Todd Wells has no regrets from his 17-year career in pro cycling, which he brought to an end this week.
“Nope, I wouldn’t change anything,” Wells told VeloNews. “I’m pretty happy with the way that everything turned out. I never thought I would have raced for so long.”
Wells was the most decorated off-road racer of his generation, with three national titles in cyclocross and cross-country mountain bike racing, as well as three wins at the Leadville 100 race and three trips to the Olympic games. His career spanned multiple generations. In his early years, he lined up against John Tomac, Ned Overend, and some of the founding fathers of cross-country mountain bike racers. In recent years, Wells battled against Howard Grotts, Tobin Ortenblad, and some of the brightest young stars of American cycling. Throughout that span, Wells participated in far too many bicycle races to count. For his final interview, we’ve asked Wells to recall some of his favorite memories from his career.
The NORBA series
Todd Wells: In general I remember the parties. We had a great one in Snowmass [Colorado] after the season finale one year. We shut down the bar. We got thrown out. I think security was chasing after Carl [Decker]. It was crazy. Then, of course, there is Mount Snow which was always a big race for me. We’d go to the Silo and have a big party, and the vibe of the event was great. We’d race against each other flat-out on the weekend and then we all went out together. There was a lot of camaraderie across all of the disciplines. It was one of the really unique parts of the NORBA scene that we don’t have today.
2001 national cyclocross championships
TW: I had made my big comeback after finishing school and working for a while, and [Marc] Gullickson had gotten me on the Mongoose team. I just wanted to get some free bikes and race, and I thought cyclocross bikes looked really cool. That was honestly a big motivator. I wanted to try and help Gully win to repay him, and I rode with him for most of the day, and when it became apparent it wasn’t going to happen for him I went ahead. I caught Tim [Johnson] and won. That was the first race I did as a cyclocross racer where bunny hopping the barriers made a huge difference. I was surprised by how many people paid attention to that.
2004 Tour of the Gila
TW: My one and only NRC win! And it was the crit, even. Someone told me that positioning going into that final corner of the criterium was key. I had better performances in road races and never won, so I was pretty surprised to hit that corner in second wheel and come away with the win. It was cool because everyone talks about how mountain bikers aren’t the smartest road racers — they just ride on the front. I consider that a tactical stage win.
2005 national cyclocross championships
TW: I remember that I won and my brother [Troy Wells] won the U23 title, and that was really cool. It was a mess. It was snowy, you could barely get to the hotel because of all the snow on the ground. It was great conditions for both myself and Troy because we just did better in those sloppy conditions. And I remember the party. Well, I don’t remember much from the actual party other than feeling really horrible the next day. That was one of the longest flights home of my life.
2011 La Ruta de los Conquistadores
TW: When I first went down to La Ruta I asked everybody as much as I could about it, and I couldn’t get one person to say anything good about it. It was all just about how muddy and hard it was, and how the local guys would hold onto cars, and how it was really terrifying. I loved it. There was so much local flavor and the race was super-hard. If I had to pick a memory it was this one guy attacking on the side of the railroad track trestle. There are these railroad track trestles that go across the river, and you walk down the middle. I was tiptoeing across the bridge and this guy attacks and starts running along the outside of the track. This thing is high off of the river and we’re scared, you have to just look forward and walk for three minutes. This guy comes flying by on the outside. It was wild.
2011 Leadville 100
TW: My best memory is winning my first Leadville. I had done it the year before. I was doing the World Cups at the time and had just come from Europe where I was racing these 1.5-hour races at sea level. I had no volume training and I just sucked. I said I was never going back. So they wanted me to go back the next year and I did. I was able to improve so much and conquer the race that had kicked my ass the previous year. It felt pretty good. That’s another race that I had no idea how big people thought it was. I was watching international coverage of the London Olympics and the one thing they talked about was my Leadville win. It wasn’t about my World Cup results, it was Leadville. It was like, ‘Wow, people really care about this race.’
TW: I have two of them. One would be from the  World Cup in Houffalize. I started in maybe 20th or 25th position, and we start with that super-steep climb from Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s a 20 percent road climb for five minutes, so we’re always pinned. Normally I could just hope to hold my position and not lose, but I got over the top and I was right within spitting distance of the lead group. I had never experienced that in Europe before. I managed to make the lead group and was able to participate in the attacks and stuff. It was a real highlight.
The other was from the Windham, New York World Cup in 2012. I made it into the lead group until the last lap and I ended up getting fourth. [Teammate] Burry [Stander] ended up winning, and to stand on the podium with him was such a highlight.
Forty-three years after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War, Stephen A. Rusch met his daughter.
She came searching and found him beneath a curious-looking tree in a thick Laotian jungle, far from her Idaho home. She rode her mountain bike over more than a thousand miles of gnarled landscape, across three Southeast Asian countries, to get there. She meticulously assembled a team of people to help her do, and film, it all. She had pondered for years about who this man was, how she could ever find him, if she could ever know him.
