Photo: Scott Bideau Photography
For nearly 20 years, a certain species of mountain biker flocked to Prescott, Arizona every April. It was the type of rider who was looking for a long, tough day on the bike, ample singletrack, and a post-race concert and party that rivaled the ride in its epic-ness.
And then in 2020, the migration abruptly stopped. And again in 2021, the Whiskey Off-Road mountain bike race was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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So three years later, when event promoter Epic Rides put the Whiskey Off-Road back on the calendar for late-April 2022, you had to wonder: Would the riders return to Prescott? Fortunately they did, and fortunately Epic Rides weathered the worst of the pandemic to carry on with one of the most important events on the U.S. mountain bike calendar.
“There's not a ton of that style of racing in the U.S. I think Epic Rides is a really cool mix between marathon and cross-country. It's always fun. It's always a good weekend.” — Keegan Swenson, multi-time Whiskey Off-Road champion
As the world began to grasp the severity of the pandemic in mid-March 2020, Epic Rides President & CEO, Todd Sadow, faced the same grim reality as anyone else in the business of live events. After a successful 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo in March, he had to put the brakes on the marquee event on the Epic Rides calendar, the Whiskey Off-Road.
“I think everybody was hopeful, right?” He told The Pro’s Closet after the 2022 Whiskey Off-Road. “Oh, well maybe we'll come back online next month for the Grand Junction event. By the time we had to cancel Carson City Off-Road, which was in June, then it was like, okay, I don't think we're having any more events anytime soon. Basically, Epic Rides atrophied very heavily over the next two years.”
In the topsy-turvy year that was 2020, some organizers turned to virtual events or challenges to make a little money and keep participants engaged. Sadow and Epic Rides didn’t go that route.
“We pride ourselves on giving people authentic, soulful, gritty mountain bike experiences,” said Sadow. “And so to all of a sudden put on a virtual event? I'm all for incentivizing people to get in their miles and to stay fit and be healthy. But I think that we just felt like everyone would be better off just going for a mountain bike ride and maybe not letting the pandemic be part of their mountain bike ride.”
“We're just fully committing, no matter what pops up between now, and then we're gonna bank on these events happening. And if they don't, it's gonna be a glorious, glorious, implosion of a company.” — Todd Sadow, Epic Rides President & CEO
Like many companies, Epic Rides availed itself of the U.S. Government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to stay afloat for 2020. However, that support only went so far. Plus, the company’s unconventional business model, built around six big annual events, wasn’t a perfect fit for an emergency loan program that was meant for everything from local restaurants to small manufacturing companies.
If Epic Rides could have rolled into 2021 with events on the calendar, the pandemic might have simply dealt a glancing blow to the business, not a near-mortal wound. But given the timing of its events, it wasn’t so simple. COVID-19 vaccinations weren’t widespread enough until early summer to make major events feel safe, so Epic Rides — and the Whiskey Off-Road — remained dormant while other big events, such as Unbound Gravel and Leadville 100, returned to racing.
By late summer 2021, it was do or die. Epic Rides had to pull off the Oz Trails Off-Road and the Tour of the White Mountains. Epic Ride needed these two October events to survive.
“Going into those October events, it was like, well, is this gonna happen or not?” Sadow said. “We're just fully committing, no matter what pops up between now, and then we're gonna bank on these events happening. And if they don't, it's gonna be a glorious, glorious, implosion of a company.”
Singletrack is plentiful on the Whiskey Off-Road course. Photo: Sportograph Photography
Beyond the loss of jobs and livelihood that would result from a bankruptcy, Epic Rides would have left a void in the American MTB scene if it had to close its doors.
“It would've been a real bummer,” said Keegan Swenson, winner of the Whiskey Off-Road in 2022, 2019, and 2018. “There's not a ton of that style of racing in the U.S. I think Epic Rides is a really cool mix between marathon and cross-country. It's always fun. It's always a good weekend.”
Fortunately, despite some uncertainty due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus, the 2021 Oz Trails Off-Road and Tour of the White Mountains went off successfully. And participant interest was strong, pent-up from more than a year without mountain bike racing.
“When Oz Trails and Tour of the White Mountains were over, it was like somebody released a pressure valve,” said Sadow of his two events in October 2021. “We all are starting to understand the ebb and flow of the pandemic now and how safe it is to be at an outdoor event.”
So, with sorely needed revenue in the bank, and a bit of optimism for the coming season, Epic Rides set out with a pared-back calendar of events for 2022. Whiskey Off-Road was coming back.
“It’s one of my favorite races of the year, and I definitely missed it the last two years,” said Swenson. “Last year, I was pretty optimistic it would happen, and then, we got the email that it wouldn't, and I was definitely bummed. So it was pretty cool to go back and it seemed like the town and the whole city was pretty stoked to have us.”
And the top pros weren’t the only ones who had missed the classic 50-miler. Sadow said it was the biggest Whiskey Off-Road ever with 2,250 registrations and a waitlist that brought the total of committed riders to more than 3,000.
“It's one of the more iconic races in the U.S. Whiskey 50’s a pretty cool, unique event. It's just a special one, you know?” — Keegan Swenson
So it was smooth sailing into Prescott for the 2022 Whiskey Off-Road, right? Not so fast.
About 10 days before the event, the Crooks wildfire broke out in the Prescott National Forest, about 11 miles south of Prescott. From the beginning, the incident command for the firefighting operation was in close communication with Sadow. Then a week before the Whiskey, he got an ominous email asking for his “plan B,” “plan C,” and a drop-dead date for canceling the race.
“I saw that, and my heart sank,” Sadow said. “I was like, ‘Oh God, this is happening.’ I quite literally had to leave what I was doing and just go sit down for a while and digest it.”
He made his back-up plans, got on a call with the incident commander and their team of firefighting experts and hoped for the best. On the Wednesday before the event, he got good news that, according to the fire forecasters — who had been 100% accurate up to that point — they were clear to host the Whiskey Off-Road.
“We lucked out with the fire,” said Sadow. “The winds blew the smoke and ash away from the city of Prescott. We ended up with blue skies all weekend and really almost kind of perfect conditions.”
Along with the racing, Epic Rides puts on a community concert at Whiskey Off-Road, and that too was back in 2022 and bigger than ever. Photo: Eddie Clark Media
Even if there were stressful days and sleepless nights in the lead-up to the event, it wasn’t apparent to the thousands of people who turned out in Prescott.
“Honestly, not much had changed since 2019,” said Swenson. “I'd say it was the same vibe, just seemed like everyone was a little more excited. It seemed a little bit bigger, maybe more people, more spectators.”
“We pride ourselves on giving people authentic, soulful, gritty mountain bike experiences.” — Todd Sadow
It’s good that the Whiskey Off-Road hasn’t changed much, and there’s also good reason why it hasn’t changed much. This event has grown organically over the course of its 17 editions. It’s always focused on the rider experience, but it’s been sure to showcase the pro riders and reward them with some of mountain biking’s most generous prize purses. Whiskey Off-Road and Epic Rides has a loyal following that’s been hard-earned and well-deserved.
“It's one of the more iconic races in the U.S.,” Swenson added. “Whiskey 50’s a pretty cool, unique event. It's just a special one, you know?”
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