A more intimate event

The Mountain Sports Festival turns 5 this year — and after several rounds of fiddling with the recipe, this bouillabaisse of outdoor-sport competitions, events and activities is finding its true flavor. The three-day festival runs from 3 p.m. on Friday, April 29, through 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, accompanied by a full complement of music at the Festival Village.

In any good stew, the ingredients vary from one pot to the next. This spring, the mountain celebration boasts 23 separate events, including favorites like the urban biking competition and the Strive Not to Drive rally (a well-established independent event that’s now been brought under the Mountain Sports umbrella). “Our goal is not to be Bele Chere,” notes MSF events coordinator Joe Lanahan. And indeed, apart from the fact that both are held in downtown Asheville, the two festivals have little else in common. The most obvious distinction, of course, is the scale: MSF draws an estimated 8,000 people, whereas the head count for Bele Chere — the biggest festival in the Southeast — ranges in the hundreds of thousands.

But perhaps the biggest difference has to do with purpose. More than a collection of discrete events, the Mountain Sports Festival seeks to promote the mountains, a healthy lifestyle and outdoor activity in general.

“What’s unique about the festival is that its focus is participation,” says Lanahan. Accordingly, the MSF includes some competitions that are especially user-friendly. Runners, for example, can choose among several races: the Mystery Mile, the Sunset Stampede (either a four- or a 10-mile course), or a Women Only 5K.

That’s not to say that spectators aren’t welcome as well — it’s just that the line between participant and spectator can get kind of fuzzy. And whether you seek airtime in the urban bike competition or a front-row seat to watch the other guy defy gravity, the MSF seems to be a good fit with Asheville’s active, outdoor lifestyle. “Not only does it honor the great outdoors and healthy living,” notes festival director Jeff Joyce of Asheville Parks and Recreation, “it’s a celebration of our community.”

Biking

Back by popular demand are a pair of homegrown biking events: the Town Mountain Hill Climb and the fourth annual Asheville Urban Street Competition. And though there’s no trail competition in this year’s lineup, the MSF will sponsor two trail rides at Alexander Mountain Bike Park on Saturday: a beginner ride at 10 a.m. and an intermediate/experienced ride at 11 a.m.

Town Mountain Hill Climb: Back for its 23rd running, the Hill Climb has a well-earned reputation as a grueling race. The quad-burning five-mile course from downtown to the crest of Town Mountain ranks among the most popular local bike rides. “It’s a tough, steep, winding climb,” says race director Craig Friedrich. “It’s pretty much relentless all the way up.”

For more information, call 254-2771 (e-mail: craig@skicountrysports.com).

Asheville Urban Street Competition: Consistently one of the most popular spectacles at the Festival Village, this high-flying bike competition has developed a cult following beyond the city limits. “Riders come from all over,” notes race co-director Jeff Baucom. “There’s nothing [else] that happens like this. The buzz is out there about the event.”

Now in its fourth year, the street competition eschews focusing on any one category of tricks. To succeed on the slalom course, contenders must be versed in urban style, North Shore stunts and dual slalom race skills. And while many urban biking events are staged in an existing skate park, the grassroots Asheville race takes place on a homemade course that’s banged together a mere 24 hours before the first contestants mount their bikes.

“We’ll start construction as soon as the last car leaves the [lower City Hall parking area on Marjorie Avenue] on Friday, says Baucom. “The layout is designed by local riders who have all competed in the last four years,” he explains. “The course takes the best features of all years past in head-to-head racing.” That, he says, makes it “especially great for spectators.” And if this event doesn’t yield enough bangs and bruises to suit you, stay tuned for the freestyle jump competition following the race.

For more information, call Jeff Baucom at (828) 274-2453 (e-mail: events@libertybikes.com).

Running

The Sunset Stampede, a third-year event, joins the festival lineup this spring, sharing the bill with two new events: the Century Mini-Cooper Mystery Mile Race and the Women Only 5K.

Sunset Stampede: This is actually two races: a four-mile run/walk and a 10-mile course that’s considered to rank among the most challenging foot contests around. Indeed, the MSF could not have found a better partner among established Asheville sports contests. “It will be the heart and soul of the festival,” predicts race director Becky Upham.