Somehow, she found the very spot where he had been waiting all this time. For the first time in her life, she felt her dad. She felt whole. Tears filled her eyes, the crunch of leaves beneath her feet and her gentle sniffles the only perceptible sounds in this jungle.
To understand what it took for that daughter, consummate endurance athlete and mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, to find the very spot where her father was buried, beneath that special tree, would be to believe in destiny. At least that’s how Rusch sees it.
“I wouldn’t have told you I believed in destiny until … now,” Rusch says. “I can look all the way back through my career — it was all leading me there. I was meant to go to that tree and find that spot.”
Rusch’s emotional and physical journey is documented in the feature-length film “Blood Road,” which won the Audience Award at the Sun Valley Film Festival in March and was released online in June. It is screening at festivals and events through the fall.
We go behind the scenes of the making of “Blood Road.”
THIS STORY BEGINS ON March 7, 1972. On that day, U.S. Air Force pilot Carter Howell and weapon’s systems officer Stephen A. Rusch were flying an early morning mission over Southern Laos in their F-4E Phantom II fighter-bomber, Gunfighter 61.
Below, sprawled across more than 12,000 miles of roads, footpaths, and waterways, was what Americans dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, after the North Vietnamese leader. The Trail was the main supply route constructed and used by the North Vietnamese to move soldiers, equipment, and ammunition during the war. Starting in Hanoi, the main city in the north, it stretched thousands of miles to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). The U.S. wanted it destroyed and launched a five-year operation of covert bombardment.
According to the account of the crew of Gunfighter 60, which flew beside Rusch’s plane that day, it wasn’t long before muzzle flashes lit up the jungle and tracer bullets from anti-aircraft guns flashed through the air.
Then came an explosion. Gunfighter 61 dropped, crashing through the thick jungle canopy, gouging the hillside below as it came to rest near the village of Ta Oy. There was radio silence.
Rebecca Rusch was three years old.
For 35 years, Stephen Rusch was considered Missing In Action. And Rebecca lived life not knowing her father, or if he perished. For years she had recurring dreams that one day she’d meet him while he was playing music in a coffee shop; they’d sit down and talk about their lives.
In 2002, Rusch traveled to Vietnam to compete in the Raid Gauloises adventure race. She found herself wondering if the brutal jungle conditions she faced with her teammates were similar to what her father and his fellow soldiers encountered during the Vietnam War.
Later that same trip, she visited Da Nang Air Force Base, where her father had been stationed. Her mother, Judy, accompanied her. She visited the demilitarized zone and Khe Sanh, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. There, on what is now a beautiful coffee plantation, Rusch’s tour guide pointed out the Ho Chi Minh Trail, across the border in Laos. Knowing that her father was shot down over the trail, Rusch’s mind began to turn: “It was a fleeting moment. I took a photo, but I said, ‘I want to go there someday,’” she recalls.
She didn’t think about it again for many years.
In 2007, a search and recovery mission finally identified her father’s remains at the crash site. She received its GPS coordinates. The news confirmed that he had died in the crash that day in 1972. He had never been a prisoner of war. Rusch was relieved to find out he hadn’t been tortured or suffered in any way.
The discovery sparked her curiosity yet again. She contemplated planning an expedition. Around this same time, though, adventure racing was quickly drying up, and Rusch made the leap to mountain biking. She immediately began to dominate the sport. She was focused on winning the Leadville Trail 100, Dirty Kanza 200, and setting records. Though she was again inspired, an expedition remained just a thought.
It all changed in 2013. As a Red Bull-sponsored athlete (something she’s been for over 15 years), Rusch is asked to pitch the company with ideas for amazing adventures. During a long bike ride, a friend suggested she pitch them the idea to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Suddenly, it all became clear.
Rusch first approached her Red Bull athlete manager, who typically helps with reviewing and planning expedition ideas. Initially, Rusch wanted to do this for the adventure of it, and she needed logistical support.
She was turned down.
It’s something she’s glad happened in retrospect. If they had accepted the idea when she first pitched it, she believes, neither she nor the production team would have had the skill to take on the journey’s challenging logistics. “I’m glad they turned it down, because it made me think about it more, made me want it more,” Rusch says.
After further research, and building a better pitch, Red Bull Media House (RBMH) became involved. Eventually, the project made its way to Nicholas Schrunk, the creative director of the RBMH production company. He loved it.
“When I heard that logline for the first time, it gave me goosebumps,” says Schrunk, who became the film’s director. “In the sports world, there are so many great stories, but a lot of them fall into doing the unknown, or the bigger-faster-stronger type films. This pitch caught me off-guard: something that hadn’t been done before, but also had an emotional journey, something that brought in the idea of war, of family, while still being this incredible expedition, on a bike, through the unknown.”
In 2014, “Blood Road” was a go. Rusch’s attitude about the project, says Schrunk, sealed its fate.
“She came to us saying, ‘This is a story I’m willing to tell; I’m willing to open myself up; I’m willing to make myself vulnerable; I’m willing to share this journey because I want and need the support of a lot of people to put this together,’” Schrunk says.
