Mountain bikes serve a purpose. A pavement criterium is not usually one of them.
Alexey and Sean spent last week in the desert. Home to cactus, armadillos, and an endless amount of singletrack, they had a full week of riding to prepare for the squad’s first real target of the season, the Whiskey 50. The event is a notch above just about every other race in the country for folks on flat bars. Only the national championship, Sea Otter, or perhaps Iceman Cometh see a field anywhere near as strong as Whiskey, and we’d go as far as to say that none offers as grueling a course. If you’re into mountain biking, it’s something you’ve got to add to your bucket list. Trails, sun, and a star-studded field make the whole weekend experience more than worth the trip.
But, at least for the Pro field, you’ve got to earn your spot in the dirt by braving some skin on the pavement. The Whiskey Offroad weekend starts, ironically, on asphalt. The Fat Tire Crit puts the entire Pro field in a tight, fast crit course. The rules? You have to ride the same bike you’re going to ride Sunday on the trails, and you don’t get to skip the crit. Period. The result is the thrilling, dangerous, and incredibly exciting sight of a few dozen mountain bikes, many of which are full suspension and nearly all are mounted with wide 1.9” slick tires.
It’s a blast to watch and reminds viewers of a very wide, very geared Red Hook Crit, albeit it with even more beards. As a former WorldTour road pro, Alexey was ready to dance. After missing an early move, he went clear solo to try and chase it down, but the sheer mass of strong riders behind eventually collected our guy, with Sean safely in the bunch. Just holding on to the tail ends of riders like Howard Grotts, Geoff Kabush, Russell Finsterwald, and eventual winner Keegan Sweenson was a Herculean accomplish, and for Alexey to poke his nose clear is a sign of his fitness this spring. He ended up 12th place, with Sean handing in gentleman’s top fifty, slotting in 47th.
After a day off Saturday, presumably for everyone to put their knobby tires back on, the real show touched off. Prescott Arizona is home to hundreds of miles of trail, and the race organizers slapped on s huge slice of fresh singletrack to keep riders on their toes. It’s also just a brutal introduction to racing, with over 1,500 feet of elevation gained in the eight miles. Almost immediately after the descent, there’s another category three climb of 800 feet to deal with, and from there, a non-stop roller coaster of steep, loose ascent and white-knuckle descent, both of which feature plenty of singletrack. After things broke up, Alexey found himself time-trialing up the second ascent and getting back into the top ten. While the horsepower was there, the terrain is so alien to Michigan riding that it had even Alexey feeling worked over. “From the top of the climb, it’s about 90 minutes more of single track and places to remind yourself just how tired you are. I felt like my arms fell off at that point, but found my mojo again in the finale. 16th on the day…this roadie has some technical skills to work on,” he noted.
Sean spent his race riding into and out of chase groups, always riding at his absolute limit. One of the most impressive things about Kickbush is that you need to literally kill him to get him to stop racing. He’s never going to give up, settle in, or come off the gas, and that tenacity was on full display this weekend.
After battling the singletrack, Alexey held onto 16th place in a field that included a number of former national champions, Iceman Cometh winners, and truly top-tier athletes. Not too shabby for a kid that decided to be a mountain biker last summer, is it? Sean rode on pure guts for 57th place, a result that the team and the whole state of Michigan can be pretty damn proud of.
Heading into this weekend, Sean and Alexey are getting some reinforcements for the Belgian Waffle Ride. Al McWilliams and Danny Soltan are jetting out to add some more firepower to the squad on the 136-mile mixed surface race, with over 12,000 feet elevation to keep it spicy. It’s definitely an Exploro day, and the guys have had an entire year to test out more tire options after two flats for Sean and Danny in 2018. Both are leaning hard toward 32c Panaracer GravelKings, opting for a slick surface but plenty of floatation in the soft stuff. Both Danny and Sean spent a lot of time on those tires at our Georgia training camp and were surprised at the low rolling resistance on that fat of rubber.