for the Mail Tribune
May 01, 2008

It’s the moment when all his preparation and conditioning will be put to the test. Feet resting upon pedals, mind focused on the task at hand, Nathan Riddle will await the second when the digital clock ticks down to his time to shine.

At one-minute intervals, entrants in Sunday’s Spring Thaw Downhill Race will launch themselves onto the treacherous downhill course. Having spent months memorizing the rocky, winding, single-track trail and forging a strategy for navigating it as smoothly as possible, Riddle will have just a handful of minutes to blaze through the 1.7-mile course at speeds approaching 50 mph in the hope of repeating as champion of the event.

Speaking to the demands of the course, which features jumps, mounds and extremely fast pedaling sections, Riddle almost sounds exasperated by the challenge.

“It’s an extreme act of condensing concentration, hopefully into a 4- to 5-minute Zen-like state,” says Riddle.

This is no activity for those who lack focus, Riddle says. Race day demands complete attention from the riders.

“It’s also an all-day process, to keep yourself focused for the race,” he says.

In Riddle’s case, the focus and preparation have paid off in years past. Last year he completed the course in an astonishing 4 minutes 19.3 seconds, breaking the record set in 2006 by Henry O’Donnell of Downieville, Calif., by just .75 seconds. Riddle took second that year, with a time of 4 minutes, 23 seconds.

Despite the fact that the downhill course is perhaps the most dynamic and exciting event of the 17th annual Spring Thaw Mountain Bike Festival, it is by no means the only reason for excitement.

Nearly 600 racers are expected to participate in this year’s series of races. The events kick off Friday at the Creekside Pizza Bistro with registration from 5 to 7 p.m., followed by a screening of a mountain bike film entitled “Seasons,” which showcases local riders.

The races begin Saturday at 9 a.m., including a 10-mile beginner’s race and a 23-mile expert race, both cross-country affairs that head up into the Ashland watershed. The races carry a total cash purse of $1,150, which is split between the top five overall men and women.

Additional awards go to the top three in all other classes, with a prize raffle for all riders that includes a custom frame from DeSalvo Custom Cycles valued at $1,300. The downhill race features an $800 cash purse split between the top five men and women.

Setting up the courses has been a challenge this year, because nature’s spring thaw is not yet fully upon us. The 23-mile expert race usually is a counter clock-wise loop around the Ashland watershed, but this year the residual snow may not allow access to the upper roads. There is a contingency plan, however.

“In the event the road is impassable, we’ll send riders clockwise and they’ll turn around at four corners and we’ll have them complete two laps instead of one,” says Eric Teel, a board member of the Southern Oregon Mountain Bike Association, which organizes the weekend festival.

On Saturday, pedalers under the age of 12 will embark on a kids’ race in Lithia Park at 1 p.m. The littler ones are encouraged to ride whatever they feel comfortable with, including tricycles or bikes with training wheels. Everyone who competes will receive a prize. Registration for the kids’ race begins at 11:30 a.m. in the park.

Saturday night, again at the Creekside Bistro, cyclists will unwind at the “Biker’s Bash,” which offers riders an opportunity to hang out in a non-competitive environment and watch mountain biking movies together.

Sunday morning at 10:30 the downhill race kicks off at the top of Mount Ashland’s Catwalk Trail. Spectators usually cluster around the top 100 yards of the race course because — in terms of dynamic course features — “that’s where all the goodies are,” Riddle says.

To help them navigate the treacherous descent, downhill mountain bike racers depend on specially designed equipment that not only helps them achive speed, but finish safely. The bikes are built with heavy frames to survive the impact of 40-foot jumps and 10-foot drops. The wheels have thick steel rims, and the wide tires are covered with fat lugs to provide maximum traction. Front and rear shock absorbers can have as much as 10 inches of up-and-down travel. Disc brakes give riders the ability to stop quickly or feather the brakes independently.

All the beefed-up features produce a bike that’s much heavier than the typical cross-country racer. A fully equipped downhill racing bike weighs in well over 35 pounds — almost twice as heavy as ordinary mountain bikes.

Given the hazards, all riders wear helmets and safety equipment. Many compete in body armor — hard plastic shin and arm guards, chest protectors with joints that let them flex and twist to keep their balance at speed.

The Spring Thaw has a unique charm and a “festival-like atmosphere,” Riddle says. Riders of all disciplines, vendors, families and spectators all come together to enjoy the activities. There’ll be food provided for the participants, booths and a plethora of activities for all ages.

“It’s a celebration of cycling,” said Race Director Mary Warner. “It’s also a laid-back, fun way to spend the afternoon in Ashland.”