FOR THE NEXT NINE months, Rusch, Schrunk, and the Red Bull Media House team got to work researching how to execute on such a daunting and thrilling plan.
Crucial to that research was finding Don Duvall, an American cartographer, sailor, and adventurer who has made it his life’s mission to map the braided network of trails that comprise the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Duvall began mapping in Laos in 1999, after sailing to Southeast Asia to explore the area. Using Department of Defense maps produced in the late 1960s (the most detailed topographic maps of many of the areas) and his own GPS data — and extreme amounts of time — Duvall has created something that proved crucial to the success of the project.
“Collecting data, organizing it, and making a final product is a monumental task that would normally take a team of people. And has taken me years,” Duvall says. The extensive research laid the foundation for deciding what could and couldn’t be ridden on mountain bikes, how best to access the crash site while sticking to the most historically accurate route, and choosing a portion that could be completed in a month’s time.
The team decided to follow the historical trek from North to South, and begin the route outside of Hanoi in the small town of Tan Ky, where the official start of the trail once was. (A Zero Kilometer monument now marks the spot in the center of town.)
The 1,200-mile route comprised a mix of all types of terrain, from paved roads to remote jungle footpaths where machetes would be needed to break trail. It traveled through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The crew would end the expedition in Ho Chi Minh City on the grounds of the Independence Palace, which at the time of the war was the official residence of the President of South Vietnam.
Duvall’s devotion to mapping the region, as well as his determination to guide the team to the crash site despite breaking his shoulder along the way, was not lost on the team or himself. As he states in the film, it was one of the most important projects he’s ever worked on.
“It was a dream come true to have Rebecca and Red Bull Media House do this documentary so the world could see this little-known and very important part of history — how the war changed the lives of so many people and is still impacting everyone living in the area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail today,” Duvall says.
A second critical element to the expedition was finding a teammate for Rusch. The prevailing feeling was that riding with someone from the region would help Rusch better understand the country and experience the ride with a completely different perspective. Through research and word of mouth, they discovered Huyen Nguyen, one of the most decorated cyclists in Vietnam’s history, a four-time winner of the Southeast Asian Games.
Typically Rusch knows her expedition partners. Going on the biggest ride of her life with a complete stranger was concerning. Little did the team know that Nguyen’s athletic achievements, though important, would pale in comparison to the companionship she provided Rusch during the challenging expedition.
Having lost her mother when she was eight years old and her husband seven years before the expedition began, Nguyen possesses a deep understanding of loss. Her kindness and empathy toward Rusch’s emotional journey are strikingly apparent on film.
“I feel blessed to be able to ride alongside Rebecca to the place where her father fell in the war,” Nguyen says. “And with that, maybe I can partly share her agony and sorrow.”
Though well decorated, Nguyen had been retired from mountain biking for a decade.
She raises her children, son, Huu Nhat Thanh, and daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc, as a single mom while working at Ho Chi Minh City University and coaching the junior Vietnamese women’s cycling team. Yet the chance to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail carried great meaning. She jumped at the chance.
Rusch was the great beneficiary of Nguyen’s addition to the team. Most importantly it helped the American learn to slow down and express her emotions more openly.
“What was my biggest fear going into the expedition turned out to be my biggest gift,” Rusch says. “While I was teaching her on the trail, physically, she helped me grow emotionally. I wasn’t always recognizing it in the moment. But I look back now and read the full translations of her interviews and see, ‘Wow, she really was devoted to me, devoted to my cause, very patient with me.’ It warmed my heart to know she was doing and feeling and saying all those things without me even knowing it or being able to say those words to each other.”
METICULOUS PLANNING WENT INTO how to film an expedition of this scale, through jungles and remote villages, with delicate modern film equipment, all while dancing around a pair of incredibly talented endurance athletes.
Schrunk allowed Rusch to detail the expedition from an athletic standpoint on her own. For that authentic experience you see on screen, it had to be a true expedition, he believed. Yet, for the purposes of catching it all on film, Schrunk and his crew couldn’t take such chances.
“We needed a cheat sheet because there’s no way you stay in front of one of the world’s best endurance athletes by accident,” Schrunk says. “We didn’t want to leave things unto chance. As a filmmaker, you want to be able to capture all of it: the villages, the streams, the rivers, the jungles, while capturing the story in a genuine and real way.”
Thus, for three months, over two trips, Schrunk scouted the route. On his second and third trips down the planned course, he, Duvall, and director of photography Ryan Young established GPS waypoints where they could film the two riders coming or going, beautiful shots of the landscape and villages, as well as places to charge batteries, get water, and so forth. The giant bank of waypoints became their cheat sheet.
“In any documentary, the pre-production process is where the genius lies,” Schrunk says. “It’s how you get more chances to get more creative elements.”
The crew was never in the same place twice — there were no do-overs. Furthermore, most of them had never seen these places before. Most importantly, they had high aspirations for the cinematography and storytelling. And the one thing they couldn’t ever replace was Rusch’s reactions and her discoveries for the first time.
