WHITEFISH – Standing on the slope near the end of the race course, the first thing you hear is heavy breathing. Then the clang of the chain bouncing against the mountain bikes’ frames as they descend through the trees. Then the pounding of the tires as the riders mow down bumps.
The pack of expert class racers bursts out of the woods and onto the grassy mountainside, their upper bodies jack-hammering the handlebars as they nose the bikes directly down the slope’s fall line. A light rain has begun to fall, and brake pads squeal as the riders negotiate a series of S-shaped berms with high, banked sides. Some unclip their shoes from the pedals on the inside of the turn, and drag a foot for stability.
The better riders stay locked in, and are already looking ahead to the next feature before they’ve exited the curve. Entering the woods once more, the cyclists squeeze their brakes momentarily and look down at a steep, muddy, rutted-out straightaway. Then they raise off their saddle, let up on the brakes and drop. A hard left into more dense trees and tight turns, and they’re gone.
The only sound is the waning clang of their chains, and down the hill at Whitefish Mountain Resort, the echoes of the race organizer’s amplified encouragement as a few stragglers begin another lap. It is the last race of the season for the Thursday Night Race League (TNRL), and after weeks of haze and smoke, the air is clear and cool for the 56 mountain bikers who turned out – from preteens to the gray-haired, men and women. In its 10th year, the race league is gaining in popularity, with more riders participating in this year’s smallest competition than last year’s biggest race, according to Josh Knight, events and recreation manager for Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Ben Parsons, 27, won the season’s final race for the expert class, completing three laps of nearly five miles each on a course that zig-zags across the lower terrain of the resort. His time was 1:10:32. The top three finishers, including Parsons, were racing for Sportsman Ski Haus, and their performance allowed them to come from behind to finish first in the team standings for the season, overcoming teams representing Glacier Cyclery in second place and Whitefish Physical Therapy at third.
But despite the impressive accomplishments of the better racers, the Thursday Night Race League manages to avoid turning into a testosterone-fueled intimidation-fest, like so many other bike races. Cyclists in the sport class complete two laps, and beginners complete one. Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and AC/DC pump over the loudspeaker and the families of competitors sip beers and watch the proceedings.
Not everyone has a $3,000 bike and the latest gear. And there’s little hierarchy between advanced and beginner racers. The experts cheer on the newbies crossing the finish line.
Before the race, Kelly Shea, 10, was confident she would finish first in the women 17 and under division. She was the only competitor. Her brother Thomas, 13, and their father Steve raced as well. Steve’s main concern, prior to the race, was making sure his kids didn’t consume too much of the energy-boosting “Hammer Gel,” one of the event’s sponsors.
Asked why he encouraged his kids to race, Steve replied simply: “to exhaust them.”
“It’s a great challenge for a small kid, but at the end of the day I think they’re rewarded,” he added, noting that when his kids fell or got a flat during a race, better riders hop off to assist the children back to the starting gate.
All the racers praised the work of Jim Langley, head bike coach and trail crew supervisor for the resort. Langley designs the racecourses, which change each week. Everyone interviewed said the final course was perfect, with a mix of climbs, downhills, and technical challenges.
Walt Chauner and Jay Shaver have been racing for the “Dick and Janes” over 40 sport class team for ten years, ever since the league began, and called this season “a banner year.”
“Mainly, it’s just to get together with a big group of people that love the mountain, and love to mountain bike and be up here and love to suffer,” Chauner said.
Shaver said their team would still be up on the mountain racing when they were in their 70s no matter what kind of bike it takes, adding that if necessary, “We’ll be up here on tricycles.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.