Wild Shirts and Red Dirt: The 2021 Sedona Mountain Bike Festival

The mountain biking in Sedona is exceptional. Full stop. Seemingly endless trail systems spiderweb right out from the center of town, winding in, out, and around the uniquely hematite-hued geologic formations at the base of the massive Mogollon Rim escarpment. Like other mountain bike destinations along the Colorado Plateau, Sedona trails take advantage of slickrock sandstone slabs and porous dirt that becomes tacky with precipitation long before it gets muddy.

You might remember John’s musings on Sedona’s legendary Red Velcro. Sedona also benefits from ideal riding temperatures in late fall and early spring, when many other locales remain unridable during shoulder seasons. It’s close to Phoenix and Flagstaff (which makes travel fairly easy), features a picturesque perennially flowing stream, and some stellar dining options. If you can get past the limits on dispersed camping and ever-increasing cost of resort town lodging, Sedona is tough to beat.

It’s the resort town infrastructure, however, along with enviable weather, trail access, and committed local cycling community that make Sedona the perfect place to host one of the country’s premier annual mountain bike festivals. Mike Raney, owner of Thunder Mountain Bikes, along with his friend Mike McFee, started the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival in 2015. They hosted it in the parking lot of the bike shop with goals of showcasing what was quickly becoming a world-class cycling destination, connecting riders with brands and pro riders, and forging bonds throughout the local community. The festival has grown exponentially since inception and now fills Posse Grounds Park to its brim annually in early March.

Better Late than Never

Attending the 2020 Sedona Mountain Bike Festival was one of the last “normal” things I remember doing before Covid-19 cases ramped up across the US and lockdowns/shelter-in-place orders wiped event calendars clean. A few vendors chose to skip that festival out of an abundance of caution, group rides were somewhat limited, and many of us festival-goers were figuring out what social distancing was all about. For me, at least, the vibe seemed a little “off.” In March of this year, when the festival was scheduled to take place again, organizers decided to postpone due to another Covid surge in Arizona. When it finally did happen again this past weekend – on the heels of the Veteran’s Day holiday – it came roaring back with nearly one-hundred vendors, live music, a steady stream of clinics and group rides, bike demos, shuttle rides, film festival, food trucks, bunny-hop competition and so much more. As one of the first major cycling festivals to take place following pandemic-induced delays, the atmosphere was electrified and invigorating. I suppose distance really does make the heart grow fonder.

This year everyone seemed so grateful to be attending the event. You picture family trips where you’re so excited to reach your destination and then you don’t get a parking spot or your favorite restaurant is closed and it all starts unraveling? That can certainly happen with an event like ours, but this year seemed different; we hardly had any complaints. In regards to postponing this year’s festival over canceling it, we feel that demoing bikes is crucial to the experience of participating in the sport. It’s how you bring new people in, it’s how you enable understanding of the value of products, and the one-on-one interactions that occur are irreplaceable. With so many people taking up cycling over the past year, it’s important to help them elevate their game and demonstrate what is so special about the mountain bike community. – Mike Raney, Sedona Mountain Bike Festival Founder and Organizer

Buy a Ticket, Take a Ride

Bike demos and shuttle rides are the foundation of the festival. Riders that purchased advance event passes flood into Posse Grounds Park when gates open promptly at 9:00 a.m. searching for their ride of choice. Some were there purely to have fun, while others were conducting methodical research and planning for future purchases. Whatever the persuasion, be it a 27.5 titanium hardtail or a long-travel carbon fiber 29er, there was something for everyone. Though, with supply chain shortages carrying over to demo fleets, obtaining some of the more popular models often required some extra patience. Once demo bikes were secured, riders could either jump on a shuttle to trails on the outskirts of town, or sample some of the singletrack adjacent to the festival grounds.

I think Mike did a great job with this year’s festival planning. He didn’t oversell the event, which helped ensure everyone that wanted to demo a bike could get one over the course of the weekend. Not everyone in the industry has extensive demo fleets right now due to supply chain issues. We thought that could present a problem for us, but it really didn’t. Sometimes it meant loaning out our personal bikes or sitting in our booth drinking a La Croix with riders talking shop until a bike was returned. I also want to mention how much I like that the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival has become a destination and something people add to their calendars and look forward to every year. It’s incredibly welcoming and the reason we decided to launch our company there in 2019. It’s a theme that’s spreading and more people are starting to realize it’s the best festival in the country. – Chris Reichel, Revel Bikes

After speaking with some of the vendors, (and I agree) what really makes this event special is the access to the local bike park and nearby trails.  The event venue sits on top of the Sedona Bike Park so vendors can easily take a quick break, hit up the pump track, dual slalom or jump lines in just a few minutes.  If you want trails, access to the nearby Soldier Pass Trail System is just a 5-10 minute pedal away.  There are some iconic Sedona intermediate to Advanced trails right there.  This flexibility and convenience is what really keeps everyone stoked all weekend.  – Evan Puglia, Sedona MTB Academy