The ask was high: Rusch and Schrunk shared a strong but sometimes conflicting desire to succeed. While her concern was to respect her family and fully address the unexplored, both physically and emotionally, Schrunk’s ultimate responsibility was to document all facets of the journey, and in particular to capture the raw human emotion.
It didn’t always work out the way they hoped.
The small crew Schrunk directed — a team of six, including two cameramen, an audio specialist who doubled as the drone pilot, a gimbal operator, a producer, and himself — could only shoot one scene at a time.
They were often constrained by their small size.
One morning the crew awoke in camp to witness a beautiful golden sunrise — light rose in the jungle, reflecting off a river while a nearby waterfall cascaded down. They couldn’t resist shooting what Schrunk describes as a once-in-a-lifetime moment. They sent the drone into the sky. (Little did they know at the time the footage would be used to open the film.)
Meanwhile, Schrunk looked over to see Rusch embracing a teary-eyed Nguyen. The two women were deep in conversation about Nguyen’s late husband’s tragic death. It was a cathartic moment. Meanwhile, the drone flying above destroyed any chance of capturing quality audio from the touching scene.
“It’s like you’re handcuffed watching hundred dollar bills fly in front of you on the ground. You can only really grab one of them,” Shrunk says.
It wasn’t the only time the film crew missed an opportunity to capture a human moment.
ONE SCENE THAT WASN’T missed, and the film’s most surreal, was the encounter in the village of Ta Oy. As viewers of the film, we watch as an aghast Rusch learns she is sitting across from the son of the former village chief who discovered her father’s fallen plane. Mr. Ayr is now the village chief.
The chance meeting took the air out of the room.
“Complete shock,” Rusch says. “I was saying to myself, ‘How is this happening? How did we find this person?’ He welcomed me into his home. My dad was dropping bombs on his family, and for him to still have the kind spirit and openness to welcome me and be glad to see me and say that we’re family, it made me sad for what we’ve done in our wars and all the f—ked up things that happened, but it also made me realize how good humanity is, how forgiving they are.”
In the eyes of Rusch and Mr. Ayr, they are family. Off camera, Mr. Ayr told Rusch, “We’re brother and sister. You’re part of me.” That’s because Mr. Ayr’s mother was pregnant with him at the time of the plane crash. The village shaman told his family the spirits of the dead American soldiers were born in him — when one spirit dies, another is born. She was floored.
As a filmmaker, moments such as these are what Schrunk dreamed of capturing. He moved his cameras back and let the scene unfurl.
While Rusch believes it was destiny, Schrunk has a more pragmatic view of the outcome. “I remember calling my editor and saying, ‘You’re going to think I’m lying but I swear to god this just happened.’”
He reasons that if you analyze the situation, it doesn’t appear to be so miraculous. The region has changed little in the past 40 years — people still grow rice, live with their families, remain in the same villages, live a life similar to the way they did during the war — you start to understand how it could happen. If you were a village chief and a plane fell out of the sky, of course, you would go out and see what would be there. And a village chief’s son would, of course, likely become the village chief once his father passed away. With coordinates in hand, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Rusch found Mr. Ayr.
It sounds so simple now. Yet, there is no denying the moment bears a tinge of the miraculous.
THE LOGISTICS OF FILMING in rugged jungle terrain while constantly on the move presented a serious challenge. Doing so with such a small crew was grueling. That meant the entire team adopted a fluid production style — everyone had multiple jobs. The gimbal operator also managed equipment and drivers, while the drone pilot arranged audio equipment, and the cameraman maintained the motorcycles.
Those motorcycles, specifically dual-sport dirt bikes, were the only way the team could traverse the terrain. On singletrack jungle roads, everyone’s bikes were loaded with survival equipment, supplies, and camera gear. This, of course, created an element of danger that required the team not only be talented in filmmaking, but also skilled moto riders.
Audio was incredibly challenging to capture within the harsh environments. It was made more difficult because the film crew couldn’t be with Rusch and Nguyen for most of the day. They used audio equipment to record the riders in order to capture more than 150 hours of conversations.
Moisture and heat were the two main enemies in the jungle. Both variables struck with little warning. Moments after clouds would clear, the temperature often rose 20 degrees, pushing the crew’s equipment to its limits. If any moisture made its way into the RED Dragon 6K cameras or lenses it would take days to fix. They had to waterproof all their cases and gear, and shelter everything before the sun came up. Then there was the most crucial task: not falling off a motorcycle into a river with 60 pounds of delicate, expensive, and irreplaceable gear.
Of the many challenging moments the team faced, none tested them as much as the nine-hour traverse of the Xe Bang Fai River cave.
When the teams’ senses were taken away and the element of the unknown introduced — how long is this cave, how long will it take to get through it, do we have enough battery life in our headlamps — every emotion was exaggerated.
