Doing the Town Mountain Waltz

It rises just east of downtown Asheville. More than 15 years ago, some local cyclists thought it might be cute to hold a time trial up winding, scenic Town Mountain Road. The idea sounds great till you look at a topo and realize we’re talking about climbing 1,260 vertical feet in a mere 5.1 miles. But according to Mark Rosenstein and Richard Dunn, co-promoters of this year’s Market Place Mountain Road Hill Climb, it’s a whole lot of fun. “Hey, we even have a citizens category,” Dunn noted comfortingly during a recent interview.

My first mistake was giving any hint that I might be interested in tackling the hill climb myself. After all, I’ve done similar events, and I felt like all the bike commuting I’ve been doing has me in pretty decent shape. Meanwhile, I called some cycling-geek buddies to get the scoop on this thing.

Everyone I called seemed strangely secretive about it. My attempts to find someone who’d competed in past years and was willing to give me a firsthand account proved fruitless. And after talking to innumerable answering machines as my deadline loomed ever nearer, I decided to take my fate in my own hands and just ride the course myself. Sitting at the last traffic light before starting the climb, I murmured, “Let the Town Mountain dance begin!”

Instant views and distant memories

Dunn, a former U.S. National Team rider and a veteran of earlier editions of the local event, had warned me about the initial leg, and indeed, the first three kilometers were the most challenging. For competitors, pushing too hard too soon could be disastrous, yet saving it for later might prove too conservative a strategy. A fine line, to be sure. But considering that I was on my commuter bike with a single pannier loaded with camera gear, a change of clothes, and even a thermos of java, conservative sounded just right. And with the first bit of climb behind me, I started to feel good enough to enjoy the clear views of downtown Asheville and the surrounding mountains on this stunning spring day.

While traversing one of the tightest switchbacks on the entire route, I thought back over other steep climbs I’d endured. Nearly 20 years ago, a friend and I toured western Canada. We rode mountain highways that took an entire day to crest. Then there was Pacheco Pass — an abrupt climb out of the central valley of California over the Coastal Range east of Santa Cruz. Although climbing is physically demanding, keeping mentally focused is what pulls you through.

A labor of love

After cresting the first shelf, I managed to drop my heart rate down to a controlled 160 beats per minute, allowing me the luxury of musing on the extraordinary dedication of so many in the local cycling community whose collective efforts have helped place Asheville in the national spotlight.

For Dunn and Rosenstein — both a bit older than I am but still much stronger on the bike — resurrecting the hill climb is a labor of love. Both have volunteered mega-hours to bring back a tradition that ended some years back after an up-and-down, variable history. The two have personally provided the corporate sponsorship for the event (Rosenstein is the chef and owner of The Market Place Restaurant, and Dunn is the dining-room manager); their ultimate goal is to build it into something even bigger than the regional “keystone” competition it once was.

In the meantime, reviving the race gives former competitors another crack at it. Dunn has run the course in the outstanding time of 18:43. Eddie Gragus set the course record in 1993 with a miraculous 17:13 ascent.

The excitement, it seems, is contagious; I could feel it as I climbed, my thoughts shifting from local history to the idea of the event itself. Peaking at nearly 3,500 feet, I stopped to savor the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the exhilarating 25-minute climb. After snapping a quick photo of the Haw Creek Valley, I continued toward the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A pair of cyclists passed me traveling the other way — smiling as they began their well-earned descent of Town Mountain.

Schedule and more info

Market Place Town Mountain Road Hill Climb, Saturday, June 1, first start time 9 a.m.

It’s resurrection time for one of the region’s most popular (and scenic) hill climbs. The individual uphill-cycling time trial starts just off Town Mountain Road at the Asheville Business Park. Some 300 cyclists will tackle the 1,260-foot ascent of Town Mountain. (Before the race was dropped a few years ago, the hill climb — a perennial favorite among the region’s top cyclists — had been staged under the Bele Chere umbrella.) The road-biking race involves five miles of pure hill and is a U.S. Cycling Federation-sanctioned event, open to USCF-licensed riders. There are also divisions for citizens, disabled athletes mountain bikers.

