Photos: Patrick Means
Video: Kerry Werner
Words: Spencer Paxson // Patrick Means // Barry Wicks
Six mountain bikers with a penchant for riding far and fast set off on a week-long journey along the trails and roads north of Phoenix, Arizona. The crew is none other than the Kona Adventure Team, made up of MTB veterans who know exactly what it takes to squeeze the most out of a good day on the bike. Their aim is to explore how much fun is actually possible (Types 1 and 2, yes) while pushing the limits of where they can take their bikes and how hard they can be ridden. Comprised of stalwart photographer-rider Patrick Means, reigning 24-hour World Champion Cory Wallace, 2-time US cyclocross bronze medalist Kerry Werner, multi-disciplinary tough guy Spencer Paxson, along with Barry Wicks and Kris Sneddon, one of North America's most pioneering and successful MTB stage race duos of all time, the team collectively holds 100 years of elite race experience, and dances the line between pro-level competition and obscure backcountry journeys. For this trip, the team met up in Phoenix Arizona at a 2-star hotel to kick off the season in apt style: ride mountain bikes from the airport to the big race, do the race, then ride back. Read on for the story as told by the riders (in three parts) of how they went to one of America’s most competitive endurance MTB races and didn’t rent a car.
Do this after you’ve left home a few hundred times, kids: do something you’ve done many times before, and do it with a big twist.
Such was our experience at the 15th Annual Whiskey Off Road. We’d done it collectively around thirty times. We’d been on the podium, we’d been around last place, we’d been somewhere in between, and so the race itself was nothing new. The twist was that we traveled to-and-from the event by mountain bike. Instead of the typical racer's approach of arriving at the airport, renting a car and zipping to a comfy accommodation, we mapped out a route across 130 miles of urban sprawl into desert scrub into pine-forest mountains. We slept in the dirt. Then we did the race. And then we rode back. Instead of six or eight hours of total ride time during a typical race trip we logged over thirty. Indeed, we made the most of it, and it was remarkable. Here are some moments that stuck. PART I: THE OUTBOUND, Patrick Means, Team Photographer:
"It started about 5hrs into our day. That’s when I really felt the heat. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d felt the hot, Phoenix, Arizona, heat since flying in from Oregon the night before. We’d started our ride in the heat of the day, it being 100+ degrees the whole time. But this...this was something else. We’d been riding the Black Canyon Trail for about an hour or so and luckily someone was still riding behind me (curse of the photographer; it’s always a slow fade off the back while taking photos on rides like these). It was Spencer, who has wilderness first aid experience. I knew he’d understand the severity of the situation right away. I saw some shade and came to a stop, and in the midst of shedding my pack and sitting down, I said to Spencer, “Man, I’m not feeling good. I need to cool down for a sec.” If I’m truly honest, the first day of our trip was the most worried and scared I’ve ever been on a bike ride for my personal health and well-being.
It’s no stretch to say I’ve been on some bad rides in my 20+ years of riding and racing bikes. This Phoenix to Prescott ride wasn’t the hardest one. It didn’t have most sphincter-puckering technical trail moves. The pace wasn’t “fast.” It wasn’t with miserable people, which counts for a lot. It wasn’t 300 miles long...but it was the hottest, I think. Pure 110 degree heat, throw in being slightly less fit than my friends and there’s a solid recipe for Patty (that’s me) getting his teeth kicked in.
It happened slowly. My body temperature slowly rose and then couldn’t cool itself. My feet felt like they were too close to the campfire, but I couldn’t remove them from the heat. Talking felt funny...my tongue had swelled up a bit.
My friends were worried for me though, and they kept things light, always keeping a soft, steady pace forward toward our next water stop, Black Canyon City. They even carried my camera bag for a bit—I still owe Spence a beer for this one! For the last hour, none of us had any water. We knew the lines on the map but that was it. The last four miles took us 45 minutes to cover—the power line jeep road having a seemingly endless number of steep ups and downs and so rough that a number of the ups weren’t rideable. The short ending is we made it safely to water. After rest and food, my body kicked into gear for the rest of the trip, but it’s a single day on the bike I won’t ever forget. In hindsight, it feels like the desert was generous, a kind of ‘shot-across-the-bow’ warning-shot, that makes me really raise my eyebrows and pay attention."PART II, THE RACE, Spencer Paxson:
"Then there was the actual race to attend to. After two days and 130 miles of desert-baked pedaling, we awoke the morning of the Fat Tire Crit happy to lounge around in the shade and joke about whether we’d give it a good effort, or settle for the “1-2-barbeque”. If you’re curious about what that means, see Kerry Werner's video recap of the trip (above). We shed the bikepack bags from our bikes (and put on some slick tires). This all gave us the sensation that an extremely hairy swimmer might have after shaving their entire body before a swim meet. Sleek and fast and…weird! That evening, the town square was packed with thousands of fans, a live band stage, and hundreds of slender spandex racers zipping around the urban racecourse.
At the start, shotgun blasts boomed, startling the last of the easygoing desert pace out of my mind. “Stick to your day job!” heckled the crowed as we heaved ourselves up the steep grade of Union Street. I wasn’t sure which I resented more, the mile-high thin air of Prescott, or the miles in my legs from the last two days. After a few more times up the hill, the legs were feeling good, so I was relieved about the latter. With zero expectation of how I would do, and since the Fat Tire Crit is all about putting on a show for the town, I drew on all manner of conditioned self-torture to get myself into the lead group for the final laps of the race. At this point, Cory and I were the only Kona boys left, and I’m sure the other ten-or-so guys in the race were going to make sure they didn’t get beat by a couple dudes who’d pedaled from Phoenix. Cory gave them a scare with a big attack off the front into the penultimate lap and we hung on for the final sprint and a top-10 finish. Not bad out of 90 starters!
