Photo by Brian Leddy (www.brianleddy.com)
The weather for Saturday, April 26 called for temperatures in the mid to high 40s, 30 mile-an-hour winds and steady rain. Typically, in Prescott, Arizona, late April is glorious; sunny and mid-70s all day, every day for weeks on end. And that’s how the weather was for two of the three days at this year’s Whiskey Off-Road. But on Saturday, the day of the amateur race, Prescott resembled the Pacific Northwest more than it did Arizona.
For three days leading up to the race, I was getting texts and emails from friends in San Diego and Arizona asking if the race was going to be cancelled. Cancelled? It’s only one of the biggest mountain bike races of the year, and the forecast isn’t even calling for a half-inch of rain. Do these people think they’re going to melt? What a bunch of pussies. HTFU was my response. It’s only some rain. Deal with it.
Photo by Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier (www.dcourier.com)
Saturday morning started as anticipated—cold, windy and wet. Thankfully I checked the weather forecast before leaving Reno and was semi-prepared for the weather. Thanks to northern European blood, I don’t need much in the way of clothing when riding in cold, so I threw on a super warm Hincapie wool base layer, a jersey, a Hincapie wind vest, arm warmers and leg warmers. I had some Patagonia neoprene/leather gloves that work great in cold weather, but not so sure how they’d be when wet. For socks, I went with the old zip-lock bag trick and put one on each foot between two layers of wool socks.
At 7:30am on Whiskey Row and I was seeing wet snowflakes falling. Huh, so much for rain. This one might get interesting in a hurry. And it did. The shotgun blast was heard and we were off in a giant rolling enclosure of dudes wearing a mix of Lycra, Hefty garbage bags, plastic shopping bags and copious amounts of duct tape. One guy had a Daisy Duke-style Hefty bag, cinched up to his midriff and bunched in the back with duct tape. Another dude had shoes completely wrapped in duct tape as well as his helmet. Nothing says preparation like Hefty bags, plastic shopping bags and duct tape.
As we climbed out of town the snow got heavier and the winds got stronger. I was pretty damn wet already, but as long as I stayed moving my body, hands and feet were warm. The trail and trees began to accumulate with snow. I couldn’t believe that I was in Arizona in late April. I told myself over and over not to crash or get a flat. Stopping in these conditions would be the kiss of death, or hypothermia.
I came around a ridge at nearly 6,500-feet and the snow turned to hail, accompanied by a gentle 40 mph breeze that hit me in the face sideways. It was as if someone took a straw broom and incessantly whacked me on the side of the head with it. I belted out a WOO HOO, because honestly, it was….yes, I’m going to say it…EPIC. Nearly 800 competitors pushing themselves in a 50-mile mountain bike race while Mother Nature dishes out her absolute worst; days like this make you feel alive even as you are freezing to death.
On the first big rocky technical descent I indeed felt alive, careening down the mountain in a full on snow squall, blazing by overly cautious riders left and right. Now if only I could feel my fingers, everything would be grand. My neoprene gloves were totally waterlogged and my fingers were fully numb. At every available opportunity I would suck on my fingers and spit water out to try and keep the gloves somewhat warm and dry. I wasn’t sure if permanent nerve damage was being done, but if I could just make it down to Skull Valley at 3,500 feet elevation, it would be a lot warmer and drier, and the 12-mile climb back up to Sierra Prieta Overlook at 7,000 feet would thaw out my hands.
Photo by Brian Leddy (www.brianleddy.com)
After choking down half a smoked salmon bagel and some GU Roctane drink on the climb, my hands were fully back and functional. Part of the course is an out-and-back, so while climbing out of the valley, I watched hundreds of people descending in all kinds of strange clothing. In addition to the popular Hefty bag, people were wearing yellow rain ponchos, full-on rainsuits with pants flapping in the wind, ski masks and ski jackets; anything to keep from freezing to death on the 12-mile descent.
The top of Sierra Prieta was completely covered in snow, as was most of the initial descent back into Prescott. I couldn’t believe that less than 24 hours ago the exact same trail was drier than a popcorn fart with blown out corners everywhere. Now I had to make sure not to tag a sharp rock hidden by two inches of snow; a rock some poor bastard in front of me hit, paralyzing him on the side of the trail in a frozen mess. Struggling to see through my muddied and fogged up glasses, I safely made it back into town where only the hardiest spectators were watching. Fifth place singlespeeder and 17th overall. However, my boy Cameron Brenneman slayed it, not only winning the singlespeed race and round trip airfare to Singlespeed World Championships in Alaska this July, but also winning the overall amateur race.
It was only after the race that I learned of all the harrowing tales. The notorious conga line of riders towards the back of the field brought riding to a halt at the first section of singletrack, leaving them standing for minutes in the midst of a snowstorm. Volunteers began making small bonfires for racers to thaw out, while others ran their car engines so people could dry their bodies and clothing with the engine’s heat.
After seeing so many lycra, Hefty bag and duct taped mountain biker refugees huddled around makeshift fires, the Sheriff’s department started turning riders back to town. It simply wasn’t safe to have as many as 800 people frozen and wet in the wilderness. As a result, only 350 riders out of about 700 starters finished the Whiskey 50 this year, as compared to 620 finishers last year.
Equal to the determination of those 350 riders was the dedication of Epic Rides crew members and volunteers, who could have easily bailed from their posts in the high winds and snow squalls. Instead, they helped make sure everyone stayed warm and safe, getting back to town in one piece. Everyone from the fire department and National Forest Service to city and county employees pulled together to ensure a safe event in remarkably bad conditions.
Through all the pain and suffering, not once did I see or hear anyone bitch, moan, complain or cry. Both men and women toughed it out and braved the elements while still having a huge, half-frozen smile on their faces. For this year’s finishers, the reward was bigger than ever. And that’s why I love mountain biking so much. Tough, resourceful, selfless, positive and always looking to have a good time; mountain bikers are a hardy bunch, and this year’s Whiskey Off-Road proved it to me yet again.
Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at [email protected]. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.