BY JASON NORMAN
LAS VEGAS, NV—Tom Hillard knows a great deal about the Cactus Cup. After all, he brought the idea of sponsorship to his boss at Specialized at the time.
“That was the start of it [for Specialized],” Hillard said. “[Specialized’s] Tom Bradley was the actual race director. It was definitely a race for the racers. There were lots of spectators who showed up. A lot of people came up to us afterwards thanking us for putting on the races.”
The Cactus Cup was the season opening race in March that all others were judged and measured by. Mention the Cactus Cup to industry veterans and it’s sure to elicit a response of some sort, or a grandfatherly tale of Scottdale, Arizona’s Pinnacle Peak Park, “when there were actually personalities in racing,” quipped Tomac’s Joel Smith.
John Tomac, Ned Overend, Tinker Juarez, Missy Giove—they all competed there.
And it wasn’t just a big deal to seasoned veterans.
“We were all racing for second,” said Dave McCall, mechanic for Landis Cyclery in Scottsdale, Arizona, mentioning the names of legendary racers Tomac and Juarez. “Tinker would hammer us.”
McCall raced in the Cactus Cup five times. “Just to see them in our own backyard was something,” McCall added.
Pivot Cycles owner Chris Cocalis recalled the year Juarez sliced open an artery while racing, eventually finishing the race but being airlifted to a hospital.
“To see all those heavy hitters, and say, ‘Wow, they’re here racing our race,’” said Jon Milliken, who works in sales for Bicycle Haus in Scottsdale. Milliken interned for Specialized in 1993, helping put on the Cactus Cup, and has attended every Cactus Cup in Arizona.
The race became the Cactus Cup in 1991 when less than 100 mountain bikers gathered at the 150-acre Pinnacle Peak Park. By 1996, the Cactus Cup was attracting 10,000 participants and 75,000 spectators. Specialized was the title sponsor from 1992 to 1998. The last Cactus Cup was held in 1999.
“Specialized decided it wanted to be a bicycle manufacturer and not an event promoter,” said Ravi Rajcamoor, who was promotions director for Specialized during a portion of this time, managing the race.
One thing that made the Cactus Cup races so special was that it was open to not only professionals, but beginners, too.
“The race courses were excellent and so were the venues,” Rajcamoor said. “The timing on the racing schedule was good and the atmosphere was laid back. And, there was a great expo.”
In its almost decade-long history, the Cactus Cup took to the road as well, hitting many U.S. cities including Athens, Georgia; Galena, Illinois; Miami, Florida; Crested Butte, Colorado; and Memphis, Tennessee. It also went abroad to Germany and Japan.
“Traveling to these places and seeing how they enjoy our version of the race was neat,” Hillard said.
The reasons for its untimely death are many, including the race being too brand-centric with Specialized’s name being too prominent.
“It was kind of weird standing at the podium with a jersey that had a Specialized label when I would be riding for Giant,” Tomac said. “But I did it because it was a great event.”
Others attribute its demise to waning interest in mountain bike racing, multiple venue changes within Arizona and the Sea Otter Classic beginning to gain ground.
Whatever the reasons may be, Rajcamoor and race producer Swagger have decided to bring back the Cactus Cup. This time it will be held 300 miles north of Scottsdale in Las Vegas. It’s scheduled for Sept. 19-21 and has a new title sponsor: Mountain’s Edge—a 3,500-acre master-planned community in Las Vegas. Rajcamoor said racing will take place at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
“Las Vegas offers everything that we need—an amazing venue next to a major city,” Rajcamoor said. “The timing is perfect for the industry because it’s just prior to Interbike.”
While the Cactus Cup will feature an expo area, an exhibitor list has yet to be finalized. “We’ve gotten strong interest from most (industry) people that matter,” Rajcamoor said.
The event will be televised, Rajcamoor said, with a sizeable prize purse of $25,000.
Whether this year’s version has legs remains to be seen, but some would like to see it back in Arizona.
“Even when the weather is acceptable at Sea Otter, it’s better here,” said Cocalis, whose Pivot Cycles is located in Tempe, Arizona. “We would love to have the event back here again.”
Bicycle Haus’ Milliken echoed his sentiments.
“If they brought it here there would be a lot of people,” Milliken said. “Finding the right venue might be a challenge.”