After a “rest day” on Saturday (we still did a short ride to keep the furnaces at operating capacity), Sunday came as it often had, right after the day before, and with a bike race to get done! I had personally eschewed the notion that the preceding four days were an avenue for excuse or condemnation. I actually felt pretty good! That was until the phase between minute 15 and minute 75 where I felt something like the spinning rainbow wheel on a Mac, dithering and processing. Aside from giving my best effort, my secondary goal was to beat my previous time up the long climb from Skull Valley. I tuned out my otherwise lackluster place in the field and saved my energy for the hour-long effort. It paid off, as the legs felt great, I set my 2nd fastest time up the climb (out of 7 attempts), and passed several sputtering racers in the process. Cory was up the road in 12th (not bad!) and I rolled across ten spots later." PART III, THE RETURN, Cory Wallace:
"The beauty of bike packing is that home is wherever you decide home should be. We found two good homes on the way back. The first was Sunday evening after the race when we took off and rode up to the top of Mt Union (8,000ft) for the night. It was a super windy night but being at the highest point in the county gave us plenty of scenery down below with a simultaneous sunset and moon rise to top things off just as we hit the summit. It also put gravity on our side to start the ride the next morning as we found some sweet single track to kick off the day!
It’s pretty cool to be able to show up somewhere totally off the grid and be able to build up a small biker village from just the stuff we were able to pack on our bikes. Bike packing truly opens up some amazing parts of the World to those willing to venture out there!"Barry Wicks:
"Everyone remembers the spiders. Their sparkling green eyes caught the light beam from our headlamps, revealing their presence long before we could observe their hexapod movements across the sand. We were camped by the river, its weak trickle a beacon after four days in the desert being teased by dried out streams, taunting us with their chalky residues, evidence of violent water flow etching memories in the dirt. The presence of actual liquid water aroused the spiders, too.
The keen landscape observer can spot the water in the desert. In a land filled with saguaro, yucca, and all manor of alien prickly brush indistinguishable to our rainforest-dwelling posse, the Cottonwood trees were the giveaway.
We saw this oasis from a distant hill. Luckily our route led directly to the sandy beach bottoms and an ideal campsite, complete with swimming hole and sitting rock. Gun shy from the previous days, we had all strapped gallon jugs of water onto our packs to compliment the brimming water bladders and bottles we already carried. There is no such thing as too much water in the desert, even if our shoulders didn’t always agree. Graced with the gluttony of jug and creek, we basked in our "excess," washing our feet and faces from two days worth of salty crust.
We ate hot dogs and stared at the sunset before the spiders appeared. Tent priorities were swiftly arranged, and even Kerry, whom on his virgin trip didn’t quite get the memo on bringing the tent body instead of just the rain fly to save weight, was safely ensconced in mesh and nylon, a close encounter with Spencer his only penance.
The sun crept back up over the eastern horizon completing its loop around the earth as our motley crew began to stir from sleeping bags and began the coffee ritual. Cory found a couple lingering spiders in his shoes. They'd settled in for a warm, stuffy night (do spiders have noses?) and he shook them out as we packed up our bikes for the final push of our trip.
Re-entering so called civilization, our group resisted the transition. Surrounded by sweatpant-wearing soccer moms and goth/hipster/new age youth, we crammed Jamba Juice into our faces as the desert scrub gave way to impending development and the strip mall oasis/hell of the Greater Phoenix Urban Area."REFLECTIONS, Kris Sneddon:
"Barry asked me what this trip meant to me. I had all sorts of feelings leading up to it. Excitement to see my old teammates, dreaming of hearing the stories of how Cory survived Guatemala (and the Himalayas) all winter, meeting the new guy Kerry and of course spending time with Barry, Spencer, and Patrick...but mostly Barry. To tell you the truth I was very worried about my fitness as I have been working full time and not riding enough. I wasn't sure I'd make it to and from the race, let alone finish the Whiskey 50. For the most part I was thinking this would be an awesome ride around in the desert with my buddies on some gnarly-ass jeep trails and some actual wicked singletrack. What was the worst thing that could happen? I guess we could run out of water or freeze to death at night, or maybe even get eaten by spiders. And all those things did happen. But that was ok. The Whiskey race itself was rad. I love the course and what Epic Rides is doing for the sport of mountain biking. I took to heart the speech that retired racer Willow Koerber delivered at the riders' meeting: 'If you’ve got a little voice telling you that you can't do something or that you’re not good enough, you just got to hang up on that bitch!!!!' or something like that. I hung up, and it was glorious."CLOSING: Desert Riding Tips:
When you dangle your gallon jug, it hurts. The bonus is that you can slice a star-pattern into them when empty and use to carry out all your trash.
Don’t count on streams that are on the map to actually exist. Water is scarce; it’s the goddamn desert! Be prepared for that.
Beer packs well, is hydrating and tastes delicious, even if its warm, especially when you are super thirsty.
The giant Pickles you see in gas stations are gross. Except when its 100 degrees out, you are parched AF and then they are delicious and life saving.
Make sure you have a spider/scorpion/creepy crawly proof shelter. Its warm at night, but those things will get in your sleeping bag and that is not cool.
And as always, go ahead and shoot for the moon. Even when stuff doesn’t turn out how you thought it might, it will turn out some way, and that way will end up being the awesome way in the end.The Kona Endurance and Adventure Team
Patrick Means, @patrick_means
Cory Wallace, @wallacesworld
Kerry Werner, @kerryw24
Barry Wicks, @wicknasty
Kris Sneddon, @krissneddon
Spencer Paxson, @slaxsonMTB
Thanks for reading.
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