At points even walking the Gravity Nationals racecourse at Beech Mountain can be difficult. But those are the places most downhill mountain bikers would catch air as they push their limits on the narrow, mostly wooded track that traverses about a mile in less than 2 minutes and shaves off almost 850 vertical feet of elevation as it winds down to the finish line at the resort below.
More than 300 riders made the quick descent last year and race organizers expect an even bigger turnout July 18-22, when the Gravity Nationals return for the second straight year to Beech Mountain, an apt location since the small North Carolina town claims the distinction of being the highest town in Eastern America.
"We have riders qualifying from all over the country. We have some really good racers at the pro level and juniors as well," says Kelli Lusk, national events director for USA Cycling. "We'll have people that ride in the World Cup. We'll have many of our top riders there. It's really cool because we have so much going on.
"Both the downhill and the dual slalom are really fun to watch," says Lusk. "It's a great spectator sport because you're constantly seeing different riders go down - every 30 seconds you're seeing these racers hit the course."
Traditionally people think of New England, California or Colorado for these big downhill events, but Lusk says last year when the race made its first-ever appearance in the South, the terrain at Beech Mountain Resort introduced a world of riders to the bumpy challenges of mountain tracks in the Southeast.
"At first, we had many questions from competitors who were unfamiliar with what it would be like in North Carolina," she explains. "After last year's race we had lots of great feedback. Everyone was like, 'Wow, this is really awesome.' "It is a great example of East Coast riding with roots and rocks. Riders have to navigate through some really technical areas and they have to keep their fast pace at the same time," Lusk says of the racecourse designed by North Carolina resident and former world champion dual slalom rider Chris Herndon.
One of the highlights of the course is the Rock Garden, a steep entry into a boulder field where solid rock almost completely replaces dirt as the trail surface, requiring quick decisions at a critical point in the drop.
"At this point on the course racers are really flying and they just come bounding through here and it's just plum wild," says Gil Adams, who heads the Beech Mountain Ski Patrol, which also provides safety and rescue support for the Gravity Nationals.
Despite the fast drop of the Gravity Nationals course, Adams says last year's event was relatively injury free, with the most significant incident resulting in a broken collar bone. "With this type of event, the potential for serious trauma is always there, of course," he says. "But these riders are very adept at what they're doing. They really study the course and develop a strategy for how to handle the challenges. It's really amazing to see how they attack this course."
Adams says the course design in conjunction with the opportunity for spectators to take the ski lift to the starting gate atop the mountain and work their way along the track for close-up trailside viewing makes the event a real thrill for fans and riders alike. He adds that the dual slalom, which takes place just above the resort at the foot of the mountain, fuels biking fans with a frenetic pace of 30-second races packed into two side-by-side race courses.
Running parallel to the pro course where the Gravity Nationals test the top riders in the world, Herndon and Beech Mountain officials have carved out an amateur track that is accessible on select days when the resort operates its quad lift to haul bikers high up the hill to for a ride to remember. Although the amateur course lacks a rock garden, it still requires sharp skills and steely nerves to handle the twists and turns as the mountain falls away more than 800 feet. "The amateur course has a couple of traverses that help reduce the drop and the speed of the hill, but it's a great chance to challenge yourself and the trail," says Adams.
USA Cycling Gravity Nationals Championships July 20-22 in Beech Mountain, NC.
By next year, he says the resort would like to offer a full season of downhill mountain biking opportunities as interest in the sport continues to rise rapidly. "We have a great venue here for world-class racing and for the development of whole new opportunity for all mountain bikers across the Southeast," says Adams.
Brews -n- Views
For a perfect weekend getaway pairing, the USA Cycling Gravity Nationals Championships will combine the best of downhill mountain biking with the second annual Brews 'n' Views Beer Festival on July 21 at Beech Mountain Resort from 3-7 p.m. This celebration of microbrews will feature approximately 40 craft beers available for tastings, plus live music, food and other fun events. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the gate.
Beech Mountain Resort will host two other races as part of its 2012 mountain bike race series, sponsored by Monster Energy. The race weekends are scheduled for Aug. 18-19 and Sept. 15-16. The race weekends will feature dual slalom and downhill events, highlighting dual slalom on Saturdays and downhill on Sundays. Preregistration for all events will be available at www.bikereg.com, for a cost of $40 for downhill and $25 for dual slalom. On-site registration will be available on event days for $45 for downhill and $30 for dual slalom.
Instead of flying straight down the mountain at breakneck speeds, take a more level look from the 5,500-foot mountaintop along the Emerald Outback trail system.
There are approximately 10 miles of trails for mountain biking, trail running and hiking with elevations ranging from 4,700 to 5,400 feet, making it the highest adventure trail park on the East Coast.
Opened in 2011, the Emerald Outback blends single track, double track and gravel road trails traversing the mountaintop with easily marked options that cover an array of skill levels. From family-friendly routes to tight switchbacks laced with roots and rock, the trail system takes riders through dense woods, across creeks and alongside beautiful scenery.
Trail designer Daniel Scagnelli, who is director of the Beech Mountain Parks and Recreation Department, says long-range plans are to grow to three phases encompassing 25 miles of trails.
A single trailhead in the center of Beech Mountain makes the Emerald Outback easily accessible and allows riders to sample select routes or cover the full course from a single starting point. Maps and informational kiosks offer riders all the options that await them.
For more information visit www.emeraldoutback.com.