of race course.  Famous northern AZ single track...smooth as butter, except for when it's not. Then it's rocky insanity. There were some tricky bits, some scary bits. Tall pines and little ledges to catch some air.  Just a few little backups as people lost their line or missed a shift…I kind of wanted to go back and ride the whole section again.  Oh wait…this is a race.

Now about 30 minutes in I was thinking “I should eat or drink something”.  But this is the problem with mountain bike racing.  We were on pretty fast, somewhat tricky singletrack.  If I took a hand off the bars I’d be off the course and in a tree, or a cactus.  I was now worried…must eat and drink or it’s bonk city.  I could stop…but I’m racing, right?

To race or not to race?

We crossed a road and the woman behind me said “hey, if this is where I think it is, we have a six mile climb now”.  Gee thanks for telling me?  “but it’s not too steep, until the’s a really wonderful trail”.  While I appreciated her cheeriness, the information was way more than I wanted.  What I knew, and what I was focused on was holding the wheel of the guy in front of me, and looking for a place to pass him.  I was even riding in one gear higher than was comfortable so I could do a quick burst of power and get past him.

I guess I was racing again.  Right up Jack Pine road to the top of Wolverton mountain. 

At the top of this climb is a feature called “The Wall” I have no idea how steep or long it is, because I chickened out. As I came up to the wall, there was a conga line of walkers...and the 3rd detour!  Around the wall or over the wall?  I'm not really racing, am I?  If rather ride than walk.  Around it was!

More climbing. Affectionately known as the "waterbar" climbs. This was getting tough.  Lots of walking with some traffic, I do wish I had been able to ride, but I think much of the time I would have had to walk around the waterbars anyway.  I guess I wasn’t really racing anymore…just out for the good ride.

I crested the climb and hit the high point of the course. From here, it was about 15 miles downhill…mostly.  Of course about 2 miles of that downhill were super-intense steep rocky rutted trail that was waaaay more taxing on my legs than climbing.  Grabbing by brakes pretty much as hard as I could, hanging my butt over the rear wheel, and trying to remember to breathe as I bounced down the trail (mostly) making the turns.  Even with all that I managed to over-cook a hairpin right turn, and had to come to a full stop to avoid a plunge…at the bottom I was totally out of breath, and my HR was crawling up to Zone 4…from going DOWNHILL. 

That bit of insane DH is called Trail 260. Someone should name it something else like ‘holy crap, glad I’m alive downhill” or something like that.  Because that’s what I was thinking when I got to the bottom.  I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be on a climb than when I started up the 3 miles or so to the Copper Basin road intersection.  My fingers were cramping from grabbing the breaks so hard, I needed to give them a rest and 3 miles of uphill would do just that. The race vs no race battle continued. I wasn’t stopping to eat or drink – I can do that while pedaling, and I was not taking pictures or chatting too much with other racers...but I was not going deep in the pain cave to go faster either.

The Whiskey like so many races has a point-of-no-return.  Or a bail-out depending on your viewpoint. The intersection at Copper Basin road has two choices.  Right to climb 2.5 miles to the Sierra Peretta overlook and complete the 30 mile loop (or DNF the 50…shudder), or left and down 9.5 miles to Skull Valley when you get to turn around and climb 12 to the overlook.  My raceplate said “50”, so left it was, down the dirt road which is trickier to navigate at speed than it sounds.  The dirt was alternately tacky and slick, there were few raindrops in the air so I backed it down. Eat, drink.  I'm not racing, but…I'd like to pass those guys in front of me. And that single speeder I passed on the downhill, maybe I can go fast enough so he doesn't pass me on the next climb. And hey, haven't seen the really fast guys yet...maybe crank it up a bit.  So…maybe I’m racing again. 

This is the section of the course where you see the leaders coming up the hill that you get to go up in about 10-15 minutes, depending on how fast you have been, and how much you’re attacking the descent.  I kept waiting for the leaders.  The first year I did this thing they passed me as I loaded up with water at the T- intersection where the people smart enough to sign up for 30 miles turn right.  This year I kept waiting to see them – I was feeling slow remember?  And waiting….finally the lead rider on a break from the main pack came by.  He was accelerating uphill on the attack, knobbies making that whirring sound that only accelerating knobbies propelled by someone who’s Got the Watts on dirt make.  He had gapped the lead group of about 20 by 50 meters or so…but the pack was organized in 2 lines up front and a tight group of riders behind.  I only saw them for a few seconds as I descended, but I was reminded that appearances lie in Mountain Bike races. In that lead pack. 2 Drunk Cyclists, at least 1 guy in jeans shorts, and all variety of shop and team kit.  Singlespeeders leading the climbing train. One thing they all had in common…intensity.  Heads down, elbows out, driving the cranks around.  The solo attack was not going to last.