The Stampede expects to attract about 1,000 runners — a real plus that promises to pump up attendance at the Festival Village. And some of those contestants doubtless have their eye on the substantial $500 first prize.

For details, visit the Web site (www.sunsetstampede.com).

Women Only 5K: The Women Only 5K adds a new angle to Asheville’s thriving short-distance-race market. Designed to encourage new runners to test their legs in a comfortable environment, the event is a benefit for the Hanger Hall School for Girls.

Details are available online (www.ashevillewomens5k.com).

Century Mini-Cooper Mystery Mile: Proving the adage that the race is not (necessarily) to the swift, this event brings an unusual wrinkle to the competition: Runners predict their own time and run without benefit of a watch. The most precise forecasters will take home the booty. The Mystery Mile starts at 3 p.m. on Sunday, and participants will follow a one-mile course along College Street and Patton Avenue.

For more information, visit the Web site (www.ashevillemysterymile.com).

Paddling

2005 French Broad River Race: Like many festival events, this one welcomes novices and experts alike, giving local weekend warriors a chance to compete against world-class athletes. If you took the MSF’s 2003 French Broad River Challenge, for example, Lecky Haller — a two-time U.S. Olympian in the double canoe slalom — was probably churning the water somewhere up ahead of you.

But you don’t have to be a star athlete to appreciate the purpose of the river race: raising money for Quality Forward, a local nonprofit, to support the group’s efforts to keep the French Broad and its tributaries clean. The eight-mile race begins at Sandy Bottom River Park and finishes at Southern Waterways on Amboy Road. There are eight paddling categories, and all participants are welcome (including children).

For details, contact Quality Forward at 254-1776 (e-mail: info@qualityforward.org).

Adventure racing

12-Hour Adventure Race: With navigational, paddling and biking components, this is one MSF event that definitely does require specific skills. It’s also unusual in its wilderness orientation. The race is limited to 60 teams, whether they be finely tuned athletes or weekend competitors. This year, watch for Team Hall Pass as it attempts to take the blue ribbon following a second-place finish in the men’s division in 2004.

Details are available online (www.racingahead.com).

Flying discs

Disc-golf aficionados have their choice of three MSF events, and all three are spectator-friendly.

Mountain Disc Golf Experience: It may not be the Masters, but don’t mention that to a dedicated disc golfer. The two-day tournament happens Saturday (10-6) and Sunday (9-5) at the Richmond Hill Disc Golf Course, with two rounds per day.

To learn more, consult the Web site (www.wncdiscgolf.com).

Wild Wings Cafe $3,000 Urban Skins Game: Big bucks will be on the line at the downtown course. Saturday contestants will play nine holes for $1,000 in prizes. And on Sunday, the ante will be raised even more: nine holes for a $2,000 pot.

Visit the Web site (www.wncdiscgolf.com) for more information.

Hat-Draw Ultimate Frisbee Tournament: Male and female participants of all ages are invited to play (with help from long-time players). The tournament runs 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, hosted by the Asheville Ultimate Club (www.ashevilleultimate.org.).

Strive Not to Drive Rally

Perhaps no other event fits more snugly with the overall festival mission than the Strive Not to Drive rally. The long-running event (now in its 15th year) also shines the spotlight squarely on environmental stewardship; this year, the emphasis will be on encouraging locals to find alternative transportation to the Festival Village (in City/County Plaza) on Friday afternoon. The rally — which runs 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday — also appeals to nonathletes while promoting air quality, public health and outdoor activity. “The MSF and Strive Not to Drive are a perfect match,” says co-coordinator Terri March. Both events, she notes, aim “to promote a healthier Asheville.”

For more information, contact Linda Giltz at 251-6622 (e-mail: lindag@landofsky.org).

Volunteering at the Festival Village

The unsung heroes of the festival are the 100-plus volunteers whose various efforts support the MSF infrastructure. Those interested in helping out can register via e-mail (montfordr@asheville.nc.gov/meuler@mwbavl.com), on the festival Web site (www.mountainsportsfestival.com), or simply show up at the Festival Village. “Many of our volunteers are attracted to the festival’s ambiance,” notes volunteer coordinator Mary Euler. “It’s a lot more intimate than Bele Chere.”

[Freelance writer Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]

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