Mountain sports for one and all

The girl in the kayak couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. Her wet blond hair framed a cherubic face, eyes big and cheeks plump. She was so quiet after making it through a helper-assisted roll in the pool that you thought she might cry … for a moment.

Then, in a quiet, firm voice, she told the grown-up who was introducing her and her big brother to kayaking at the Mountain Sports Festival, “Do it again.”

That spirit sums up the festival, which marked its second year by almost doubling participation in sponsored events, and nearly quadrupling attendance by spectators.

“By Friday night, we realized we had already equaled last year’s participation [by competitors and spectators],” says Festival Director Stuart Cowles.

As the three-day event continued on Saturday, a small boy from Knoxville caught Cowles’ eye: With his mom tagging along, the kid “climbed on this and tried that for the first time,” Cowles recalls of the scene at Festival Center in City/County Plaza. Festival Center featured, among other things, a kid’s bike rodeo; an inflated climbing tower with City Hall as a backdrop; a pool where anyone willing to get wet could try a kayak for the first time; funnel cakes, ice cream and barbecue; live bands wooing the crowd; and races that started and ended nearby. The look on the little boy’s face in the midst of taking it all in — like the little girl in the kayak pool — showed Cowles “the heart and soul” of the event, he says.

Cowles also espied the trials and tribulations competitors undertook for the festival’s inaugural adventure race. While waiting to see how a friend was doing in the RiverLink triathlon along the French Broad River, Cowles looked up and saw several three-person co-ed teams pulling up in rafts, unloading as fast as they could, then trying to find the quickest way to the finish line at City/County Plaza. With rafts in tow (as per the race’s curious rules this year), “Three went this way, three went that way, but another team stopped to check their map and [that done], bushwhacked straight through the poison ivy and over the railroad tracks [near the old warehouses] and on up to downtown,” he remembers.

To Cowles –who’s an experienced rock climber, but unfamiliar with adventure racing — the crazed little scene was quite amusing. To adventure-race coordinator Norm Greenberg, the scene was just an example of what puts a special twist on the sport — navigation skills.

You see, in adventure racing, teams have to find their way from checkpoint to checkpoint in precise order, while the whole team stays together.

Two of the 28 teams that attempted the 12-hour adventure-race course from Barnardsville to Asheville didn’t make it to the finish line, Greenberg reports. One team got lost in North Asheville, another along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Teams first had to tackle a steep hike from Cane River Gap near Barnardsville to the Craggy Dome Overlook. The next leg had them on their bikes, thundering down Elk Mountain Scenic Highway and on to North Asheville. “There were actually [several] teams that were lost around there,” explains Greenberg.

Once out of the jungles of North Asheville, teams biked over to the old motor speedway, where they jumped in rafts for a spell, disembarked and made their way 2.5 miles to City-County Plaza … while carrying their rafts.

Team BMC Wesser won the day by navigating the course in just over seven hours, Greenberg reports.

A far quicker event was the Market Place Hill Climb: Cyclists had merely to pump their way up 5 miles of Town Mountain Road from downtown.

A Boulder, Colo. cyclist saw an ad for the event in a national outdoor magazine, gave organizers a call to verify the prize money offered to anyone who could beat the 17-minute, 12-second record (the amount: $1,000) … “And he flew into Asheville on a plane … and flew up the mountain,” says event organizer Richard Dunn. The cyclist was Scott Moninger, who beat the old record by more than a minute (when winners these days are often measured in hundredths of a second). Moninger’s closest challenger was about a minute behind him, in a race that drew 90 riders, says Dunn.

Moninger, he mentions, had been to Asheville before, riding in the Tour du Pont in the mid-’90s. “He had raced down Town Mountain but never up it,” says Dunn of the 5-foot-8, 135-pound Moninger.

Noting the good spectator turnout for the Hill Climb — an indigenous Asheville event that ran 1985-1996 before being revived for the festival — Dunn says organizers plan to add more road-bike races next year, such as a downtown criterium (a half-mile to mile circuit race that’s fast, furious and very spectator-friendly).

In other festival events, competitors showed all kinds of pluck: Despite being handicapped by a flat tire (something of a problem when you have to make your way over such obstacles as big logs), a biker managed second place in the Urban Mountain Bike Circuit Race downtown, says organizer Ken Lee. And participants in the first-ever (in North-America) Urban Assault Freeride were required to jump a car and tackle a 40-foot-long descending stairway. “That was the show,” says Lee of the event, which requires cyclists to attempt a variety of obstacles, earning points for style and success in navigating the obstacle. Out west, “freeride” events have competitors “jump[ing] off cliffs and stuff,” reveals Lee.

Joe Haley of Raleigh won the urban freeride competition, followed by Chris Herndon of Etowah and Joe Moore of Asheville. Lee mentions that Sara Sanders of Asheville — the only female in the event — earned eighth place.

All told, about 300 folks competed in four Thoms’ Double-down Mountain Bike events, including two races at the Alexander Mountain Bike Facility, Lee reports.

Yet another kind of plucky mountain spirit came from the 140 or so volunteers who made the festival happen, says Cowles. He counts Asheville Mayor Charles Worley among those ranks: Worley took part in a few kickoff introductions, then donned his running shoes to race in the Tortoise and Hare 5K (the mayor did the route in about 24 minutes, Cowles estimates).

Cowles adds that the turn out in events new to the festival was respectable. For instance, 24 boats (some manned by two-person teams) went downriver for the French Broad Paddling Challenge.

And Moninger wasn’t the only one shattering records in the festival: “Tic-Tac” Olsten won the WNC Disc Golf Tournament, setting a new course record of 49 (par on the course at Richmond Hill) event organizer Hames Nichols reports.

All told, this year’s Mountain Sports Festival delivered what it promised — lots of activity, a variety of sports and a more active festival center. It exceeded organizers’ expectations, says Cowles.

Now he’s off to try a new sport: power resting.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.