Registration: Registration is available on the Web at www.marketplace-restaurant.com/hillclimb. Day-of-race registration runs 7:45 to 8:30 a.m. at the Allen Center (intersection of Town Mountain Road and College Place). The fee for all races is $20 ($5 for juniors). All riders must have a USCF license (“citizen” race participants must buy a one-day license).

Awards: A $2,000 cash prize will be offered to licensed riders, along with merchandise and medals. A $1,000 cash prize will be presented to a rider who establishes a new hill-climb record (the previous record is 17:13, set in 1993).

For more information, call Mark Rosenstein or Richard Dunn at (828) 252-4162 or e-mail tmp@main.nc.us.

Double Down Mountain Bike Weekend , June 1-2 (see individual events below).

Alexander Mountain Bike Facility Events:

The Alexander Mountain Bike Facility will host a full day of knobby-tire adventures for competitors from novice to pro on Saturday, June 1. All of Saturday’s mountain-bike (MTB) competitions are open to everyone, in age categories ranging from 8 to 80. The events are NORBA (the national governing body of MTB racing)-sanctioned. Riders choose which experience category they’ll compete in for both cross-country and dual events.

Directions: The Alexander Mountain Bike Facility is about 40 minutes from downtown Asheville. Take Highway 19/23 to the UNCA/Broadway exit. Go west on Broadway to the first traffic light. Take a right onto Hwy. 251 (Riverside Drive). Continue about eight miles. Parking will be on the left by the river. Signs will direct you to the race start/finish.

Cross-country racing, Saturday, June 1, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

The six-mile cross-country race promises to be the Mountain Sports Festival’s community-participation centerpiece. A.J. Nidek, a coordinator for MTB events at this year’s festival, says: “We would like to see everybody and his brother come out and ride the course. We’ve got several categories of racing with layers of divisions and age groups so that everyone should walk away happy.” With more than 40 categories designed to match peers against peers, exciting competition-racing is promised up and down the course, which is nestled along the banks of the French Broad River.

Spectators are encouraged to check out this course, marked by smooth single-tracks and a challenging mix of short climbs and descents.

The cross-country races include a sport competition at 9:30, a pro/expert competition at 11, and a beginners/juniors division at 1:15 p.m. A free kids race will be offered for MTB enthusiasts ages 11 and under.

Dual Downhill Racing, Saturday, June 1, 3-6 p.m.

As the day heats up, so will the competition during the festival’s Dual Downhill Racing, which pairs two to four competitors for a 220-yard descent along the Alexander facility’s slalom course. This year’s wider course and stronger competition should make for an exciting day of racing for competitors and spectators alike. Racers qualifying for each heat advance to a more competitive next round. The single-elimination format takes on an edgy attitude as each round narrows the field to two final competitors.

Registration: Registration starts at 5 p.m. at the Alexander facility on Friday, May 31 and continues at 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 1. Registration closes 30 minutes before the race. (Free T-shirts go to pre-registered racers.) The entry fee is $15/kids, $25/sport, expert and pro.

For more information, call A.J. Nidek at 250-0019

Downtown Asheville MTB Events, Sunday, June 2.

Bike Demos: Bike demos supplied and staffed by local bike-shop employees and industry sponsors will enable members of the public to try out every kind of bike — from road to MTB to recumbent to kids’ bikes. Held all weekend long at the Festival Center.

MTB Circuit Race: A double cash-purse, cross-country event, the circuit race will loop through downtown Asheville. Barriers, stairs (up and down) and other skill-challenging obstacles mark this exciting, spectator-friendly event. Races run 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (expert and sport categories) and 12 p.m. (kids 8-12).

DH-Freeride Contest: This extreme, pro-and-expert-category-only event takes participants through a super-challenging course consisting of huge artificial and natural obstacles (including wrecked cars, concrete culverts and 30- to 40-foot stair drops). Contestants will ride heavily reinforced, 50-plus-pound, full-suspension, downhill-racing bikes. This could be the most-spectator friendly event of the whole festival. Races run 2-4 p.m.

Registration: Friday, May 31, 5-8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Alexander facility, (Registration closes 30 minutes before each event.) To learn more, call A.J. Nidek at 250-0019.

For more information about MTB events, call 253-2800, e-mail bikerace@charter.net or visit http://webpages.charter.net/bikerace.

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