This Downhill Racing Leaves Them in Dust : Mountain Bike Competition Is Grueling, but the Sport Is Catching On in a Big Way

Times Staff Writer

Cars began filtering into the parking lot before dawn and the chairlift roared to life not long after. Practice runs were completed and John Tomac stood perched beneath the banner atop Snow Summit ski resort's highest mountain, ready to make one of the day's first runs.

Tomac, considered the one to watch, charged through the starting gate and quickly reached speeds of up to 40 m.p.h. as he began his descent down the 1.3 miles of steep, rugged terrain.

Bouncing over bumps and plowing through the powder, Tomac seemed in control. He crossed the finish line in 2 minutes 35.8 seconds. Not on snow, since there certainly was none under the blazing summer sun in the Southland. The bumps he negotiated consisted of hard-packed dirt and rocks, the powder of loose dirt called moon dust by these adventurers--lunatics, some would say.

Tomac, like the other 500 or so racers who competed on this course over the sunny Labor Day weekend, is a professional mountain bike racer.

His time on the "Tioga Downhill" was good enough for fourth place--a disappointment for him. The race was won by Colorado's Greg Herbold, who sped down the course in 2:28.6.

Tomac's response: "Bad legs. They're tired from a lot of racing."

Herbold's response: "I knew I was going to do well because I was smokin' everyone in practice."

Tomac, 21, considered the sport's hottest all-around performer on the National Off Road Bicycle Assn. circuit, has also been trying to make inroads on the road-racing circuit--something most experts figure he will have little trouble doing.

In his first competition off the dusty mountain trails, at the National Road Racing Championship in 1987, he finished eighth overall. Last May he finished 17th at the Tour de Trump, where he topped the amateur field and beat several noted pros, including Greg LeMond. More recently he finished out of the top 20 last month at the World Championships amateur road race in Chambery, France.

The Chatsworth resident expects to become a professional road racer early next year.

"I first need to get a contract," he says.

Meanwhile, he is among a select few who dominate the NORBA circuit, which typically includes the cross-country event, as well as trials, a dual slalom race, an uphill climb and the popular downhill.

The NORBA national championship, based on points accumulated in six cross-country events across the country, was won here Sunday by Colorado's Ned Overend, who finished second to England's Tim Gould over the 5.8 miles of steep and twisting terrain, which included a one-tenth-mile "hike-a-bike," during which the racer had to carry his bike on his back over terrain too tough to ride.

But his accumulated point total was good enough to win the crown.

Tomac, last year's national champion and one of the favorites this year, finished ninth in the cross-country event and afterward said his busy schedule was partly responsible.

"I was fine for the first two laps but felt worse and worse until I just faded," he said.

The women's national championship in the professional or Super category was Sara Ballantyne of Boulder, Colo. Ballantyne was in the running in the women's downhill but had a flat tire and spilled just before crossing the finish line.

The World Championships, which includes mountain bike racers from Europe, Canada and Japan, as well as several road racers who are trying their hand on the mountain terrain--Olympian Davis Phinney for one--will be held at Mammoth Mountain this weekend.

Like the slalom, an event for which no points are awarded toward a national championship, the downhill has become part of the program at most NORBA competitions, mainly as a crowd pleaser, aimed at bringing more spectator interest to the fast-growing but mostly participatory sport of mountain bike racing.

"It's a crowd-pleasing thing, that's for sure," said Patrick Follett, 35, of Big Bear, who promoted and organized the Snow Summit event.

The crowd of about 500 did seem to appreciate Monday's downhill, lining the course and cheering as riders with varying degrees of skill--the event was open to the first 500 entrants--stormed downhill over a washboard terrain one after another at 30-second intervals, rattling precariously over the rocks and hard dirt and plowing through the 10-inch thick moon dust at high speeds.

Several were thrown, suffering mostly cuts and scrapes caused by slides over the rugged terrain. One rider had the misfortune of catching his front wheel just before the finish line. He was hurled 20 feet through the air into a nylon fence that broke his fall. Ohs and ahs accompanied his unscheduled trip but he walked away unhurt.

Some unfortunate riders even suffered broken bones, which apparently is not unusual in this activity.

"We've had a punctured lung and broken collarbones," Follett said of past downhill calamities. "But mostly it's just cuts and bruises."

For just such reasons, Overend, the sport's only three-time national champion, and some other serious riders stay away from the more dangerous downhill and slalom events.

"I'm valuable to my sponsors," Overend said. "I was watching the slalom and saw one guy (last year's downhill champion, Jim Deaton) shatter his ankle and he may never ride again."

Deaton was injured Sunday, before he could defend his downhill crown Monday, and will miss the World Championships.

Some compete in hopes of impressing a potential sponsor--the top riders have sponsors who pay their travel and equipment expenses.

But most agree that the real reason is simply to see how fast they can go.

"It's just a thrill, an adrenaline rush you get from going fast," Tomac said.

Herbold agreed, saying, "You drop down onto this steep road, let off the brakes and gain 10 m.p.h. instantly."

But perhaps Wendy Ward, who won the women's downhill in the expert (amateur) class, expressed the essence of downhill racing best when she exclaimed: "Downhill is my specialty because it does not take a lot of aerobic capacity--and because I'm not scared."

Mountain bike racing has grown significantly since NORBA was organized in the early 1980s. More than 800 riders showed up here over the weekend and Follett, as well as other promoters in other races, have recently had to limit their participants because "otherwise, it'd take all day to finish."

About 50% of bicycles sold in the country are mountain bikes, said Follett, owner of Team Big Bear bike shop. And though many of the machines are never taken off the streets, there is a growing trend toward hitting the slopes--and in many cases competing against others--for the weekend.

"It's the ambience," Follett said of the sport's appeal. "We've drawn a lot from the former backpacking crowd."

Because of the lack of spectator interest, however, NORBA, an affiliate of the United States Cycling Federation, has had to rely largely on the participants themselves, who pay a fee for the rights to compete--$45 at Big Bear and $77 for the World Championships at Mammoth.

There are beginner, intermediate, expert and super (professional) classes, which have also been broken down into age groups.

"It's grown quite a bit and it continues to improve with better quality races," said Bill Cockroft, a NORBA representative and race director for the World Championships.

For now, however, most of the participants compete for the thrill of competing and not for the money, with a few exceptions.

Tom Hillard of Specialized Bicycle Components and a NORBA representative, said the professionals, as a rule, are paid salaries by their sponsors so they can train full-time.

Tomac, though he wouldn't discuss his income, confessed with a grin that "there are probably one or two guys making between $100,000 and $200,000 a year."

He estimated that between 20% and 30% of the professional mountain bike racers on the NORBA circuit make their living that way.

"But most racers, they're living day by day," he said.

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