The Cactus Cup: The Least Intimidating, Most Fun Mountain Bike Stage Race

processed with vsco with 6 preset

By Jessica McWhirt

I’m sitting in the backseat of Marc’s truck, the sun hasn’t peeked over the mountain range just yet, and SiriusXM radio is playing quiet enough to hear the wheels rolling along the Arizona highway.

We have a 14-hour drive ahead of us. I get comfy (as comfy as I can for a 14-hour car drive).

I’m coming home with a second-place finish and a newfound respect for homeowners. You see, my partner, Jackky, and I just bought a place and moved in two days before we road-tripped out to Fountain Hills, Arizona to race for three days straight.

Between restless days moving and restless nights stressing out, I worried my training would suffer and I’d have subpar results at The Cactus Cup. And according to My Perfectionism, coming in second place in my age group isn’t quite the win I was looking for (cue my family’s motto: “if you’re not first, you’re last”).

But here’s the thing: life is hard.

I don’t care who you are, you have or will, at some point in your life, struggle. I’m willing to bet most people who showed up to The Cactus Cup were going through something in their life, as minor as it might have been.

To be able to show up and race with what you had on that day is enough.

Stage 1: All-Out Efforts In The 6-Mile Time Trial

img 0806

The Cactus Cup 6-mile time trial is the perfect opener for the 40-mile XC race the following day. I love having a carrot ahead of me to push to go faster. I love having someone using me as their carrot to push themselves. And I love that we’re all spread out getting to preview parts of the XC race for the next day.

We start the race in 30-second increments, solo. As the organizer counted down, “5…4…3…” I saw Jackky, my father, and Marc at the top of the incline, at the lip of a hill I’d catch a little air on when I passed them. I saw the women ahead of me and as the miles ticked on, I closed gaps and passed several of them.

When I first started road racing, I started time trialing because it was the least intimidating type of race. No one bunched around me. No elbow-throwing. No bike crashes. No wheels crossing. No drafting.

The “race of truth,” is what they call it because it’s you against the wind and the terrain. For The Cactus Cup to have a mountain bike time trial on Day 1 (or as a stand-alone race) sets us up for a successful race. It’s especially helpful for those of us who may be intimidated by starting a race in a group and trying to get the holeshot so they’re not stuck in a congo line up the trail—or worse, crashing because I know that’s usually the first worry for me.

The women got to start in the morning when the weather was perfect and the storm clouds hadn’t rolled in yet. The crowd had their coffee and cowbells and shouted the loudest for all the women racing.

Hearing my friends and family cheer me on, and then getting to do it later (because there are a ton of places to watch) made Day 1 more fun than I expected and energized me for the big Cross-Country race the next day.

Stage 2: Motivation During The 40-Mile Cross-Country Race

I knew blowing myself up in the Time Trial the day

40-mile cross-country race on Arizona trails, but there was no choice but to pedal and try my damnedest.

What I appreciate about The Cactus Cup is not having a mass start. Too many fragile egos can’t handle racing amongst women and it honestly becomes dangerous. So, to have women start in their own wave feels safe and actually makes it easier to know where my competitors are instead of wading through gobs of dudes.

I still had to weave in and out of the men (always calling0be5022c 0d5b 48b3 a4a6 b168c015b317 my pass, for the record) because Women Are Fast Too, but there were just enough fragile egos that didn’t want to let “the opposite sex” overtake them, which made the racing more annoying than it needed to be.

Luckily, at a certain point in the race, I ended up racing with two women—one in her 40s and one in her 50s—who motivated me for about fifteen miles. We took turns pulling at the front. We communicated clearly to the men we passed. And we encouraged the women we saw along the trail. I’m sure if we were all in the same category, there would have been attacks on hills, which is how racing is supposed to go. No one’s crossing the line holding hands when there’s a top step to post-up on.

I’ve noticed at The Cactus Cup especially, that women are super encouraging toward each other on and off the trails—something very different than road racing. I remember racing road and taking it far too seriously, refusing to befriend others who weren’t on my team. Then realized how lonely that was getting and changed course (literally and figuratively). It’s easy to make friends at The Cactus Cup because a lot of mountain bikers go into these races thinking, “Hey, I’m an amateur paying to do this. If I’m not having fun, then wtf am I doing?”

At least, that’s the mindset I’ve adopted (okay, still trying to) over the past year and a half.

It also helps to have the amazing announcer, Dave Towle. Dave and I go way back to road racing. Back when I raced a crit and kept attacking because I was bored. “Here comes Rocket McWhirt around the corner…” he’d yell into the microphone, his voice bellowing over the speakers. Somehow I still had the energy to win in the sprint-finish.

Seeing Dave during the stage race was the cherry on top of a fun race. This man knows how to announce and more importantly, if he makes a mistake (mispronounces a name or accidentally skips a winner), he owns it immediately and usually makes a joke. I noticed more people walking up to the podium with smiles on their faces than I did last year with the previous announcer.

Making a race fun—from getting enthusiastic volunteers to blasting music over speakers to hiring a national treasure that is Dave Towle—should absolutely be a priority for races in this season of racing where it’s already hard enough to get people, especially women, to sign up.

Stage 3: It’s All Downhill From Here In The Enduro

I may not have repeated a win like last year, but I had a helluva time with all my friends and family.

The final stage was enduro with three separate timed segments. The difference between enduro and downhill is that you bike to the start of each stage in an enduro, and you don’t in a downhill.cactus cup (1)

So, we’d take our time getting to the start of the stage and sit around while others raced. The cool down between biking and going doesn’t work for my body. I don’t do well with starting and stopping on the bike and my legs just didn’t want to go after waiting for 20 minutes between each stage.

I ended up coming in third in today’s stage, which I’ll always give myself credit for because downhill is one of my weaknesses. And if we’re not constantly working on our weaknesses, then what are we doing?

I just read Go Fast Don’t Die’s email about “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake). In it, they quoted a letter Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote back to a school of kids with his advice:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give It to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: 

Write a six-line poem, about anything, but rhymed. 

No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up Into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

It’s easy to forget that riding a bike used to be something we did for fun as kids. We didn’t care how fast we were (as long as it felt like we were flying). It didn’t matter what clothes wore while pedaling around the neighborhood or what PSI we had. All we wanted to do was explore and play and stay out late without getting yelled at.

Too often we get down on ourselves for not having perfect results. For not being the best. For coming in second, for fuck sake. We forget that biking makes our souls grow. And if you want a little bit of soul-growth in March, when Colorado’s covered in snow, go play bikes at The Cactus Cup.

processed with vsco with 6 preset

By Jessica McWhirt

Recent Posts

Let's do this

Check out upcoming events