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Fontana Kicks Off New Pro XC Tour

American mountain bike racing begins a new chapter this weekend at Southridge Park in Fontana, California.

On Sunday, the hilly park in this Los Angeles suburb hosts the opening round of USA Cycling’s Pro Cross-country Tour (ProXCT), a seven-race collection of UCI-sanctioned events which is set to replace the National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) as the premier cross-country series in North America.

The Fontana race is also the second round of the Kenda Cup West, the west-coast wing of the Sho Air-Specialized U.S. Cup.

The new organization of cross-country racing marks a union between the movers and shakers of elite racing: USA Cycling, the elite racing teams and Scott Tedro, owner of Sho Air International, a SoCal-based shipping company. Throughout late 2008 and early ‘09, all three engaged in discussion on how top-tier mountain bike racing should progress following the demise of the NMBS.

“After nearly a year of discussion and negotiations amongst our many mountain bike constituents and soliciting input from race promoters, athletes and industry representatives, we’re thankful that Sho-Air and various venues has stepped up to support pro cross country racing in the United States,” said Kelli Lusk, USA Cycling’s mountain bike events director. “[the Pro XCT] ensures that our pros will have a major season-long circuit which doubles as a dedicated and focused platform on which to showcase their talents.”

The agreement between the three is as follows. Tedro’s ShoAir International is putting up the lion’s share of the cash for the U.S. Cup series alongside Specialzied and Kenda. That series includes 13 races across the United States, and is split into two regional sub series, the Kenda Cup West and Kenda Cup East. The two dueling series are designed for aspiring regional pros and weekend warriors alike.

USA Cycling, along with Tedro, have singled out seven of the U.S. Cup events for the ProXCT. The pro category at these events will offer UCI points, and are aimed at attracting the continent’s best riders.

The model appears to be working in Fontana — American champ Adam Craig, Canadian champ Geoff Kabush, Georgia Gould, Catherine Pendrel and Todd Wells are just a few of the big names who will take the starting line.

But the promoters of the series, which include Tedro, U.S. Cup marketing manager Ty Kady and former NMBS organizer Tom Spiegel hope that new efforts on the side of marketing will drive greater crowds of spectators and amateur riders to the event as well.

“It’s simple stuff — whenever I’m riding in the Chino hills, I’ll tag people’s cars with flyers for the race. We’ve put 3000 posters in bike shops and we sent out 150,000 postcards,” said Kady, himself an avid mountain biker. “Other stuff has been bigger. Speed TV did a five-minute clip on the [U.S. Cup opener] Bonelli [cross-country race] for us and we’ve been doing web marketing. Everything is starting to add up — the amateurs come away with grab bags and shirts, and we hope it’s a better experience than they’ve had in the last decade.”

The race is also wooing riders with donated lunches from food chain In ‘N Out Burger, celebrity rides with hall of famer Ned Overend and a pre-race motorcycle stunt show put on by Superbike rider Jason Britton.

The efforts appear to be paying off. As of press time, the race was 41 percent above 2008 numbers for pre-registered riders.

The efforts to grow the series’ popularity has led to cutbacks in other areas. For 2009 there is no short track series, although Kady said organizers are hoping to feature short track events at three of the seven Pro XCT races.

“We want to have [short track] at Sea Otter, [Yankee Clipper at] Windham Mountain and [U.S. Cup Unification race] Las Vegas,” Kady said. “We want to resurrect short track for the future, but we’ve had to start small.”

So who is favored to win Sunday’s cross-country events?

Kabush is the odds-on favorite — the Canadian is undefeated at Fontana. But Australian Sid Taberlay (Sho Air-Specialized), winner of the U.S. Cup opener in Bonnelli Park, has shown he owns good early season form. Ryan Trebon and Barry Wicks (Kona) are others who have performed well at Fontana, as has Wells (Specialized) and Seamus McGrath (Jamis). The Subaru-Gary Fisher duo of Sam Schultz and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski are coming off the Pan American Championships in Santiago, Chile.

In the women’s race all eyes will be on Pendrel and Gould (Luna). Gould swept the NMBS in 2007 and defended her series title in 2008. But Pendrel is arguably the stronger of the two, having beaten Gould by nearly five minutes last weekend in Chile. Others to watch include Subaru-Gary Fisher teammates Willow Koerber and Heather Irmiger, Pua Sawicki (Team Mata), Emily Batty (Trek) and Kelli Emmett (Giant).

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