The Cactus Cup, a Late Winter Desert MTB Race for All

By Jessica McWhirt

February 2, 2024–Imagine stepping outside in the morning. In March. In bib shorts and a short-sleeve jersey. The air is crisp. The sun, warm enough that you don’t get goosebumps. You’re surrounded by winter vacation homes, cacti, creosote bushes, and sandy trails. And there isn’t any snow.

Welcome to Fountain Hills, Arizona (just outside of Phoenix)—home of The Cactus Cup, where the mountain bike season starts for those of us who can’t stand another weekend on the trainer, away from knobby tires and chasing bikes. It’s for the racers who might not be “race-ready,” but have the attitude of “fuck it, let’s find out what my legs are capable of.”

Cactus Cup

Cactus Cup graciously gives endurance athletes three days to race at “max capacity” through a time trial, cross-country, and enduro race.

Leading up to the race weekend, Race Director, Sage Melley leads their monthly Women’s Ride Series and I can’t get enough of the description: “Alongside her, a dynamic crew of trail mavens is on a mission to unveil the boundless fun, camaraderie, and empowerment that mountain biking has to offer to women everywhere.”

Sage wants to see more women racing her event and part of her effort in attracting new racers is leading her women-only, pace-friendly rides and clinics so women gain the skills and confidence to jump into her race. Another woman-friendly aspect to this race is that it’s made by and for families. Sage’s family of Mike, Breck, and Bailey realize how difficult it can be to manage family and sport so they’ve built a race where your don’t have to leave your family behind.

Jessica McWhirt on far left

They describe it as “this one-stop weekend provides world-class bike racing for the professional and amateur athlete as well as fostering family and our great mountain bike community with a big expo, beer garden, kids racing and activities.”

I don’t have kids myself but this was the perfect opportunity to see my father who lives in Arizona, who I only see once a year. This year, I’m not just racing The Cactus Cup, but also using this as an opportunity to spend time with my father, an athlete himself, because of how welcoming the environment is.

I competed for the first time at The Cactus Cup last year. Beautiful weather (and my friends) drew me in and the racing kept me there. I figured it was a great introduction to stage racing with its women-only categories (don’t get me going on mass starts), friendly volunteers, equal payouts and prizes for both women’s and men’s categories, equal media coverage, and a super chill and welcoming vibe no matter where I went

Last year, I didn’t have a chance to preview the course before race weekend so I very much had a very indifferent attitude. Luckily, the courses (TT, XC, and Enduro) offer flowy trails with minimal technical features but are still exciting enough to feel like you gotta earn that finish line.

It’s not too late to sign up—race weekend is March 8-10th. Sign up here and come race bikes with me


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