Up ya Go 

As I made the turn-around, reloaded my bottles with my CarboRocket stash, the rain stated coming down in earnest.  Soaked to the bone pretty quick I knew this may become a miserable 12 miles up out of Skull Valley, but there was a blissful element of grace from the Mountain Gods.  Tailwind.  A fierce one.  A gift like that only means one thing.  Start cranking. Gotta work to stay warm, even with the tailwind.  So I started passing people. Lots of people.  Couple of guys looking very wobbly…I slowed and asked if they needed help – just tired they said.  This climb is no Columbine, but it’s no joke. 5000’ of altitude and 2700’ of elevation gain will make most of us a bit dizzy.  No one was stopped though, and with thoughts of Powerline 2015 ringing in my ears, I made sure to ask everyone I passed how they were doing…whether they wanted me to or not. 

Every year about 6 miles into the 12 miles up, I think to myself “why the heck did I not sign up for the 30?  This is ridiculous. I’m tired. I’m wet.  I’m dizzy.” The climb gets steeper here and all the little flats and downhills are done.  Just what feels like straight up the side of this mountain for another 6 miles.   So I dialed up a little Laurel Darren-Simmons in my head.  A little reminder that we all indeed kick ass.  It’s just a matter of how hard you want to kick it that day.  Rain?  Hill?  What would Laurel Do?  She’d smile, dial-in the attitude that has motivated RAAM racers, and countless participants in her group rides, let out a big ol’ WHOOP and tap out that rhythm up, up, up to where the clouds were covering the Sierra Pieretta overlook where we were headed.  So the head said “I think I'm racing now”.  I started to stand when I got tired.  The lungs started to hurt, but the heart reminded them, “Never soft pedal”. If the legs start to to hurt too much, shift back in the saddle. Then forward again for more power. Yeah. That guy news-boying up the hill. He's mine. Pass. Ask him how he’s doing, a semi-lucid response says he’s doing it right…he’s able to put it all into the pedals. 

I was playing a bit of leapfrog with a singlespeeder, but I only got passed firmly by one person. A girl of course in Construction Zone kit. She went by like I was an old guy 15 lbs overweight and undertrained—oh wait.  I get passed like that all the time.

9 miles into this climb there’s the aid station.  Positioned at the intersection where racers make their decision to keep going for 50 or DNF and go 30…or just do the 30 mile race.  As I mentioned the 3 miles to the aid are pretty steep.  And the 3 miles after the aid are darn steep also.  The aid is either the worst momentum killer ever, or the little break you need to make the final push up to the overlook.  Traditionally, this is where I start cramping.  The 6 miles of climb, and the race in general to this point have taken their toll, and the gastrocs or adductors give in and start cramping.  By the time I get to the aid, I’m in total management mode, spinning as lightly as I can and pushing fluids and electrolytes trying to uncramp.

But not this year.

No cramps.

Sure, I was tired, I was sore, my legs hurt.  My lungs hurt.  My neck hurt.

But I was not cramping!  So I kept the pressure up.  Standing, sitting, add a gear for a bit…sitting again when the rear wheel slipped out because I was over the front of the bars.

I got to the aid the best I've ever felt.  Here I was my Shadetree bumblebee jersey emphasizing the nice round shape by belly has attained, and I was actually coherent and not cramped at the aid station. Maybe I should have gone faster?  I glanced at my computer and I was vaguely aware I had gotten here from the turn-around a bit faster than I expected, but didn’t worry to much about it. I took my time...filled the bottles, ate a Gu, thanked the volunteers...3 miles of climbing to the clouds now, then 10 miles (mostly) downhill to the finish.

The rain had let up.  I looked around.  I thought to myself “I can beat all these people”.  Let’s see if I can burn some of this excess fuel storage before the end of the race.

The rest of the climb to the Overlook hurt. No doubt.  Up above 6500’ now, headed for 7200’.  This is where the Whiskey Off Road gets really awesome.  The last bit of the long long climb on what starts to feel like an endless road is very accessible from town.  Spectators set up barbeques, people host parties at their houses on the course.  Hand ups and heckling begin in earnest…and the high-5s and cheering.  My number plate was clearly “50”.  The hecklers came out to give grief to every 30 miler I passed.  I tried to represent the Shadetree as well as I could.  All smiles – OK grimaces – and high-5s to every kid that was willing.  To the woman with a silver-haired ponytail on the singlespeed that passed me like I was standing still, “29 and Single!  Way to go dirty girl!”

