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Biking

Posted By Andre Holmes     April 15, 2016    

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Seventeen years since Todd Sadow tried getting into the bike world by hosting 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, a full-day mountain bike race, his Epic Rides race series has made him a key player in industry. Epic Rides, which include the Grand Junction Off-Road and Whiskey Off-Road, are on the verge of becoming what mountain bikers nationwide hoped would happen (and didn’t) with conventional racing: weekend-long festivals, organized around—but not exclusively about—racing.

We sat down with Sadow to learn how—and why—Epic Rides grew into such a phenomenon, and where they’re headed.

Bicycling: What sparked the transition away from a 24-hour setup to formative Epic Rides like the Whiskey Off-Road?
Todd Sadow: At the time we did the first Old Pueblo, Moab had just had its fourth or fifth year and it was booming. The 24-hour format was still relatively new and it was the direction it was pointing. That was the first splinter inmountain bike racing, departing from that traditional XC format.

There was a parallel group of people producing events here in Arizona [at the time] called the Arizona Mountain Bike Association. Their events were more backcountry by nature and generally more representative of mountain biking's original intentions: to take yourself into the woods and then bring yourself back on your own support. The NORBA format (multiple laps of a short loop that's often times relatively groomed) that rose to the top was easier to manage, but less adventurous. As the sport evolved, disconnecting became a major priority for an ever-growing group of people. Producing backcountry-style events that represent that gritty, soulful nature of mountain biking has become more feasible with the support of community and technology.

     RELATED: Tips for Surviving a Mountain Bike Stage Race

And that was the direction you wanted to go with the Whiskey Off-Road—away from the conventional approach to racing and toward that original ethic?
Yeah, and honestly we never looked back after the first 24. That started the evolution. A 100-miler was the natural progression, so we added the Soul Ride, which we don’t do anymore. You could do it on your own, you didn’t need a team, and you didn’t need the whole weekend. What we learned was there’s only so many who could do a race like that, and so we added a 30-mile and a 50-mile version and the numbers grew.

 

With a police escort and fans lining the start, the Whiskey Off-Road doesn’t just feel like a big-time event, it is. Photo by Devon Balet, courtesy Epic Rides.
With a police escort and fans lining the start, the Whiskey Off-Road doesn’t just feel like a big-time event, it is. Photo by Devon Balet, courtesy Epic Rides.PHOTOGRAPH BY DEVON BALET

 

 

And that eventually became the Whiskey format. Epic is known for its big turnouts (last year’s Whiskey had almost 1,500 racers) and a lot of non-racers, which is unusual. What do you think makes your events such a draw?
I have a favorite moment, where we were looking at the research on our entrants, and the number of people who had been riding for one year was a small number, and the people riding 10 years or more was like 50 percent of our total entrants. And I said, “We’re not marketing correctly right now; we need to reach more of the ‘riding for one year’ group.” I looked at the USA Cycling format, and I said, “We’re missing the point. We have to create opportunities to race and ride that are fun and unintimidating for people who are new to the sport.” That’s why 24-hour racing first caught on: It was the perfect excuse to go hang with your buddies and ride bikes all weekend and laugh. And then it got super competitive, and one thing I learned is that looking fast is intimidating and not welcoming. So we create environments that are welcoming to new riders and even non-riders.

Your events are more than just races; they’re festivals with fun rides and all kinds of other activities. How do you balance the needs of one group of attendees against another?
There’s no one person at a mountain bike event who is more or less important than any other. Take racing: There’s only one first place, but everyone else out there is having their own experience and that’s really important to them. These events are a chance to forget about Monday to Friday and all the stress in your life and ride all day and be around a big group of like-minded people you choose to be around. We get CEOs and bike shop wrenches and all kinds of people all hanging together and laughing and smiling. That’s all we want to create, is a place where all those people show up and feel welcome and have a good experience.

Epic also gets a solid roster of pro competitors; what’s the secret?
To get the pros, you also have to reward the pro at a level they deserve. I watched a friend of mine, a World Cup racer, who was coming to our event from one of the biggest events in the sport, and she was second overall there, and brought home a check for $187 and a Timex watch. She lived in Tucson for four winters, away from her family to train, giving up so many important life experiences… and got a check for $187. So we have real cash purses, a number that is so significant people have to pay attention. The first year it was $20,000 total. And we pay equal prize money to women because women train just as hard.

 

Epic Rides’ events aren’t just races, they’re full-on festivals, with expos, fun rides and concerts. Photo by Chris Reichel, courtesy Epic Rides.
Epic Rides’ events aren’t just races, they’re full-on festivals, with expos, fun rides and concerts. Photo by Chris Reichel, courtesy Epic Rides.IMAGE COURTESY OF EPIC RIDES

 

Lots of promoters struggle with raising enough cash for that kind of prize purse. How do you do it?
You create an environment that brings in enough people to justify outside [non-bike industry] dollars. Weekend warriors can feel proud of their pastime and everyone gets to hang out in our host communities. In Prescott, for the Whiskey, they close the town’s main square for three days. Grand Junction is the same, because they value mountain biking and this event in the community. It’s building an environment where all the things that are underserved in other events are well-served.

I think pretty much all promoters at least start out with that idea. But how do you actually make it happen?
(Laughing) I have no idea. I will say it’s taken forever. We did seven, eight years without any grandiose purpose, just putting on events and learning, but in 2007 it got serious. We thought, mountain biking doesn’t have an Ironman that caters to all the participants and is an event that’s the real thing, not all the confused tangents that are attempting to make it more televisable than it is. We’re straight-up culture-driven experiences. The course you ride in the race is the trail you would ride with your buddies on any day, and you have a weekend that’s a complete immersion in the sport—all the pros and vendors and media. It’s one spot you can go and just be a mountain biker.