On a foggy December day in 1983 the newly formed National Off Road Bicycle Association held its first event in the Los Padres National Forest outside of Solvang, California. A bushy haired Kansas kid named Steve Tilford escaped with the win that day, riding in his first ever mountain-bike race on a rig slapped together just a day earlier.
Twenty-five years later the spirit of NORBA lives on in the National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS), which hosts its opening round of the 2008 season on Friday in Fontana, California. The NMBS replaced the NORBA label when series directors Jeff Frost and Tom Spiegel took over the reins in 2004. Gone are the television cameras, huge prize cash and international field enjoyed by the series in its heyday a decade ago. But one fact remains the same: North America’s best still show up.
Fontana stands as the NMBS’ fat-tire stronghold in Southern California after the tried-and-true NORBA venue at Big Bear’s Snow Summit banned gravity racing in 2004. Fontana’s urban Southridge Park venue lacks Big Bear’s lung busting altitude and scenic mountain surroundings. But the venue boasts challenging courses, and its promoter Donny Jackson holds a 17-year history of hosting off-road races. Over the years Jackson’s Southridge Winter Series has been the off-season challenge of choice for Floyd Landis, Tinker Juarez, Eric Carter and many others.
“This race was about telling people about this place in our backyard that had awesome riding,” Jackson said.
For 2008 the NMBS round in Fontana marks the official start of the regular season, as the majority of cross-country and gravity riders have yet to turn a pedal in the name of competition this year. That means for cross-country stars Geoff Kabush and Georgia Gould (both series winners in 2007) and gravity greats such as Melissa Buhl (KHS) and Duncan Riffle (Cannondale), the race will be a test for their early season form.
Who will reign supreme in Fontana? Kabush (Maxxis) is the safest bet in the men’s cross-country races — the whiskered Canadian is undefeated on Fontana’s loose, dusty cross-country course since the venue started hosting NMBS rounds in 2006. In 2007 Kabush pulled off a victory ahead of Ryan Trebon (Kona), Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher) and Todd Wells (GT) despite suffering from bad fitness.
Gould (Luna) is another safe bet to take the women’s race. The 28-year-old Coloradan swept the 2007 series, becoming the first woman to do so since Juli Furtado did in 1993. Gould’s stiffest challenge could come from her longtime Luna teammate Katerina Nash, and her new-for-08 teammate Catherine Pendrel of Canada.
But Kabush, Gould and the other traditional strongmen and women eyeing the Olympics in Beijing, Fontana and the rest of the NMBS could become a playing ground for second-tier cross-country riders looking to step up. Giant’s Adam Craig has his sights set on the World Cup series, meaning his teammate Carl Decker will look to score some NMBS glory. Trek-Volkswagen’s Jeremiah Bishop will skip Fontana to race South Africa’s Absa Cape Epic, meaning teammate Ross Schnell could shine. And no one should count out the Kona duo of Barry Wicks and Ryan Trebon.
The women’s race could see the emergence of Trek-Volkswagen’s Lea Davison, Luna’s Chloe Forsman, Giant’s Kelli Emmett or Kenda-Titus’ Zephani Blasi as regular threats.
The Olympics won’t affect the gravity racing, but with the World Cup more than a month away, the NMBS round will be the starting point for North Americans aiming for a spot in Beijing. And for SoCal’s gravity strongmen, such as Cody Warren (Foes), Eric Carter (Hyundai-Mongoose), Rich Houseman (Yeti-Fox) and Duncan Riffle (Cannondale), Fontana is a familiar stomping ground. The venue’s steep drop lacks the five-minute effort of most World Cup courses, but it packs a rocky punch in the form of a 100-meter flat straightaway called “The Wall.” Riders must sprint out of the saddle for 15-20 seconds at full gas.
“When you get to the wall you can either get out of the saddle and go as hard as you can or you sit down and give up,” said Houseman, who has raced at Fontana for more than a decade. “It’s what makes people remember the course.”
The Fontana NMBS runs Friday March, 28 through Sunday, March 30.