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White-knuckle, 28-mile-per-hour descents, 20-foot drops, and (potentially face-breaking) rock garden skill sections are all par for the course at the annual USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships. This year, the event is right here in Colorado: Winter Park Ski Resort’s award-winning Trestle Bike Park will host the championships starting July 18.
The event draws the very best riders in the country to participate in downhill courses through steep, rough, obstacle-filled terrain and cross-country routes over flowy, endurance-testing singletrack. We couldn’t help but notice, however, that the registration form doesn’t have many prerequisites. Pay the $95 to $250 entry fee—depending on your age group and death wish, er, race category of choice—strap on your helmet, and you’re good to go.
We sat down with USA Cycling’s director of national events Tara McCarthy and marketing operations manager Tom Mahoney to hear more about what it takes to be a top rider—and whether you really should register to ride next week.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
5280: Is it true that anybody can participate in the races?
Tara McCarthy: It depends. For the pros and some races there are category restrictions, but we also have nonchampionship races available for pretty much all of the age groups in both downhill and cross-country disciplines. Anyone can have that National Championship experience whether they’re racing for the title or just want to come out and try the races as beginners.
OK, but who should actually participate?
Tom Mahoney: If you have a competitive drive and you are fairly good on your mountain bike, come out and try it! We truly have a cross-section of people as winners.
What’s it take to earn a place on the podium?
TM: Timewise, the pros are training anywhere from 40 to 50 hours a week. But even the age-group racers (basically the nonpros) are generally on their mountain bikes anywhere from three to five days—or 20 to 30 hours—a week. Most are working with a paid coach to develop a training plan to optimize for this course. Because we’re hosting the event at elevation, a lot of them are focusing on VO2 maximization—basically making sure that their lung capacity is as big as it can be so they can gobble that air up and actually breathe at 9,000 feet. For the endurance riders, diet and hydration are also critical, especially making sure they have enough electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein to help them optimize what they’re going to be doing and not bonk.
How much does someone’s bike matter?
TM: For the cross-country and short-track—which is very much like cross-country, but the track is shorter—races, most riders use either a dual-suspension bike with a shock-absorbing unit on the front and back, or a hardtail, which has suspension on the front but not the rear. In downhill, where the fastest person down the mountain wins, bikes are generally pretty heavy and have full suspension to absorb all of the drops, rocks, and roots the riders might have to go over. Price range? Base models start at around $8,000, whereas at the pro level, prices can go up to $18,000 or even $25,000, if they have all the bells and whistles. They’re basically like a new car.
If we decide spectating is more our speed, are there any riders to keep an eye on?
CT: Kate Courtney, former World Champion, and Christopher Blevins in cross-country. For the downhill discipline: Neko Mulally and Jill Kintner.
TM: And Fred Schmid from Waco, Texas. He’s 88 years old this year. His love of the sport shines through, and he is there to cheer on everyone he races with as they go through the event.
Ready to race? Register for the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships by July 14 at 9:59 pm MST.