No Pass, No Problem

One of the best aspects of the festival is that passes are only required to demo bikes and ride shuttles. That means entrance into the vendor expo, access to group rides, and everything else (other than food, beer, and gear) is free. Since I wasn’t there to demo bikes, I spent the better part of the weekend jumping in on group rides, catching up with friends, and chatting with vendors. The expo was a non-stop party environment all weekend. Everywhere I looked there was something fun/wild/crazy going on. At one point I was watching Mike Herlinger, owner of Club Ride, sign an arm cast and then turned around to see someone at the Pit Viper booth riding a trainer to power a blender full of margaritas. Old Shovel painted a vintage Cannondale for a giveaway along with a Park Tool toolbox, folks experimented with wheelie-ing klunkers, and the crowd favorite bunny-hop competition did not disappoint. The list goes on.

Of course, an event like this wouldn’t be much without vendors. In addition to brands offering up product lines for demos – from bikes, to wheels, and even shoes – there were other booths well stocked with inventory for sale. You could walk away with a new set of tires (installed!), sunglasses, on-bike luggage, dropper post, wardrobe, and much more. It was also interesting to see some smaller brands represented, like Galfer rotors and Versus tires, that have experienced unexpected growth due to supply chain shortages with other manufacturers. There were even a few handmade or otherwise bespoke bikes on display, which I will be detailing in upcoming reportage.

And the shirts. Ohhhh, the shirts. Similar to procuring Mickey or Minnie Mouse ears at Disneyland and wearing them around the park, there was a frenzy this year over boldly-colored and ironically-designed button-up shirts. Shirts from Party Shirt International, Club Ride, and Handup were prevalent on trails and around town, undoubtedly helping to support the positive vibe of the weekend.

The 2020 festival was the last time a big group of my friends were together before the pandemic shut down a lot of big-group activities for a long while, so I was excited to get back up there this fall. Three solid days of Sedona riding-beer-music-goofing off is always nice, but especially after the last year and a half. I spent less time riding demo bikes than previous trips to the festival, which worked out great because I took some rides with friends that I probably would have missed if I was just testing bikes all day. On Saturday afternoon I bumped into a Phoenix-area friend who I’ve never actually biked with, and since we both were looking to get in one more loop before sundown we had a great ride on Jordan-Javalina with a few more friends joining us and even some other strangers we picked up on the trail. I also got to show some friends who were new to Sedona some of my favorite spots, like the traverse on Mescal where the cliff looms over the trail. On that ride our friend Nataly had a scary endo off one of the ledges on Deadman’s Pass, but luckily she was OK and could joke about it that afternoon at the venue while still covered head to toe in red dust. Meanwhile my wife and I snuck in some demo rides and will probably spend the next week or more daydreaming about new bikes. – Ryan Randazzo, Festival Attendee

No-drop Group Rides

Looking at the festival’s schedule of events can be somewhat intimidating, but having such a variety of options adds to the accessibility and approachability of the event – there’s literally something for everyone and for all skill levels. The stacked event calendar might also be one way the organizers keep folks wanting to return each year: You were pedaling with Rob Drew and had to miss out on Mo and Hannah Awesome’s group ride? Well, come back next year and switch it up!

I spent a solid chunk of time on group rides over the weekend. I heard an on-trail geology lesson from Kurt Refsnider, tried to stay on Kait Boyle’s wheel down Grand Central trail, and followed Sedona locals Steve and Tess (Hardtail Party and Dusty Betty) on a fast-paced tour around the “Devil’s Kitchen.” I also linked up with Jill Kintner and Stef McDaniel who led a group of women for Shimano. Stef and I ride together at home in Phoenix and I’ve helped photograph some of her women’s clinics in the past. It was great to see her in a coaching environment along with Jill. They stopped fairly frequently to session features and discuss everything from pre-ride bike checks to various on-trail skills. A few riders even got a push up a super steep section of trail to practice their climbing technique.

From years prior, both at this festival and in general, there has been a noticeable spike in diversity of attendees, which I think is telling about where the mountain bike community is headed. It’s not just all white dudes anymore. The women’s ride I helped lead for Shimano was supposed to be capped at around 10 riders and we ended up with almost double that. The other open ride I led was nearly half women. It’s such a cool thing to see so many people coming out to events like this and experiencing the sport with a larger community. – Stef McDaniel, Enduro Athlete

The next Sedona Mountain Bike Festival is just around the corner (March 4,5,6). Tickets go on sale soon and will sell out again. Sign up for the event’s email list on the festival website to be notified.