The team was late entering the cave, for many reasons. Rusch, a seasoned veteran of adventure races in extreme conditions, was accustomed to being more in control. Her default mentality of pushing even harder didn’t get them anywhere faster. They had arrived during the dry season, which meant the river was low. It led to five portages over sharp and slippery rocks, hauling bikes, camera gear, and rafts, in eerie darkness. When they turned on headlamps, strange white bugs swarmed them. To top it off, this was just before the halfway mark of the trip — there was still a long way to go.
Rusch broke. She lost her composure. The typically poised veteran of such situations unleashed a tirade. (Viewers catch only a brief glimpse.) The team was cracked.
But sometimes it takes being broken in order to rebound and know where everyone stands as teammates. When the protective layers are removed, the experience becomes something more genuine and real, says Schrunk.
It was a pivotal moment in the making of the film. For Rusch, it was an educational moment. Soon after her outburst, she felt embarrassed. She apologized to Nguyen and the crew who had seen her at her worst.
“While I’m not proud of how I was in the cave, I think it was a good lesson for me,” Rusch says. “I knew I had to communicate better, slow down. It took us to another level in our friendship and working relationship. We started as strangers and now we’re like brothers and sisters.”
WHILE THE MOMENTS WITHIN the cave were raw and unfiltered, there was no more touching and poignant scene than when Rusch stands at the very tree where her father was buried.
The film crew knew this was going to be a powerful moment no matter how it played out. They wanted to avoid dictating anything about how Rusch experienced it. Schrunk chose camera angles that were purposefully set back so that she wouldn’t have any distraction. There could be no moving around; there could be no pressure on her to do or say anything in particular.
“This was her moment,” Schrunk says. “I told her, ‘We’re going to get it, and no matter what you feel or how it goes about, it’s going to be great because it’s going to be genuine to you. This is your moment. You live it how you want to.’”
Father and daughter were reunited. After so many years, Rusch felt her dad. It was the crux moment of an incredible journey. The true meaning of it all, however, wouldn’t immediately strike Rusch.
A few days later, she and the team visited a dusty, drab temple, one of hundreds along their route. Rusch opened the door to the sanctuary and entered another world: like going from a black and white movie into Technicolor, she says. Incredibly vibrant Buddhist scenes covered the entire room, some 50-feet square. It glowed. Across the back wall was a hand-painted scene of the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, where he is said to have attained enlightenment.
“That’s when it struck me: My dad’s tree was my Bodhi tree. That tree in the middle of Laos was…finding myself, finding enlightenment, finding a purpose.”
The messages had been coming at her for years. She hadn’t been listening. Finally, her father broke through.
“In his letters, my father laments over having to drop bombs and not understanding why. Why did he bring me here? In order to help heal, close these wounds finally. He’s brought me there to try to fix it.”
A decade ago, Barry Wicks competed at the pinnacle of American off-road racing. Every summer he chased points at mountain bike World Cup events and in the National Mountain Bike Series; every autumn he raced alongside the
best cyclocross racers at the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross and world championships.
These days Wicks still races exclusively on dirt. His focus, however, has moved away from fast, multi-lap events toward the latest crop of off-road races: gravel races, enduro mountain bike events, and multi-day cross-country epics. Wicks believes these are the events that are currently driving the culture of American off-road racing. We caught up with him to help understand this world.
VeloNews: When looking at the wide swath of dirt races on the schedule, how do you choose which ones to do?
Barry Wicks: I’ve done World Cups and NORBAs and pretty much everything, and I’m at a point now where if I’m going to invest my time and energy I want it to be rad. The riding has to be really good and the race just needs to be fun. I’m not going to some park to race around in circles with nobody watching. I’d rather go camp in the forest and do a 100-mile gravel race. That’s what I’m looking for, and it seems like a lot of the other guys are looking for that. It has to be fun if you’re going to race bikes. And that’s where a lot of new events are really succeeding, like the Epic Rides series or the Sierra Triple Crown.
VN: The Epic Rides races (Whiskey Off-Road, Carson City Off-Road, Grand Junction Off-Road) now attract the country’s top pro riders. What is so attractive about the Epic Rides events?
BW: The first time I did the Whiskey Off-Road was six years ago. I had been hearing about it, that all of a sudden there was this rad 50-mile race in Arizona with a ton of prize money. The race does a great job with the media and its place on the calendar, and it just feels like the way we should be doing mountain-bike racing. There is a Fat Tire Crit for people to watch, and it’s a great format. That’s the whole reason I exist: to engage with spectators. It engages the community, and all of the people who are there. At other races you go to hang out and there’s nobody around, anywhere. At [Epic Rides] races there is this organized event to get people excited.
VN: What are the cultural differences that you see between the endurance mountain bike scene and gravel racing?
BW: They are pretty close. Both racing formats seem really accessible to people. The Lost and Found [Gravel Grinder] isn’t even billed as a race — it’s billed as a bike ride. It feels accessible compared to road racing, where you have to be a Cat. 5 to do this race or a Cat. 3 to do that race. It lowers the barrier to entry. At the same time, everyone at these races is racing. To me that’s been the biggest shift in racing over the last few years. These events are competitive but they are also non-competitive. It’s about coming out and doing a fun and awesome event because that is what is fun to do.
