Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stars-and-Stripes quest coming to valley

Last here in 1988, national fat tire races return July 11-17

Express Staff Writer

It's been a generation full of a zillion changes in the mountain biking world since the Ketchum-Sun Valley area last hosted the national mountain bike championships, in 1988.

That's 23 years, about the age of many of the estimated 500 pro and amateur cyclists due here July 11-17 for the Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival, which features the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Cross-Country National Championships.

At stake are the Stars-and-Stripes jerseys for the winners.

It won't just be the young bucks, though. The age categories will range from 15-18 up to Masters 65-69 and 70-plus. All have qualified for nationals, but there will also be citizens' races and special "Local Stoker" trail rides, plus manufacturer displays of new equipment and merchandise.

The week of competition promises to be a great ride for everyone in an area called a "mountain biker's paradise" by USA Cycling Chief Executive Officer Steve Johnson. Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce Manager Director Greg Randolph added, "This area is one of the sport's best-kept secrets."

Sun Valley's bike attributes won't be a secret for long. The hardy horde of mountain bikers is coming. And they'll be back next July for an encore performance of the cross-country, short track cross-country, single speed and super downhill disciplines that make up 2011 USA Cycling nationals.

"We're building a foundation for an event to continue by offering a little something for everyone and showcasing our area," Randolph said. "We're all stakeholders, and we'll be rolling out the welcome mat."

Sun Valley is an ideal place for the sport's showcase event.

The growth in biking here is reflected in a comment by Ketchum resident Greg Martin, a two-time 24 Hours of Adrenalin Solo Single Speed world champ: "In this valley we have 430 miles of single track and 30 miles of paved path. It's the most extensive network of trails I've ever seen."

It's been a gradual steady rise for local biker pioneers and trailblazers, full of hard work and races and new vistas. Changes in the sport have been steady, on a decidedly upward trajectory, over nearly 40 years.

In 1973, the first fat tire bike with a derailleur was ridden off road, according to the National Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Crested Butte, Colo.

The first production mountain bike became available in 1978, and the National Off-Road Bicycle Association originated in 1983 with 112 riders. Twenty years later, membership was 12,000.

The first Union Cycliste Internationale world championships at Durango, Colo., were still two years away when Sun Valley and Ketchum hosted their first NORBA national finals as part of Wagon Days weekend in 1988.

You could say the degree-of-difficulty changes between the 1988 nationals and 2011 nationals at Sun Valley are similar to the differences in challenge and elevation between 6,600-foot Dollar Mountain and 9,000-foot Baldy. Dollar's vertical drop is less than one-fifth of Baldy's.

In 1988, Dollar Mountain was the site of the national circuit race and dual slalom downhill, while the Galena Lodge trails north of Ketchum staged the 24-mile NORBA cross-country finals for 248 bikers. Winning that race was eventual Hall of Famer John Tomac from Michigan, then 21, who was named the world's best mountain biker in 1988.

"In 1988, Tomac was beginning his meteoric rise and establishing mountain biking as the next era of cycling. The sport returns in 2011 to its Idaho roots," stated a June 20 Ride Sun Valley press release.

This year, national organizers went for the whole enchilada and are offering Baldy's steep trails as the challenge. The cross-country races for amateurs (10.5 kilometers) and pros (6k) will start and finish from River Run Lodge lawn and will climb the flanks of Baldy, finishing with a rip-roaring descent into the arena.

"It should serve up a classic national championship experience rewarding the strong, the smooth and the technically savvy," Ride Sun Valley stated.

Other Bike Festival events are the Local Stoker Trail Rides held daily, each morning from July 13-16; the short track cross-country finals in the River Run base area; the super downhill from Roundhouse to River Run on July 17; and the Fat Tire Criterium on the night of July 14 in downtown Ketchum.

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