Written by Jack Rice Sunday, 18 March 2018 00:00
Since I've gotten into mountain biking, downhill has been my passion. The bikes, the tracks, the riders, the tech, the team rumors, all of it. When I heard that the world’s elites were heading to the PRO GRT at Windrock Bike Park in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, I started making plans to be there. I convinced my riding buddy, Jackson Kinney (a.k.a. Sam), a downhill racer, to come along. We live in Midcoast Maine, a mere 18 hour drive to Oliver Springs. The race was scheduled for Sunday March, 11; we decided that Thursday after work would be a good time to leave. Mother Nature had other plans. A nasty Nor'easter hit Thursday morning and we didn't end up hitting the road until 4 o'clock Friday morning. After a quick pit stop in New York and a nap stop in Winchester Virginia, we made it to Windrock at 11 o'clock Saturday morning and were greeted by warm weather and a buzzing atmosphere.
Saturday, March 10: Practice Day
We headed up to the registration tent so that Sam could enter the CAT 2 race and we could get our entry bracelets. Within 10 minutes of standing by the tent and taking it all in, I noticed a racer bombing the last drop into the finish area. It was Greg Minnaar. Seeing the world’s best 10 feet away was unreal and that moment definitely set the tone for the rest of the weekend. We spent the rest of the day scouring the mountain checking out the course, watching the riders to see which lines they took, and taking tons of pictures and video clips.
Windrock is a true "fall line" race track. I've been to a few other downhill races in the northeast, and although other mountains do a great job providing good race courses, none of them recreate World Cup style tracks the way Neko Mulally has here. From top to bottom this course is gnarly; a vertical drop with technical rock gardens, some tight switchbacks, two whoop sections, and a big step up jump at the finish, plus a lot more. The conditions of the days leading up to the race were premium. All the racers riding the track non-stop provided a nice hard pack that allowed top speeds; and seeing the likes of Luca Shaw, and Danny Hart flying by was a real eye-opener to the sheer speed, athleticism, and bike control that these pros possess.
Sunday, March 11: Race Day
When we woke up Sunday morning it was raining. The forecast had been calling for it all week, but we all had hope that the weather would hold off. It didn't. There was a short practice the first half of the day, with riders scrambling for shuttles to the top to see if the lines they had been practicing the past few days would do them any justice now that there was a greasy top coat--making everything difficult, even spectating! With the practice runs out of the way the race began. Most of the CAT 1, 2, and 3 riders were able to put down 3 to 4 minute runs in the days before, now those times were doubled. It was clear that the rain was making everything more difficult. But, the vibe was still awesome. The hecklers were heckling, the bells and chainsaws were blaring, the smiles and cheers were infectious. I wanted to cover as much ground as possible, so Sam and I took the shuttle up after his race run and proceeded down the mountain stopping at tough sections to see how the riders faired. By the time we arrived at the bottom the Elite field were coming down. With a big grin on my face and my phone out trying to get as many shots as possible--I watched world’s greatest flying past me doing what they do best: go as fast as humanly possible down a mountain, on a bike. Tenths of seconds is all that separates these pros.
1st: Danny Hart, 2:33.529
2nd: Dakota Norton, 2:34.267
3rd: Luca Shaw, 2:34.445
4th: Neko Mulally, 2:34.897
5th: Greg Minnaar, 2:35.577
1st: Caroline Washam, 3:35.730
2nd: Josephine Bjorkman, 4:12.104
3rd: Rachel Pageau, 4:14.747
4th: Lauren Kinney, 4:25.940
5th: Maxine Bergeron, 4:27.091
For all of the day’s results, check out rootsandrain.com.
After the race Sam and I were stoked to meet and chat with a few guys from the Elite field, guys we look up to. To me, that's one of the great things about this sport, we didn't have to wait in line or get a special wrist band, we could just walk right up and they were actually happy to meet the fans. Kathy Sessler, the woman behind the Santa Cruz Syndicate, made sure we got pictures and autographs from the team; and afterwards she pulled us aside and told us how happy the riders were that we showed as much appreciation as we did. Of course, we also got our picture with Kathy; she's one special lady.
Monday, March 12: The Park
With the race over, and the masses mostly having left, Sam and I wanted to ride the park. Windrock is open all year. "We never close" is their motto. Monday through Friday is self-shuttling, and on the weekends they fire up trucks (their custom built shuttles) and bring riders up the mountain. After riding what Windrock has to offer, its fair to say that this is a one of a kind place--so much fun, steep, technical, fast, and challenging terrain. That might be why FOX and RockShox have chosen Windrock to be the location of their team camps for the last month or so, where top level athletes dial in their suspension before the Enduro World Series and World Cup Downhill seasons start.
Windrock also provides "XC" trails near there campground about 2 miles down the road. The trails we rode were great. Long flowing single track with some small jumps and a few switchbacks were just what the doctor ordered and a great way to end our trip to eastern Tennessee.
As we were getting ready to head home we ran into Neko Mulally. After congratulating him and telling him how much we appreciated what he's done for the sport, he asked for our feedback, what we thought, what was good, what could they improve. Here was a Pro Downhill Racer genuinely interested in what we thought of his place, to me that speaks volumes. If Mulally is the new face of U.S. Downhill then we are all in for a treat. His passion and work ethic will provide a future for the sport in the U.S. once again; and I would bet we should expect a World Cup stop back in the U.S. in the near future.
Although we left in a nor'easter and returned in a nor'easter it was all worth it. I really didn't know what to expect when we arrived, but Windrock provided a great atmosphere and some amazing racing. Without a doubt, next year I will be returning for the PRO GRT, hopefully with a downhill bike...and next time by plane.
For more photos and videos check @theraggedeast on Instagram.
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