I was racing.  

40 Miles into the Whiskey comes the most insane descent of the race.  Steep. Singletrack.  Babyheads. Loose Dirt. Sharp turns, and a drop off. You’re pretty hypoxic, potentially cramping, and just damn tired.  It’s freakin’ awesome.  This is the section where I realized the biggest gap in my fitness might not have been my legs or lungs.  It was definitely my arms and torso.  I’m a pretty tentative on the descents, but I was really pushing it this time.  The dirt was tacky, tires were grippy, and I was moving fast.  Then my triceps cramped.  And my lats.  This was weird, and made navigation a bit difficult.  But I was racing, and it was time to push on. 

Down from the overlook and onto the forest floor…it feels like you’re riding on the 3rd moon of Endor.  It’s a darn nice change after dealing with the rocks, ruts, and drops higher up on the mountain. 

There is one more obstacle in the Whiskey.  Cramp Hill.  It is appropriately named, as it is often full of people walking, even though on any other day, it is not much of a climb.  This year there was quite the crew set up a the steepest part of the climb, about ½ way in.  They were loud…they were excited…and they were really good hecklers. I love hecklers at mountain bike races.  So with the crew from DC, State Bicycles, and all their buds whooping up a storm, I made my biggest tactical error for a guy who was supposed to be racing.  I hit the bottom of the climb close behind a rider I had been leap-frogging since the aid station about 6 miles back.  He was going pretty slow, but the line was very narrow.  On either side big chunky, loose babyheads that I really did not feel like powering through.  Well, he was going so slow I could not get the cadence and gear I wanted and I could feel my leg tightening up.  I took a chance and moved around him, and my left leg immediately rebelled, starting to cramp from the inner thigh.  The crew was screaming their heads off, waving whiskey bottles, and proffering refreshments for all. 

They recognized the Shadetree jersey  (who could miss it?!) and started yelling for me.  Actually, they started letting me know very politely that a dude on a carbon fiber racing bike was about to be passed by a guy in jeans on a Surly Ice Cream Truck and a girl on a singlespeed.  Very nice things they were yelling like, “Don’t embarrass Joey you slow, fat, not-taking-our-whiskey mofo!” (Joey owns Shadetree Bikes…).   All love.  All the time.  I tried to yell back.  But my leg was cramping up, I was falling over, trying to get out of my pedal, and all I managed was “urrrghhaaa”.  I took the further heckling .  Got a swing of itsthenerve, some water, and I was on my way.

I made the top of Cramp Hill and vowed to fly to the finish. There was great singletrack, a stream crossing, and then paved road to the finish.  The stream crossing attracts TONS of spectators who have been there all day…celebrating.  Lots of cheering, lots of cheering, lots of hoping tired mountain bike racers end up taking a bath. It’s a pretty easy crossing…unless you’re at the tail end of your endurance, and you’re suffering performance anxiety in front of the cameras, TV crews, and party goers.

I went for it.  I added gears and accelerated approaching the rocky stream crossing.  I was going to hit it at speed and fly up the embankment on the other side.  I was perfectly lined up, then the guy in front of me crashed coming out of the stream.  Somewhere, somehow a good bike rider took over and made a slick move on a big rock mid stream, dodging around the downed rider. 

There were cheers

There were jeers

I cleaned the stream crossing, powered the embankment, and got shot by S. Jesus.  Achievement unlocked – I’m on the DC Blog in Shadetree kit!

Coming out of the creek.  Hard damn work  Photo:  S. Jesus/
On the paved road home I started picking off riders in front of me.  Yeah, I was still racing.  Turning onto the finish hill/straight there were 4 people between me and the finish line.  Adding gears I stood up and sprinted to the line.  Got them all, and yeah, I posted up. Because I was in a freakin’ race.

Looking at the data I did way better than I thought I did.  I had my fastest time ever on the climb out of Skull Valley.  I also PR'd the turn around to the finish and the descent from the highpoint to The low in Skull Valley.  So, I was faster than I thought I would be both up and down, once I decided to race!  I can't complain

An great day on the bike.  The Whiskey lit the fire in my belly…it’s time to pretend I’m a bike racer again.

Useful Finisher prize

A Fat Tire, what else?


  1. Loved this! Man, you're going to make me come to Prescott next year, aren't you?!