Originally published Saturday, April 28, 2018 at 12:11a.m.

PRESCOTT — Prescott pro mountain biker Chloe Woodruff proved late Friday afternoon that she has returned to fine form at the Whiskey Off-Road, winning the women’s criterium race for a record third time in the past five years in front of her adoring fans.

Riding a paved, looped course on the city’s downtown streets as hundreds of spectators crowded along the finish line off Cortez Street, Woodruff rolled to an early lead in the 35-plus-member field. She briefly trailed during the middle of the race before rallying toward the end of the 12-lapper, outlasting defending crit champion Erin Huck of Boulder, Colorado.

Woodruff, plagued by injuries and illness the past two years here, bounced back nicely Friday on a much different crit course. In 2014 and 2015, Woodruff won the crit and moved on to claim victory in the Whiskey Off-Road 50 Proof women’s pro race. This Sunday, April 29, she could complete the feat once more.

“I’m really happy to be out here racing – I’m feeling good, and it’s such a fun race,” Woodruff said. “It never gets any easier. There’s been a few course modifications. It was a great change that they made this year.”

Rounding out the Top 5 in the crit were defending Whiskey 50 Proof pro women’s champion Kate Courtney of Morgan Hill, California (third), 2016 crit champion Evelyn Dong of Heber City, Utah (fourth), and Larissa Connors of Silverado, California (fifth). Each cyclist in the Top 5 earns a spot toward the front of the starting line for Sunday’s 50 Proof.

After the race, Woodruff was all smiles, which came as no surprise. In the 2017 crit, she and her Stan’s NoTubes teammate, Rose Grant, crashed in the final lap and didn’t finish where they would’ve liked.

On Friday, Grant didn’t compete in the crit, and she won’t ride in Sunday’s race due to an injured fibula. Grant, who won the Whiskey in 2016, underwent surgery earlier this month. In Grant’s place, Woodruff is racing with Pivot/Stan’s NoTubes teammate Sofia Gomez-Villafane of Park City, Utah.

“Last year, it was a really disappointing day for me [in the crit],” Woodruff said. “It’s redemption. It was super fun.”

Woodruff is the only women’s rider to win the Whiskey crit more than once since the race began in 2011. The 2018 crit course started on Cortez Street instead of Goodwin Street, like it had the past two years, allowing for the grueling Union Street climb to play a role early in the race.

“It makes for pretty fun, dynamic racing, and the field just gets stronger each year,” Woodruff said.

Huck countered midway through Friday’s crit and formed a good gap, Woodruff said. But it didn’t hold.

“I was kind of sitting up, waiting for Kate [Courtney] and [her Specialized teammate] Annika [Langvad] to see if they might work to chase her [Huck] down,” Woodruff added. “And neither of them were working, so next time up the hill I’m like, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to go for it.’ ”

Huck said Woodruff’s “leg speed” won the race. “We were equally matched, more or less, on the climb, but then Chloe made her move there,” Huck added. “I tried to get around her, but she held me off.”

The strategy worked well, as Woodruff soon caught up to Huck and they battled until the end. Courtney said she “missed a decisive move early on,” allowing Woodruff and Huck to push ahead. She didn’t regret it, though.

“For me, there is also definitely the consideration that we race on Sunday – and, at altitude, it actually ended up to be a benefit to be alone in third,” Courtney said. “I was really able to pace myself and save my energy, and not have to put in those huge attacks and counterattacks that they were putting in on the front.”

MEN

With defending Whiskey crit champ and 50 Proof pro men’s titlist Sam Gaze riding in European cross-country races this spring, Gaze’s Specialized teammate, Howard Grotts of Morgan Hill, California, was more than happy to carry the torch here on Friday.

Grotts, a past Whiskey 50 men’s champion, won the men’s crit for the first time. Wearing the Stars and Stripes jersey, Grotts received stiff competition from Stan’s NoTubes’ Keegan Swenson of Park City, Utah, who finished a close second. Both riders live at altitude, which they used to their advantage in mile-high Prescott.

“I kind of hit it on the climb on the last lap, but Keegan was right there,” Grotts said. “He attacked before the descent, and then I was able to sneak around with two corners to go.”

Swenson, a teammate of Woodruff’s, said Grotts dug deep on the final climb and had “a little bit more in the tank, and I was fully gassed.”

The Top 5 men’s finishers in the 14-lap crit race earned a front-line position into Sunday’s Whiskey 50 race, which starts and finishes on Whiskey Row this year. The bigger, taller Geoff Kabush, a past Whiskey 50 champ, placed third out of some 90 crit riders Friday. Kabush won the crit in 2012. Brian Matter of Prescott was fourth and Nicola Rohrbach of Switzerland took fifth.

“Those guys [Grotts, Swenson] are pretty phenomenal climbers – and, at this point, I’m a bigger, older guy and I’ve got to use all the experience I have,” said Kabush of Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, which is near sea level. “They really lit it up those first few laps. My recipe for success is trying to be efficient and save energy [for Sunday].”

UP NEXT

The Whiskey 50 Proof and 30 Proof amateur races begin at 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., respectively, today, April 28, on Whiskey Row.

On Sunday, the 50 Proof pro men’s race starts at 8:30 a.m., followed by the 50 Proof pro women’s race at 8:40 a.m., on Whiskey Row. The annual Kids’ Fun Ride is scheduled for 9 a.m.

Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.