VN: These are competitive events, so people want to win. Do you ever come across tension with people bending the rules or being too competitive?
BW: Not too much. We’re in this golden age of this style of racing, and as riders we tend to take care of it ourselves. There’s always going to be some tension because people are competitive. Everyone who is racing at the front of these events has been racing a long time, and we can figure it out. Sometimes it’s not possible, and some type of ruling has to be made.
VN: What about when riders can’t find a way to settle things? There was the controversy last year at Dirty Kanza involving a rider who was disqualified for taking an illegal feed, for example.
BW: People are acting like Dirty Kanza is a World Cup and it’s not. It’s a gravel race in the middle of Kansas. So if you’re pissed that some dude took an illegal feed, then you shouldn’t be there racing. Get over it. It’s not the world championships. It’s a bike ride with your friends. If you start down that road, with making tons of new rules, then it takes the fun out of it. It erodes the goodwill and the good feeling, and it becomes too serious. Everyone needs to chill out. We’re not solving the world’s problems at Dirty Kanza; we’re riding bikes.
VN: Do you see yourself racing Dirty Kanza again anytime soon?
BW: I don’t think I’m going to go back ever. Once was enough for me. It’s a little too much. It’s cool but also not that cool. The vibe is fine, but it’s just a little weird to me. It’s this accomplishment type thing that appeals to Type-A personalities. That’s great. There are all types. But for me it just didn’t resonate. I just don’t relate to that as much as I relate to other types of events.
VN: So what’s on your Mount Rushmore of dirt races these days?
BW: I still have a really soft spot for the BC Bike Race, because that was my first big epic ride. I still recommend that, even though BCBR has become such a popular thing. It deserves to be on my list because the riding is so rad. Lost and Found has also made its way onto my list. It’s such a fun weekend and there is such a good vibe there. The Sierra Trails guys know how to put on a good event. Breck Epic will always be on my list because I think [promoter] Mike McCormack has the best idea with rules. The only two rules are: Don’t be a dick and don’t litter. Finally, the Grasshopper Adventure Series in Northern California is so fun. Everyone should do that. It’s the shit.
Todd Sadow has a bold plan for the future of American cross-country mountain bike racing.
Sadow’s vision centers on attracting the world’s top male and female racers from around the globe to his Epic Rides race series. Lured by the largest cash purse in the sport, as well as a collection of international media attention and crowds, top professionals from the Europe-centered World Cup would line up next to American ultra-endurance racers, single-speeders, and athletes from across the broad spectrum of off-road racing. When the starting gun fired, these men and women would speed into the backcountry to battle on a 50-mile single-lap course that harkens back to the brutal, technical routes from mountain biking’s good old days.
Sadow obsesses over this vision, and has already ironed out the finer details: There would be eight races; a season that stretched from March through October; and a sponsorship portfolio that included the biggest brands in the sport.
“If you are a pro mountain biker — I don’t care if you live in Switzerland or South Africa — you come to America to be a professional mountain biker,” Sadow says. “That is the expectation I have for my series.”
It’s an ambitious goal, and one that directly challenges the sport’s longtime structure. It’s been 20 years since mountain biking’s heartland migrated from the United States to Europe, where each year the world’s top athletes battle on the UCI World Cup. Since then, the best racers have increasingly come from the Alpine countries of France, Switzerland, and Germany, and their collective focus has been squarely on the Olympic Games. Gone are the long, technical cross-country courses of mountain biking’s primordial days; in today’s cross-country world, the top athletes spin multiple laps on short, punchy, courses that cater to spectators and TV cameras.
Sadow is a dreamer, but he’s no fool. He understands the challenges facing his vision. He’s already taken major steps toward achieving his goal. More than a decade ago Sadow had a similarly audacious vision to unveil races that challenged the trends in American off-road racing. In 2004 he launched the Whiskey Off-Road race, which became the template for his other Epic Rides races. Today, the three races that compose the series — the Whiskey Off-Road, Grand Junction Off-Road, and Carson City Off-Road — stand at the pinnacle of American racing.
The series attracts thousands of participants. The country’s top professional riders also flock to the races to fight for a $100,000 prize purse split equally between both genders. The 2017 Whiskey Off-Road featured a tight battle between Olympians Sam Gaze of New Zealand and Howard Grotts of the United States, with Pan American champion Kate Courtney winning the women’s event.
That’s all music to Sadow’s ears. While he doesn’t expect his series to fulfill his vision overnight, he believes that steady growth will someday get him to the finish line.
“Mountain biking needed an overhaul,” Sadow says. “Now it feels like we’re poised for this really shiny future.”
