Over the river and through the woods Championship mountain bike races this weekend


Liz Griffith's description of her own training rides around the race course offers a revealing introduction to this weekend's first Maryland State Championship mountain bike race in Maryland's Green Ridge State Forest.

The racing route over narrow forest roads near Cumberland twice crosses a waterway called 15 Mile Creek, and the event coordinator says, "I've ridden the course when the stream has been up to my ankles and I've been there when it's been up to my waist." (This week's rain may bode a deep crossing.)

But for another hint that mountain biking is far removed from pedaling paved road surfaces, which is what most recreational bikers do, check out the name of the Baltimore-based club which is sending a bunch of riders to the race: Club Mud.

"We just started calling ourselves that, car pooling around to ride our bikes in the woods, and it stuck," says co-founder Ramon Benitez -- as in stuck like the mud and grit that frequently adorn riders' vehicles after a training ride.

Indeed, mud seems a thematic constant in this sport. Some other competing club names include The Mud Dogs (in Olney) and The Mud Masters (from Delaware). And when Club Mud staged its own first race last year in Patapsco State Park, it was named The Maryland Mudder.

"Really, everybody kind of subconsciously hates it [riding muddy trails], and by getting it out and verbalizing it with these names, they kind of deal with it that way," suggests Benitez, a 26-year-old civil engineer. (For information about the 3-year-old club, contact him at 750-7968.)

Griffith, a biologist for the Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service of the Department of Natural Resources, got involved staging this weekend's race because of her own interest in the off-road branch of biking, after an independent race promoter pulled out. Events are scheduled today and tomorrow, with the base at Green Ridge State Forest headquarters.

"Every other state around us, it seems, has something like this," says Griffith.

Benitez concurs, noting his group staged The Maryland Mudder because riders got tired of three-hour weekend drives to races in West Virginia, Virginia and southern New Jersey.

"We figured we can run a race, too," he says. And last month's second edition of The Maryland Mudder drew some 260 riders to race in the McKeldin Area of the Patapsco State Park near Mariottsville.

Out at Green Ridge this year, The Dogwood Classic, an initial spring race over the same ground as this weekend's racing, drew about 80 riders. Griffith says more than 200 are expected this weekend, competing in both a timed hill climb event and an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods circuit race. The schedule includes beginner, junior, veteran/master, senior sport and senior expert divisions, and the event is sanctioned by the National Off Road Bicycling Association.

"I wish I could be racing," says Griffith, who notes that at 33, "I'm pretty young" compared to some riders active in mountain biking. The earlier race in May included competitors ranging in age from 15 to 53, and Benitez says active Club Mud riders range from 15 to beyond 40.

In recent years mountain bikes, also called all-terrain bikes or off-road bikes, have become the most popular two-wheelers sold in America, muscling their way past the classic, European-inspired lightweight style generically called a 10-speed or, more accurately, a road bike.

With wide and knobby tires, upright handlebars, sturdy frames and an extremely wide range of gears, mountain bikes evolved from modified designs crafted in backyard workshops by a group of California enthusiasts not much longer than 10 years ago.

According to figures supplied by the Baltimore-based League of American Wheelman, all-terrain bikes now represent 70 to 80 per cent of retail sales. And annual L.A.W. surveys of bicycle use show mountain bikers have multiplied from just 200,000 or so in 1983 to an estimated 11 million last year.

Most purchasers of mountain bikes, of course, rarely ride them anywhere but on neighborhood streets and bike paths. Racers are another breed, seeking out rough trails, steep hills and water-soaked lowlands over which to pit skill and speed against the force of gravity and natural obstacles.

In this area, riders work out on the numerous trails and fire roads of Loch Raven Reservoir, Lake Roland and other watershed areas. And while mountain bikers across the nation have been fighting battles with hikers and equestrians over sharing trails -- bikes are often banned from public areas -- Griffith says most Maryland state lands are currently open to bike use.

By contrast, says Benitez, both Virginia and Pennsylvania have sharply restricted mountain biker access to many areas, and he fears limitations will increase in this area, too. "The user group in Maryland is OK right now, and knows how to respect trails and the terrain, but I see more and more boneheads getting out there who are not like that."

State sponsorship of a mountain bike race seems an encouraging signal, however.

Some experienced racers question the accuracy of calling this single, first-time race late in the season a state championship. It would be better, says Benitez, to establish a season-long points system to determine a state champ.

Yet, he says the Green Ridge racing should be hotly competitive, because "everybody I know who's going out there is gonna' hammer it. It's an excellent closing to the season."

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