PRESCOTT - There will be no medals, trophies, or prize money for any of the 200-plus cyclists crossing the finish line in the Skull Valley Loop Challenge on Sunday, Sept. 20.
That's what makes it unique.
For past competitors, who come from throughout the Southwest and as far away as North Carolina, beating their previous best times will be their only awards. For others, it will be only the satisfaction of completing the grueling 52.9-mile road challenge that weaves through Prescott, Skull Valley, Kirkland, Kirkland Junction, Wilhoit, and back to the courthouse plaza, where the ride begins at 7:30 a.m.
Coordinators of the event from Prescott Alternative Transportation are quick to emphasize that the Skull Valley Loop Challenge is NOT a race. Its nomenclature, however, won't dampen some racers' competitive spirits.
"Whether it's a 'ride' or a 'race,' for some cyclists it becomes a race as soon as they put a number on their back or their bike," says Lisa Crujido, one of 80 cyclists in the Bike Prescott group and a member of a women's racing team in Phoenix. "This event will be more competing against ourselves instead of each other."
Proceeds of the Skull Valley Loop Challenge support Prescott Alternative Transportation's mission of working toward a bicycle and pedestrian friendly central Yavapai community.
Volunteers from cycling groups and bicycle shops throughout the area have made this event an enduring success for nearly 10 years. High Gear Bicycle Shop and Bike Prescott will host the two aid stations. Bikesmith Cyclery provides a Support and Gear (SAG) wagon that follows the route fixing flat tires and mechanical problems as well as picking up injured riders or those too exhausted to finish.
"You never want to hop on the SAG wagon, especially toward the end of the race," says Pat David, 60, the membership director for Bike Prescott who will be riding in the Challenge for the third time. "You never want to give up. You want to keep going."
That can be a punishing push. There's two "heartbreak hills." The first climbs nearly 1,000 feet over a distance of approximately eight miles from the courthouse plaza in Prescott to the apex of Iron Springs Road (6,133 feet), the highest point on the course. That's followed by a long descent into Skull Valley and Kirkland, where the route bottoms out at 3,917 feet. The second back-breaking ascent passes through Kirkland Junction onto Highway 89 past Wilhoit (5,017 feet) before zigzagging the tight switchbacks along the forested spars to 6,000 feet. The downhill finale along White Spar Road and Montezuma empties into downtown Prescott.
"It's a challenge for everybody," says long-time event director Jim Knaup, owner of Ironclad Bicycles since 2004. "There's a cross section of riders. They're not all racers. We've had people well into their 70s finish. Teenagers ride, too. The average age is around 45."
David says her goal the first time she rode the loop two years ago was to "...finish and not walk." She was less intimidated by the hills last year because she knew she could do it. A self-described recreational cyclist, David took slightly more than five hours to complete the 52.9 miles.
"I wanted to make sure there was someone behind me so I wasn't last," she adds with a laugh. "There were others buzzing past the aid stations so they could be among the first to finish. It was a walk in the park for them. That's pretty inspiring."
"Inspiring" best describes 85-year-old Max Davenport, a long-time Prescott cyclist who has ridden in the Challenge numerous times, his last one in 2013. He has always finished, usually with a time between four to five hours.
"I've done it in both directions, clockwise and counterclockwise," said Davenport, who rode 85 miles to Seligman with a group of friends to celebrate his 85th birthday last year.
Davenport is now vision-impaired, but that hasn't prevented him from competing. Earlier this summer, he rode on a tandem bike with Dr. Jim McCarver, 67, from Prescott Valley in a 47-mile race around Mormon Lake southeast of Flagstaff.
"If they went by collective age [to place them in an age bracket], we were 152 years old," Davenport said with a chuckle. "We averaged 19 miles per hour."
Davenport hasn't lost his sense of humor or enthusiasm for a good ride.
"I used to ride 4,000 miles a year, but this year I'm probably down to 2,000," Davenport said. "I have to ride in groups now so I can follow people. I just have to make sure I'm not behind someone who's going to lead me over a cliff."
Crujido saw a lot of cliffs recently when she completed the seven-day, 465-mile Ride the Rockies race that scales the mountains of Colorado. She was part of a team raising money for the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson's. The total ascension of the race was more than 40,000 feet!
"I like to compete in races with challenging hills," says Crujido, 59, who rides between 150 and 175 miles per week. "The Skull Valley Loop is right up there. Some parts are moderate to hard riding."
Especially the stretch between Kirkland Junction and Wilhoit. "It's a haul," she said. "It doesn't look as hard as it turns out to be. It's really hot. There's no shade. It's relentless. You want to make sure you eat and you're well-hydrated."
Crujido's best time in previous Skull Valley Loop challenges was three hours and seven minutes.
"I hope to beat it this time," she says. "The really cool thing about this event is that even beginners can finish it. With a little bit of training and determination, they can complete the loop and feel really good about their accomplishments."
No matter how long it takes them to cross the finish line.
Ed Wisneski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.