Mountain Sports Festival gets boost for another exciting weekend of sports, music, fun

PUMP THE PEDALS: Mountain Sports Fest’s Cyclocross event pits bikes and riders with different specialities against one another on a course with lots of different surfaces in a grueling, multihour contest. Photo courtesy of Mountain Sports Festival

For three days a year, the Mountain Sports Festival brings together three staples of Asheville life that make it a city for fun-seekers.

There is, of course, an array of quirky participation sports, from cyclocross to disc golf. There is a variety of talented bands that perform in the center of the Festival Village and send out vibes that create a party atmosphere. And don’t forget plenty of craft beer.

“The greatest thing about the Mountain Sports Festival is that it really is the only event throughout the year that draws all those components of our Asheville culture together in one weekend,” says Chris Gragtman, who competes in paddling when he’s not enjoying other parts of the festival. “And I think that’s what I love about it.”

The MSF, which will be held Friday to Sunday, May 26-28, enters its 17th year with a new director, several fresh events and a three-year grant from the city of Asheville worth $5,400 per year.

What’s new, wildcat?

New events will be the Prone Paddling Sprint Race on the French Broad River and the BMX Street Jam at Carrier Park, both of which will be held Saturday.

Another new wrinkle is a water zone, where French Broad Outfitters and Bellyak will put on watercraft demos on Saturday and Sunday. Additions to the Kids Zone will be an instrument petting zoo, courtesy of Experience Music Asheville, and a booth by the Asheville Museum of Science.

The festival should appeal to people from all walks of life, says Tim Grotenhuis, who replaced Terry Bemis as executive director of MSF. “We have a kids village, music and outdoor sports. There’s something for everyone in Asheville who wants to come out and enjoy the festival.”

Helping with expenses will be a strategic planning grant from the city, which is key for festival organizers whose goal is to break even every year. The festival is run by an all-volunteer board of directors and sponsorships from local businesses. “It helps us with police, EMS and other city services,” Grotenhuis said of the grant. He says he’s pleased that the new funding could allow them to bring on better artists for music and even the option to try out new events. “Most of our money is made on beer sales,” he says, “[so] the grant allows us to be more flexible with what we’re doing and puts less risk on us.”

Bemis said the festival made a profit last year, which will help in the future for an event that prides itself on being different and unique to Asheville. “If we had a title sponsor that wrote us a check for $50,000 and dictated to us what they wanted, we might be homogenized, a little vanilla about stuff,” says Bemis, who is still a member of the festival’s board of directors. “This way we’re open to all kinds of events. I think what works well for us is when we have these weird hybrid events, a sport you don’t see very often. I think that to me is the spirit of what we do here.”

Get physical

Click to enlarge events lineup
Click to enlarge events lineup

Case in point for not being plain old vanilla is the return of the Rock2Rock 10K Trail Race Mountain, which will be held in Black Mountain. Stumpy roots, rocks, low-hanging branches and downed trees along a steep course are just some of the challenges of the extremely demanding race. The event was canceled last year because the organizer had a scheduling conflict.

A crowd favorite is likely to be the third annual Downriver Dash SUP race, in which contestants stand on a paddleboard and go about a mile against the current before turning around and racing to the finish line with it. The race will be held Saturday morning on the French Broad River.

The SUP race has developed a large following, according to Gragtman, who won the event in 2015. “The French Broad is always a variable force, it’s always changing in terms of water level,” he says of the event, which is run by French Broad Outfitters. “You never know exactly what to expect. The river could be really high, or there could be rocks. The river has such different characters with those different positions.”

Looking forward

Click to enlarge music schedule
Click to enlarge music schedule

One thing that will be missing from this year’s festival is the sports demo stage, although booths for gear vendors and environmental nonprofits will be in the Festival Village. “The board wanted to focus on the new Water Zone and water demo area instead of the stage,” Grotenhuis said.

Grotenhuis is already looking toward next year’s event, when he hopes to unveil a 5K run. “It’s another way for us to make some money,” he said. If the run happens, Grotenhuis won’t have to go far to find a race organizer. His wife, Leslie, owns and runs Kick It Event Management.

Grotenhuis said he hopes the three-day event will bring out well over 10,000 competitors and spectators. “The Mountain Sports Festival is a fantastic local event put on by outdoor enthusiasts,” says Sean Perry, a former competitor in cyclocross. “It’s a great atmosphere, and the camaraderie and the vibe is really fun. It’s a good time, superfamily-friendly.”
Some of the events are filled, but others will take on competitors on the day of the event.

For information see the event’s website at

BELLY DOWN: Joining the Mountain Sports Festival event lineup this year will be a Prone Paddling sprint race in which competitors mount kayaks designed to be ridden face down and paddle with their hands. The Bellyak apparatus was invented by local kayak maker Adam Masters. Above, a group takes them out on the French Broad River for a casual float. Photo courtesy of Bellyak
BELLY DOWN: Joining the Mountain Sports Festival event lineup this year will be a Prone Paddling sprint race in which competitors mount kayaks designed to be ridden face down and paddle with their hands. The Bellyak apparatus was invented by local kayak maker Adam Masters. Above, a group takes them out on the French Broad River for a casual float. Photo courtesy of Bellyak

A closer look at new events

Spring BMX Street Jam, Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
BMX riding is more of a daredevil sport like skateboarding, except with handlebars and pedals. The course has inclines and several jumps over boxes and pipes. It’s an event where riders are sent out individually and race against the clock and get style points. This year’s event is sponsored by Asheville Street and Dirt in West Asheville.

“BMX is an aggressive type of riding that is all gravity-driven and all appeals to the same type of mindset,” says Jeff Ritterpusch, who owns Asheville Street and Dirt with Michael Rhine.  “BMX will bring a whole new demographic into the sports festival. It will bring a younger clientele, which highlights a whole different approach to riding.” Asheville Street and Dirt opened two years ago, and this will be the third event the store has sponsored.

“When we did the first one, our biggest concern was that we didn’t have any carnage or major injuries,” Ritterpusch said. “We didn’t want to pick anyone off in the community. We wanted a good, wholesome event where everybody is safe and has a good time. It went extremely well.”

Prone Paddling sprint race, Saturday, 2-4 p.m. 
New to the festival will be the Prone Paddling sprint race, in which competitors lay face first and paddle furiously with their hands. The course will be a mile long and downstream. The race will be open to all levels of paddlers. “I can guarantee you there’s not a race like this anywhere else,” Bemis says. “It should be a lot of fun.”

Prone paddling was the brainchild of Adam Masters, who designed the Bellyak, which is a lie-on-top kayak. He said he came up with the idea when he lay on his kayak one day and paddled with his hands. “I just started tinkering and building prototypes,” he recalls. He says the craft is gaining popularity, and sales of the Bellyak this year are at an all-time high. The success, he says, is all in the experience. “The sensation of being able to combine the motions of swimming with a kayak underneath you was such as awesome feeling.”


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