The start of the 2018 US Open of Mountain Biking is an “oh my God” moment.
At the peak, there is a steep drop and then a quick 90-degree left turn on rutty, rocky terrain.
In a qualifying run, Zach Gareis missed the turn. He crashed through the yellow police tape that lines the course and was swallowed by the towering spruce trees. It looked like a crime scene until a minute later, when his upraised fist surfaced triumphantly through the pine needles, followed by a sheepish, wide-eyed grin. Unhurt, he continued down the mountain.
Racing down a mountain known as “The Beast of the East” on a zigzag course on two wheels is much different than skiing.
There is no fluffy white stuff to land on.
“I think this is more hard-core than skiing, where if you crash you land in the snow,” said Chad Lamont of Northbridge, Mass. “Here you land on rocks or roots or rotted trees. But I think it’s the most fun.”
His father has been racing bikes for nearly his entire life and has the scars to prove it.
“It’s exhilarating,” said Tom Lamont. “It’s an adrenaline rush and there’s nothing like it.”
He says the instant decisions and element of danger in the 1.7-mile in-and-out-of-the-woods course is very exciting.
“I remember I went skydiving once, and you’re hanging in the air, you don’t feel a sense of speed,” he said. “I thought it was actually a little boring compared to mountain biking.”
This unique event, which was held the first week of August, features a pro-am format for 250 racers. Anyone can enter the Open Class and compete amongst the pros for the $40,000 in prize money. So a nanny from Wellesley races against the clock on the same course as an extreme pro athlete from New Zealand.
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Everyone battled the elements. A hard rain fell on the Friday practice day, turning the course into a downhill Slip and Slide. Athletes from 11 countries all spoke the same language: Green Mountain mud.
Even top pros tumbled in the treacherous conditions, which included traversing through a mud-smeared rock garden.
“I couldn’t get down the track in one piece,” said Brandon Schoenborn of Windham, N.Y. “My pedals clogged up, the chain dropped in the first corner, but it’s just fun slipping around, riding bikes. I kept sliding.
“Oh yeah, it was a blast.”
No one sits on their bike seat and coasts downhill.
“Nooo, that’s the last thing you want to do,” said 15-year-old Christopher Grice. “Sitting down, things go pretty bad pretty quick. You definitely stand up so you can be ready for any impact and control the bike better.”
Interest in mountain biking appears to be soaring. Killington’s Bike Park has seen a 91 percent increase in attendance since 2013, and it’s in the fourth year of a five-year improvement plan.
“It’s just really fun getting out with the family and getting all muddy,” said Grice. “It’s a great time.”
The pros say they can scratch out a living between prize money and sponsorships.
“I love it,” said Heather Munive, who delayed a career in the air industry in California to turn pro. “It’s a blast. It’s scary, but that’s what gets the adrenaline going.
“You don’t have a 9-to-5 job; you have to make sacrifices,” she said. “You have to go to the gym and train and ride and you have to be self-dedicated and motivated.”
Munive also was pleased that the purse money at Killington was equal for both men and women.
“You don’t usually see that,” she said. “It’s usually less.”
The slick mud took on a peanut-butter-like thickness for the competition Saturday. Neko Mulally, 25, of the US won his second consecutive Open. He was the only rider to finish the newly constructed course in less than five minutes.
Some pros traveled across the world to compete.
Wyn Masters of New Zealand described the course as “gnarly.”
Despite the layman’s perception that you are just coasting downhill, he says, most of his body is sore afterward.
“You’ve got to be attacking,” he said. “It’s a pretty physical sport. We only raced for, like, five minutes today, but it’s max heart rate the whole time. There’s no relaxing. It’s pretty intense.”
Masters was happy to finish third.
“It was slippery,” he said. “You just had to stay on the bike.”