WHISKEY OFF-ROAD: For one Prescott rider, the Whiskey Off-Road offers an altogether different challenge
A year and a half ago, veteran competitive cyclist Kurt Refsnider moved to mile-high Prescott from Boulder, Colo., where he earned a doctorate in geology from the University of Colorado.
Settling into a new job as a Prescott College professor, Refsnider, 31, realized that he wanted to continue feeding his extracurricular itch to bike. But he was burned out on the road-racing scene, one in which he had become accustomed.
While he was still going to school in Colorado, Refsnider became intrigued by a series of long, 300-mile self-supported mountain bike races that began cropping up in the western U.S.
One of them is the Great Divide Race, which follows a route from the Canadian border to the Mexican border along the Continental Divide.
"After racing so many years, just kind of going around in little laps and circles, I was like, 'This sounds really interesting,'" Refsnider said earlier this month from his office in Prescott. "It's a completely different way of doing it."
These lengthy backcountry races require competitors to pack camping gear and all of the supplies necessary on stops between towns.
"That's what really captured my heart, basically, for the last five years was that kind of racing," Refsnider said. "I like getting out and seeing places I've never been before, and just really enjoying riding through remote country."
Although this weekend's annual Whiskey Off-Road 50-mile professional endurance mountain bike race in Prescott is not of the same ilk as those cross-country rides, Refsnider will compete in the Whiskey for the second straight year on Sunday.
In the 2012 Whiskey, only a few months after relocating here, Refsnider placed a respectable 33rd among a field of 76 pro riders - several of whom train year round and cycle as their sole occupation.
Despite his strong finish, Refsnider said the Whiskey's a kind of competition that puts him out of his comfort zone.
"It's funny, because now after doing so much of these really long ultra-endurance races, the Whiskey is a really short race for me - it's too short," Refsnider said. "I can't go that hard for such a short time. My legs are used to kind of churning out a moderate pace for all day or several days.
"It was really a struggle last year. My legs didn't feel happy the entire time."
There's little wonder why Refsnider didn't feel up to snuff during last April's Whiskey Off-Road.
After all, it came only two weeks after he rode in and won the Arizona Trail 300, which he's now been in four different times.
That race covers the southern 300 miles of the Arizona Trail, which is non-motorized and mostly features single-track riding that runs from the Mexican border to the Utah border.
It essentially begins in Sierra Vista east of Tucson and heads up and over Mt. Lemmon. Then it meanders east of the Phoenix area and climbs to Payson before reaching Flagstaff and pushing north across the Grand Canyon. It eventually ends at the Utah border - in the middle of nowhere.
In the Arizona Trail 300, a biker must possess a combination of near-superb endurance riding skills and the ability to deal with sleep deprivation for a few days.
"It's a brutal route. It's really, really challenging," Refsnider said. "Everything is sharp and out to puncture your tires. And all the rocks are sharp and out to slice your tires."
This year, Refsnider will not race in the Arizona Trail 300 because its run date was rescheduled to only one week prior to the Whiskey, which wouldn't give him enough down time to recover.
Refsnider said his finish in the 2012 Whiskey surprised him. He's not technically a pro rider, and he said he doesn't have a racing license because he doesn't compete in any sanctioned pro races.
"They just want to see that you've got some solid results from highly competitive events," he said of the Whiskey organizers' expectations of riders who enter their pro race. "What I do is very different, but they let me in."
Refsnider started racing mountain bikes as a seventh grader in Minnesota, and he continued doing so through middle school and high school.
Since most Minnesota high schools have Nordic ski teams, Refsnider also participated in that realm. He rode his bike during the summers to cross-train for skiing.
"I had a lot of fun with it, but there weren't a lot of off-road trails around," Refsnider said. "I kind of burned out of mountain biking for a quite a while."
After high school, Refsnider dabbled off and on in mountain biking as a college undergrad. He later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., for grad school, where he primarily raced road bikes.
While in Madison, Refsnider delved into cyclocross, which he describes as a "contrived mix of biking and running."
In cyclocross, racers ride in short laps that last 6-7 minutes apiece on surfaces ranging from pavement, dirt and grass to sand and mud. Barriers are intentionally placed in spots along the course that are too tall to cross with road bikes, which are equipped with skinny, slightly knobbier-than-normal tires.
"Some of it's ride-able, and some of it's not," Refsnider said of the typical cyclocross course. "And if it's not, you pick up your bike and you run. It's really fun racing. It's pretty low key, usually."
He added that cyclocross evolved in the western European country of Belgium during the winters when biking enthusiasts wanted to stay entertained by training through the colder months.
"The running would keep their feet warm, apparently," Refsnider said.
When Refsnider graduated from Wisconsin, he was accepted into a doctorate program at the University of Colorado.
He continued in road racing and cyclocross in Boulder, where many aspiring professional/semi-pro racers go to live and train.
"After a few years of that, I kind of got a little frustrated, because I was racing at a good level for me," Refsnider said. "I was really satisfied. But coming from the Midwest to there, I went from being one of the stronger riders to just sort of middle of the field - not able to do a lot."
To train for ultra-endurance races, Refsnider said he's used to riding 10 hours a day for two or three days in a row on long weekends.
In addition to racing in the Arizona Trail 300, Refsnider's completed the Arizona Trail 750 (miler) once, a 360-miler in Colorado once, and the 2,700-mile Tour Divide Race three times, which he won in 2011.
He said that someone like him riding in the Whiskey Off-Road is analogous to an ultra-marathoner trying to run a sprint.
"It's really different," he said of the Whiskey. "I'm tailoring my training a little bit more toward it this year than I did last year. But, still, I don't even feel like I really train that much. I just love riding."
Refsnider, who occasionally battles tendonitis but says he feels healthy now, said he wanted to return to ride in the Whiskey this year because it's "a really fun, hometown event."
Last year, he was the only rider from Prescott in the pro race.
"It's really neat to see how the town gets into it and how it brings so many people out onto the course," he added. "It's one of those things I like to support."
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