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Pro rider Mark Weir negotiates part of the Catwalk Trail on his way to winning the 2010 Spring Thaw Mountain Bike Festival downhill race. - Andy Atkinson

Riders waiting for spring to thaw

The races at this year's Spring Thaw Mountain Bike Festival, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, May 14-15, could turn into a mudfest.

Both the 25.8-mile, cross-country course and the 1.7-mile downhill course are being gradually cleared of snow, but frozen white stuff is only part of the challenge racers will face in the 20th edition of this Ashland classic.

"The moisture content will keep the course fairly muddy, fairly tacky — it will definitely require increased fitness," says Joe Davis, the race director.

Cyclists will encounter highly abrasive decomposed granite on the course, as well.

"It's really hard on the drive train and brakes," Davis cautions. "So guys who don't take care of their bikes very well could end up with shifting problems, and with brakes that are worn out."

The topography of the cross-country course provides the biggest challenge, but also the biggest opportunity for riders who know how to work it to their advantage. Racers will start at Lithia Park at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, May 14. They climb steadily toward Horn Gap. Riding on both single track and gravel roads, they top out at about 5,000 feet then face an extended seven-mile downhill on their way to a finish at Lithia Park.

Such an extended downhill stretch in a cross-country race is a rarity, says Davis, and is part of what makes the Spring Thaw unique.

"Spring Thaw has a lot to offer. It makes a really good first race for somebody new to the sport," says Davis. "For the more experienced riders, it's a good measure of where they're at compared to last year, and it's a good judge of their fitness level this year."

For competitive racers — both pros and Category 1 and 2 amateurs — Spring Thaw is a qualifier race for the Kenda Cup. According to how riders finish, they earn points toward entry into the Kenda national championship races later this year.

For the Category 3 beginner racers, a shortened 9-mile version of the Spring Thaw course will whet their appetites for future races.

Predicting the winners this year is a mixed bag. Though defending champion Mark Weir is the obvious favorite for the men's title, says Davis, "It could be anyone's race. I'm also watching Corey Longiotti and Tom Keller. In the downhill race, I'd say (Ashland rider) Nathan Riddle is favored."

The women's race is an even tougher pick. Last year's winner, Lizzie English, has not yet committed to defending her title. That leaves the field open for Bend's Sue Butler and Talent's Jade Wilcoxson.

Momentum favors Wilcoxson, who recently finished 2nd in the prestigious Sea Otter classic in Monterey, Calif. The winner in that stage race was Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, and Wilcoxson won the circuit race stage.

Wilcoxson also knows the Spring Thaw course well.

"I've done it four times, though not recently," says Wilcoxson, who rides for Flywheel Bicycle Solutions. "The course is difficult because you climb right from the start to the 2060 road. Then you have a 13-mile traverse on top that can make or break you, because it's flatter and it's easier to lose focus. Then you're doing all the downhill at the end when you're tired."

And when you're tired, you're more likely to crash or make mistakes.

"This year there's another factor," Wilcoxson explains. "With snow on the sides of the trails, there will be limited opportunities to pass. If the track isn't wide enough, there will be some traffic jams."

The cross-country race is only one of three events for the Spring Thaw weekend.

The short and flat Kids Race starts at 1 p.m. Saturday. Children are grouped according to age, with the younger children riding one loop on concrete, and older kids riding up to four loops.

Sunday provides an opportunity for speed demons to strut their stuff. At 11 a.m., competitors will head down the Catwalk Trail for the 1.7-mile downhill race, one that filled its 200-rider capacity last year.

The races are a fundraiser for trail maintenance and construction projects in cooperation with the Ashland Watershed and Trails Association. Throughout the weekend, $10,000 in cash and prizes will be distributed to racers. Standing Stone Brewing Company will host a post-race party.

For more information, see www.echelonrace.com/springthaw.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

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