Our children are coming down this?
SNOWMASS ” After the crash, there was a short-lived moment of silence. Then, this exchange between a well-meaning spectator and a slightly dazed teenage racer.
“Dude, how many fingers am I holding up?”
“Do you know what your name is?”
“OK, Liam, nice to meet you. You want to get back on your bike, dude?”
And with that, the young racer hopped back onto his dual-suspension mount, dusted himself off, then furiously pedaled out of sight.
The exchange was an all-too-common one on a noisy Sunday in what is typically a serene aspen grove on Snowmass Mountain. That’s where a crowd of about 40 gathered to take in downhill racers ” young and old, male and female ” playing human pinball on their bikes.
This year’s downhill course at Blast the Mass boasted an extra 600 feet of vertical drop, making it the longest in the event’s eight-year run at Snowmass. Amid all that singletrack, however, each racer’s rate of success or failure was decided by how well they navigated an old course standby, the S-curve on a rutted 30-foot wall of dirt and exposed rocks known as the “Waterfall.”
As the racers described it, the spot ” also known as “Hell’s Kitchen” ” is where fear gets punished and risk is rewarded. It’s also a place where mothers and fathers bonded over shared angst and amateur videographers found plenty of YouTube fodder.
That is, when they were not helping fallen riders back to their feet.
“Scares me to death,” said Carbondale resident Lori Spence, who had not one but two teenage sons in Sunday’s race. “I try not to say anything. I’m afraid of distracting them if I yell for them and cheer for them. I just watch through the video camera, then when they get through it, I’m OK. I think watching it is worse than being in the race yourself.”
That depends on one’s perspective.
Fourteen-year-old Teddy Benge of Carbondale, for one, said there’s nothing he loves more than playing chicken with imminent danger and coming away unharmed. It’s not easy, but the risk-for-reward dynamic is the reason he loves downhill over all the other racing disciplines contested in the Mountain State Cup series, which includes Blast the Mass.
“With the ‘Waterfall,’ you’ve just got to come in and look ahead and let it go,” said Benge, who deftly navigated the dicey section to finish third in the15-18 men’s sport division. “If you lock up the brakes you’re going to go over the bars, so you’ve just got to let them go as much as you can.”
As for his mom, Benge said he “hadn’t really talked to her” about whether his sport of choice worried her, but did add this:
“I’m sure she’s really happy when I come down alive.”
It’s a statement to which Denverite Amy Nelson said she can certainly relate.
Nelson’s 12-year-old son, Chase, signed up for Sunday’s race before his mom had gotten a look at the “Waterfall.” When she joined the crowd at the aspen grove just minutes before her son came down the chute, she turned to another mother and asked, eyebrows raised, “Our children are coming down this?”
Soon after, young Chase popped into view, then tumbled off his bike in front of the assembled crowd. Once he got back up, another racer came whizzing by, throwing him off balance which led to another fall in the dirt and rocks. Frustrated, Chase got back up again, hopped on his bike and continued down the mountain.
All the while, Nelson stood to the side, running the whole gamut of emotions in mere seconds.
She said she has a hard time watching such scenes, but Nelson said she puts up with her son’s favorite sport because “he totally loves it.”
“He crashed today, so he’s not going to be happy,” she added. “But typically, he’s on cloud 9 after a race. This is his favorite thing for sure. He does the four-cross and all the gravity events at these races, but this is it, his favorite. He loves the downhill.”
So, too, do other young boys who are Chase’s age, according to Mountain States Cup organizers. The series’ biggest surge in growth in recent years has come from young racers signing up to compete in gravity events like mountaincross ” think motocross on mountain bikes ” and downhill, said Mike McCormack, of race organizer Bigfoot Productions.
The sport attracts the same type of kids who are into other high-impact winter mountain sports like freestyle skiing and snowboarding, McCormack said ” a statement reflected by 15-year-old Mackenzie Hayes of Carbondale.
When he’s not racing his mountain bike with his friends, Hayes said he’s freeskiing, snowmobiling, riding a motor bike or wakeboarding.
Gus Berg, 15, of Basalt, who’s been competing in downhill races for three years, said the thrill never gets old.
“This course wasn’t too technical today, but it’s a fun course,” said Berg, who took third in the 15-18 junior men’s division. “It’s real fast, which I like.”
Another friend, 14-year-old Alec Toney of Basalt, said part of the appeal of downhill is overcoming fear. And nowhere is the fear more palpable than while riding down the “Waterfall” in front of a whole set of anxious eyes.
“I did it six times in practice, and made it five times,” Toney said “You’re nervous at the start of the race, but that’s it. Then the adrenaline takes over.”
For Spence, the experience is a little different as a mother.
“I’m definitely relieved when they make it through something like that,” she said. “When I see them at the bottom of the course, I’m even more psyched.”
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