Going downhill at a different angle
Vail, CO Colrado
It takes root at the Y-shape start Wednesday on Beaver Creek Mountain. And as you move further down the course, it continues with Eric Carter, the former national and world mountain biking champion, who is moving dirt to form some jumps. A few days later, it will all come together at the finish line, with TV cameras and a giant purse.
The Jeep King of the Mountain’s Biking World Professional Championships, with head-to-head matchups, rider-inspired courses and prime-time television deals, is far from the average downhill mountain bike race.
All of those things matter to Carter, who has won countless mountain biking races including three United States National Mountain-cross title, but then there’s competition.
“The best thing about this whole deal is that the group of riders racing. If you look at all the accomplishments of the collective group, it’s like in 20’s and 30s for national championships. And seven or eight world championships. It’s a super stacked field, so when you do well at an event like this, you know you’ve accomplished something.”
And you also get a pretty big check.
“We have over $100,000 of prize money for our (three) events,” said Ted Martin director of competition for Eclipse Marketing, the Edwards company that puts on the series. “That’s more money than the (National Off Road Bicycle Association) and the (Union Cycliste Internationale) combined.”
Saturday, for the second year in a row, the Jeep series finale will take place on Beaver Creek’s Haymeadow. The race, which starts at noon, will be televised later this year, on Oct. 21 on CBS.
“The venue is perfect,” Martin said. “I’m a big fan of mountain-style courses. And the pitch is really good for us from a technical side of building.”
Not only did the Jeep series make a stop to Beaver Creek last Labor Day weekend, but during the winter, the head-to-head boardercross event switched from Zell am See, Austria, to Beaver Creek on short notice due to lack of snow.
The Jeep King of the Mountain downhill biking series, which came about 10 years after the winter snowboarding series that recently brought on skiercross started up, has a unique race format. Eight male and eight female riders are seeded during a qualifying race, then they go head-to-head on the Y-shaped course, switch sides and the rider with the lower cumulative time moves on to the next round.
“We used to do dual racing, but that wasn’t differential racing,” said Carter, who has competed in UCI an NORBA downhill competitions for more than a decade. “With differential racing on different courses, you can make a mistake in one of the rounds and lose by, say 0.5 seconds, and you can go back up and learn the course and get it back possibly.”
Much like the 4-cross events (where four competitors go at once), the Jeep series has plenty of opportunities for riders to pass each other on the course. Carter, who helped design the previous course at the San Luis Obispo, Calif., race, worked with Martin and Eclipse’s Rob Giustina this week to construct a lead-change friendly track at Beaver Creek.
“The hill always dictates how that’s going to happen,” Guistina said. “You look at different spots where you can stop people up … I try to keep the lines favorable so there are the same amount of features and you can still accelerate and find areas to pass and be competitive.”
Carter, who said he learned a lot while designing the course a two weeks ago, is equally adamant about making a race that is exciting for the viewer.
“It is a race, not a parade,” he said. “You want to make it so you have the utmost passing opportunities, and in every corner you try to make it that the guy in the lead has to choose if he wants to go inside and block the pass, at the expense of being late and having less exit speed.”
Another challenge of making a downhill course ” not to mention the logistics of trucking up close to 1,000 yards of dirt, setting up fencing and then the lightning-quick breakdown of everything when the race ends ” is making it rideable for both the men and the women.
“On a feature that may be difficult for the girls to figure out, we’ll at least roll it so they can go through,” Giustina said. “We try not to make it so rollable so on the fastest line the men can’t just manual through it. I don’t build jumps not for people to jump them. You’ve gotta force them to use features. We try to make thinks so that once the girls commit, they can jump it. And there’s always at least one girl that will commit. They need to know they have it inside of them, because they do.”
Right off the starting line, spread about 15-feet apart, the racers pedal furiously for a few seconds, then come together.
“It lets the riders get into a rhythm before they actually cut each other off,” Carter said.
The riders then go into two banked turns and battle the rest of the course, which features three long stretches. Guistina predicts that it will take racers around 47 seconds to complete a run.
Carter, who knows how hard he’ll have to pump his legs for about three-quarters of a minute, is happy he can give input on the design.
“In some races, there are obstacles 12-year old BMX kids would laugh it,” he said. “It’s good to have organizers and promoters say, ‘This isn’t what we do. We don’t ride this stuff. This is what you do, so tell us what you want.'”
While some may think Carter has an unfair advantage getting an up-close view of the course for several days, Carter found out last race that being a designer has potential downfalls.
“I didn’t take time out to ride my bike, or to train,” Carter said. “I spent a week of not training and that’s a long time. Your muscles start to forget what they are doing. The course didn’t flow the way I wanted it do in San Luis and we were making changes after qualifying happened to try and make it ride to its 100 percent optimum passing everywhere. If I’m busy thinking about how to make the course better after qualifying, I’m not thinking about the race.”
While some mountain biking purists may cringe at the thought of constructing a course made for optimal viewing, there are no such thoughts coming out of the Jeep camp.
“These guys are the only guys in the business that are making mountain biking aware to the masses through network television,” Carter said. “Our time slots are primarily on after NFL games. When the game is over, it flips to our stuff. It’s pretty action-packed with the jumps and it keeps them glued. That’s the kind of stuff we need. We’re fortunate to have this series still because all of the other organizations have failed the sport.”
For those looking to get the best live glimpse of the race, Carter suggests hiking halfway up the course.
“You can see the whole course and the whole race transpire,” he said. “And you can still hear the announcer.”
Saturday’s Jeep race will be the final of the Y-shaped format. Next season, Jeep plans to move to a 4-cross, keeping the summer series in line with the winter events.
“One of the things that’s happening in the winter world is that skiercross is now an Olympic sport,” said Henry Schneidman, president of Eclipse. “We had determined last winter that we’ll take our Y and go to skiercross and boardercross.”
“Everything we’re doing is toward the Olympic format,” Schneidman said. “Our racers from winter, most of them raced in Olympics … We’re hoping that some point in the future we can become an Olympic-qualifying series in U.S. for skiercross because that doesn’t exit.”
Today, the riders will be on course to qualify. Both qualifying and Saturday’s races are free. For information of the athletes competing, check out tomorrow’s Vail Daily.
Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or email@example.com.