A DECADE AGO THE U.S. professional mountain bike racing scene was in a tailspin. USA Cycling still operated its National Mountain Bike Series — successor to the famed NORBA series of the 1990s. However, each season the series saw its sponsor portfolio and professional participation decline. The NORBA series’ heyday of cash payouts and TV coverage on ESPN were long gone; by the mid 2000s the professional racing scene had dwindled to a handful of teams.
The Ford-sponsored women’s pro team folded in 2007; longtime professional outfit Trek-Volkswagen disbanded in 2009; and stalwart racing brands GT and Mongoose pulled back from team sponsorship.
Sadow saw an opportunity amid the chaos.
While the pro scene was crashing, amateur mountain bikers were seeking new challenges. Like other race promoters, Sadow set out to discover what these riders wanted in a mountain bike race.
Had mountain bikers grown tired of two-hour, multi-lap cross-country races? Did participants crave a longer distance, or a different format? Across the sport, race promoters launched single- and multi-day events that replaced multiple-lap courses with adventuresome riding. In 2006 promoters launched the National Ultra-Endurance Series of 100-mile races; the BC Bike Race started in 2007; the Gunnison Growler debuted in 2008; and Breck Epic held its first stage race in 2009.
Sadow held the popular 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo race, and 50- and 100-mile races in Prescott, Arizona. He believed the 50-mile event, dubbed the Whiskey Off-Road, held the secret to the sport’s future. It boasted both a 25- and 50-mile circuit, with both races including a single, backcountry lap.
A lifelong cyclist with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Sadow distributed marketing surveys to riders after each race. He saw a promising trend with finishers of the Whiskey’s two distances: The range in experience reached from newbies all the way to seasoned veterans.
“We saw people who had just been racing for a year or two,” Sadow says. “It was an entry point for the sport.”
The Whiskey Off-Road race was an experiment that blossomed into a success. Launched in 2004, the race doubled in participation in its first three years, attracting nearly 2,000 racers, including 104 in the pro field, by 2007. Sadow chose Prescott because the community showed up in droves to watch the race, and because the local trail system was a favorite amongst Arizona riders. Each year, Sadow tried to grow the event from a race into a festival. In year four, he added a rock band and beer garden. Then, he asked the fastest riders to participate in a fat-tire criterium around downtown. Participants and locals flocked to the events.
Gradually, word spread throughout the mountain bike community that the Whiskey Off-Road boasted a unique experience. The trails were fun, the racing was a challenge, and fans showed up to watch. Pro riders began to show up simply to race on the fun trails, and to engage with the amateurs. Sadow didn’t even offer a cash prize.
Sadow was friends with several pro riders, and saw an opportunity to create a new competition for the country’s top athletes. He put cash up for grabs, and began to reach out through his connections to bring even more pro riders to the races. They were amazed by what they saw.
“It felt like a big party,” says multiple-time national champion Todd Wells, who first participated in the event in 2012. “These are trails you’d ride for fun if you lived in town. Most people aren’t going to go race four laps of a NORBA course just for fun.”
BY 2012 SADOW WAS convinced that the Whiskey Off-Road format could be successful in other communities. He set out to find similarly sized host towns that were interested in holding a race. In 2014 he launched the Grand Junction Off-Road with a comparable weekend-long festival. After a tumultuous first year, which saw modest turnout due to an odd spot on the calendar, the race switched to an early May date and began to thrive. The 2016 event attracted 715 participants. So that year Sadow expanded again, adding a race in Carson City, Nevada.
The format that spurred the growth is simple in concept, yet challenging to execute. Epic Rides races are equal parts party and athletic event; the festival format funnels amateur and pro racers into a town’s center where they mingle with fans.
It’s a strategic plan: Sadow wants as many people as possible to congregate around local businesses and race sponsors.
The weekend kicks off on Friday night with a fat-tire criterium around downtown for the professional men and women. Fans show up to watch the race, where they’re served food and beer along the route. At the Grand Junction stop, title sponsor Bellco Credit Union even paid for fans to eat for free.
All pro riders are required to participate in the race; if they forego the event, they are handed a five-minute penalty for the 50-mile race. In the pre-race meeting with professionals, Sadow asks the riders to contribute to the entertainment. If they cannot race at the front, they should wave to the crowd, do wheelies, or give high fives.
“As a racer you get pumped up with that many people,” says Katerina Nash of the Clif Bar Pro team. “The community wants to see us race.”
The professionals are rewarded for their efforts. Sadow helps find host housing for those pros who lack major team support, and offers similar assistance to members of the media who show up to cover the athletes. He dedicates volunteers to distribute food and water to the top-20 male and female racers during the backcountry race. He even dedicates a staff person to work as a liaison with the elite racers throughout the weekend to help them with everything from mechanical problems to finding local grocery stores.
On Saturday morning the amateur racers congregate downtown for the start of the backcountry races. Each Epic Rides event features courses that are 15, 30, and 40-50 miles in length. When the riders return, they are greeted by another festival; this time Sadow has a lineup of bands to entertain finishers. The party rages long into the evening, with fans and locals alike staying to enjoy the headlining act.
