Ode to the outdoors: Mountain Sports Festival attracts thousands with sports and music lineup

FAN FAVORITE: Sponsored by Asheville Cyclocross, Mountain Sports Festival's highly anticipated cyclocross race snakes through Festival Village and into a sand pit, making it impossible — or at least, inadvisable — for attendees to miss. “What's really cool is you have the music playing and then you've got these bikes swooping around the track at the same time,” says the festival's entertainment director, Elli Schwartz, “so it's all very exciting. Everything's happening simultaneously, and the music's pumping up the people who are racing.” Three separate cyclocross races are organized by skill level, with beginners starting on Friday, May 22, at 6 p.m., elite women and men's B class at 6:45 p.m., and elite men at 7:40 p.m. Photo by Steve Barker of Icon Media Asheville

With three days of interactive athletic programming — from kayaking to running, cycling to yoga, and everything in between — plus additional outdoor leisure activities, this month’s Mountain Sports Festival caters to sports devotees and casual weekend entertainment-seekers alike. Celebrating its 15th anniversary Friday through Sunday, May 22-24, the event honors the many outdoor activities available to Western North Carolina residents and visitors as well as the local businesses that foster those pastimes.

“We’re always prideful that we can offer a festival like this for free,” says festival director Terry Bemis. He estimates that about 10,000 people flock to the event annually, including some 1,000 participating athletes. “We have a beautiful spot in [Carrier Park], right on the [French Broad] River at a beautiful time of year. We kick off summer in some ways.”

Festival Village, located inside Carrier Park’s “mellowdrome” (the paved bike loop), hosts most of the weekend action, including athletic events, food and beer trucks, sports gear vendors and a full lineup of free musical entertainment. Additional activities will be held across the Asheville area, Bemis notes.

MSF began as a private operation in 2000, but the city of Asheville took the reins of the nonprofit in 2005, moving the action from downtown to Carrier Park and steadily growing the event’s popularity. “We’ve got a weird history,” says Bemis. Eventually, the city “got out of the events business,” he says, and returned the event to private hands in 2010.

“We were always the redheaded stepchild compared to Bele Chere,” says Bemis, noting the city’s event priorities. Bele Chere was an annual music and arts street festival held in downtown that began in 1979 and ran for 35 years. The city-organized festival faced criticism from residents and a funding deficit before being canceled by the city in 2013.

“But in some ways, I’m glad we weren’t the biggest kid on the block, because the bully got bullied. … It’s funny. All of a sudden, we’re like the elder statesman of the festivals in Asheville.”

Now Mountain Sports Festival’s lineup includes everything from yoga and paddlboarding to racing, climbing and cycling, and many opportunities for the little ones to show off their athletic prowess too. It may surprise newcomers, though, that the festival itself doesn’t organize each of these minicompetitions.

“We don’t produce any events. We create the village, the music and the food, buy the porta-potty’s and do the permitting,” Bemis explains. Outside organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit) put on the actual sporting events and keep the proceeds from any registration fees they charge to participants. The MSF nonprofit, on the other hand, covers its costs through sponsorships, beer wristbands, food-and-beverage vendor fees and a new silent auction.

The Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, composed of more than 25 local vendors, is also a pillar of the event.

“When the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC started organizing, I wanted to give special invitations to that group,” says Bemis, recalling the flock of crafters who dotted Festival Village when the city of Asheville managed the event.

Bemis has dubbed Friday’s patrons the “happy-hour crowd,” in part because of the wild cyclocross event that begins at 6 p.m. These fans often arrive in costume, carrying noisemakers or offering edible (or drinkable, for those over 21) spoils to both motivate and tease participants.

“I love it, because we’ve organized the race to cut through our village, so everyone has a great view of this race. The music’s on, the cycling is going on. It’s awesome!”

A heavy-duty lineup of sports continues on Saturday, and the festival transitions to an informal “family day” come Sunday, Bemis says. Most sporting events require pre-registration for participants, but spectators are welcome to come and go for free.

“I’m very proud of the fact that Mountain Sports Festival has had the fortitude to hang through two bad economies — post-Sept. 11 and when the banks stopped loaning money,” Bemis says. “Before Get in Gear Festival, this was the only chance the outdoor sports world had to hang out together. … It’s an industry that doesn’t get together very often, and I’ve always wanted to be the premier outdoor sports event.”

Visit mountainsportsfestival.com for more information, including a full schedule of events.

About Kat McReynolds
Kat studied entrepreneurship and music business at the University of Miami and earned her MBA at Appalachian State University. Follow me @katmAVL

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