On Sunday morning the professional men and women then stage downtown for their backcountry races. After three hours or so, they return to town, where fans are encouraged to show up for the finish. The focus on each town’s city center benefits local businesses as well as sponsors.
“You tend to have more time to interact with people because they come back every day,” says Sue George, who oversees marketing for the bike transport company Bikeflights.com, which sponsors the series. “It’s an environment where you can have conversations with customers to develop those personal connections that last longer than most marketing initiatives.”
After each event, Sadow provides a long list of metrics to his business partners, which he collects from post-race surveys. He charts each race’s overall participation and crowd size, along with media hits. He also surveys the participants, asking whether or not they use the products offered by sponsors.
According to Ashley Gross, community marketing manager for Bellco Credit Union, those metrics help justify the event sponsorship.
“[The sponsorship] supported a larger community event that was also an economic driver for Grand Junction,” she says. “Even if people weren’t riding they could still enjoy the event, the concert, food trucks, etc.”
MIDWAY THROUGH THE 2017 Carson City Off-Road, Katerina Nash felt her legs lose power. Fearing she might exert herself too hard on the 50-mile course, the four-time Olympian sagged back on the climbs as two riders pedaled away from her. She finished third but still managed to win the series overall, and admitted that the distance had delivered a serious challenge.
“Managing that pace over four hours is the challenge — I can push myself extremely hard for 45 minutes,” Nash says. “I go into these races with the plan of surviving.”
The pro riders who line up for the Epic Rides races repeat the sentiment. Racing a mountain bike across 50 miles of singletrack is hard work, especially when the pace gets faster each year. The effort lasts between three and five hours, depending on the course.
The distance and pace create a challenge for both mainstream cross-country racers and the endurance riders who target longer 100-mile events, like the Leadville Trail 100. Press the effort too hard too soon and you risk imploding in the middle of nowhere.
The series’ prize money — each race pays out $5,000 to the winner — and growth in national prominence has attracted the country’s cadre of young Olympic hopefuls. Howard Grotts, America’s sole male mountain biker at the Rio de Janeiro Games, won the Grand Junction round of the series this year, and finished a close second in Prescott. Sponsors gave Grotts the green light to tackle the entire series this year, since the Olympics are still three years away.
“It seemed like a good year to step back from the World Cup scene somewhat and go to a few races that I haven’t been able to in previous years because of scheduling conflicts,” Grotts says.
As to whether the series could become Grotts’s primary focus is yet to be seen. The three-hour effort is unlike anything Grotts sees on the World Cup, where races are often no longer than an hour and a half.
“The number of [cross-country events] and particularly the depth of the competition in Europe is more conducive to becoming a better cross-country racer,” Grotts says. “I don’t think racing a 50-mile race leaves you too fatigued, and it can complement training for a World Cup, but it doesn’t really prepare you for the race-specific demands of a World Cup.”
Beyond the difficulties of the races themselves, the scheduling conflict may prove to be the insurmountable hurdle for Sadow’s ambitions to attract the world’s best every year. But even if Olympians like Grotts only show up sparingly, the series has already won a regular corral of stars. In fact, it has become the go-to destination for North American riders who a decade ago targeted the World Cup and Olympics. Wells, Nash, and Geoff Kabush are regulars, alongside Carl Decker and Barry Wicks.
Without the Epic Rides events, these riders may have retired years ago.
“As the [Epic Rides] events have grown into the premier races, it’s been perfect timing as I’m transitioning away from the World Cup,” Kabush says. “It’s the kind of races I want to do, and it’s what the sponsors want to buy into.”
Winning over domestic professionals marks a huge step forward for Sadow and the series. After all, when it started, the Whiskey Off-Road was an oddball race through the Arizona backcountry. Today, it’s one of the most important events in the country.
That perspective is what keeps Sadow striving to fulfill his vision. He understands his ultimate goal of reshaping global off-road racing is still years away. He will need to add events to his series — a fourth Epic Rides event will likely launch in 2018 at a yet-to-be announced location. Sadow will need to attract more industry sponsors to increase the prize purse. He will need to create a media platform in order to woo the top riders to his events. And he will need to craft a competition calendar that allows elite riders like Grotts to balance their ambitions.
It’s a tough task. Sadow says he isn’t worried.
“We’re picking up mountain biking and dusting it off,” Sadow says. “Racers want this. The industry wants this. We’re onto something.”
Welcome to the VeloNews cycling podcast, where we discuss the latest trends, news, and controversies in the world of cycling.
In the spirit of our recent “dirt” issue of VeloNews magazine, we’ve recorded two special interviews.
First up, Spencer Powlison talks to mountain bike world champion and all-around legend Ned Overend. They discuss the state of mountain biking, old-school technology, how Ned stays fast into his 60s and more.
Then, Chris Case and Kristen Legan talk to former cyclocross national champion Tim Johnson about his love of all things dirt. The world of participant-friendly cycling events seems to be centered on epic gravel routes. What’s behind this trend? Will it last? We talk to Tim about this and much more.