USA Cycling opens its National Mountain Bike Series in Fountain Hills, Arizona
By Matt Pacocha
There was a time, before Sea Otter, Fontana or Waco, when the Specialized Cactus Cup signaled the official kick-off to the domestic mountain-bike season.
In the early 1990s, when mountain-bike racing was at its peak, the Cactus Cup near Phoenix served as a rite of spring for the likes of John Tomac, Tinker Juarez and Ned Overend as they battled under warm skies and among towering saguaros.
As is now the case with Sea Otter, the Specialized Cactus Cup races filled many needs, from warm-weather retreat to consumer trade show to early season reunion for scores of riders who had not seen one another since the fall.
The Arizona race shifted locations around the Phoenix area over the years, eventually spending its final years, 1998 and ’99, at Maricopa County’s McDowell Mountain Regional Park outside Fountain Hills, where a special three-loop competitive track was constructed and remains in use today. In 2003, the NOVA Desert Classic began using that track, and its race there was part of USA Cycling’s National Mountain Bike Series in 2004 and 2005.
This year’s NOVA National kicks off the new NMBS with three races: a time trial on Friday, a night-time short track in downtown Fountain Hills on Saturday and a long-course cross-country on Sunday.
Interestingly, only Sunday’s cross-country carries all-important UCI points. The race is designated as a UCI Category 2, offering 30 points to the winner and on down through the top 10.
Todd Wells (GT-Hyundai) has had a successful start to his season racing south of the equator. He racked up two wins at UCI races in Puerto Rico and a bronze medal at the Continental Championships in Nequen, Argentina, despite a mechanical in the last kilometer.
“I like going down there, they’re great events,” said Wells. “It’s more like a vacation for me than races. It’s a good opportunity to get points, but it’s also pretty low stress and fun, so I’d probably go down there even if it weren’t for the Olympics.”
A good portion of America’s Olympic mountain-bike hopefuls also made the trip south of the equator. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher) showed form despite his own mechanical problems. Adam Craig (Giant) also showed his face at the sharp edge of the race despite his dislike of the heat and humidity. And Wells took note of Michael Broderick’s (Kenda-Seven) savvy bike handling in Puerto Rico’s tight single-track.
“He was flying in the single-track,” said Wells of Broderick. “It [the race] has got a lot of tight single-track and there are a lot of trees so if you’re behind somebody you can’t get past them until the single-track finishes.”
Wells has come out swinging, to say the least, but he has decided to forgo Friday’s time-trial. Nonetheless, he will be one to watch in Saturday night’s downtown short track, a race Wells is looking forward to. He’ll also be a contender in Sunday’s cross-country. The thought of the downtown short track had the GT rider reminiscing about Cactus Cup’s Fat Boy street criteriums.
“I haven’t seen the course,” said Wells, “but those Fat Boy crits — those are some of my favorite races and I’m looking forward to it, for sure.”
Speaking of Fat Boy criteriums, the pro men don’t have to sweat the short track if it ends up taking on a Fat Boy format. Steve Tilford, the undisputed king of the Fat Boy criterium, will not be contesting this year’s NOVA National.
Tilford hadn’t even heard about the race until last week.
“I was at Redlands and Steve Blick from Oakley came up and said. ‘Hey Tilford, are you going to the Fat Boy?’ and I said. ‘What Fat Boy?’” Tilford told VeloNews “Man, I hate when that happens, I was thinking, ‘Is there a way to get a mountain bike in the next four days?’ But no.”
By the time of his 2000 induction to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, Tilford had racked up a total of 21 Fat Boy crit victories all over the world, from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Tokyo, Japan.
“Ah, well, I lost two,” said Tilford. “So I won every other one. When I rode for Specialized they were doing Cactus Cups all over the world and I was pretty much undefeated. I crashed in the second one I ever did; I fell and Tomac won. After that I’m pretty much undefeated. I’m going to hate looking up the results on VeloNews.com, that’s going to bum me out.”
Geoff Kabush (Team Maxxis) is another racer who isn’t going to contest the time trial but will be racing the short-track and the cross-country. The Canadian was able to capitalize on Wells’s misfortune at the Continental Championships and take the win. Fellow Canadian Seamus McGrath (Rocky Mountain) was second. Kabush also raced the Tour of Cuba with the Canadian road team Symmetrics, which won the race’s overall GC.
“I’m not going to do the time trial,” said Kabush. “I’ve been racing quite a bit so I don’t necessarily need another effort. We’ll see what this fat-tire short track is like, but I, for sure, want to go down there and do well. I won the cross-country a few years ago the last time we had a NORBA there.
“I think last year I raced a little bit too much. I got sick at the start of the year and I never really got on top of my game. I’m trying to take it a little bit more conservatively with the racing this year and to try to focus on the big races, the World Cups — that’s where the points are really going to add up. A major goal this year is to get back on it there, because at the international races last year I was really pretty mediocre.”
Horgan-Kobelski doesn’t have quite as much racing under his belt as either Kabush or Wells, and will be racing all three events this weekend. He must remain a race favorite, having won the NOVA Classic in 2003. He’s also coming into this first NMBS series race with the No. 1 plate as reigning champion.
“I’m going to race all three races,” said Horgan-Kobelski. “Mostly just for training, because I still feel like I need the intensity right now. So I’m going to get out there on Friday, do the time-trial on my two-niner to do a little more bike testing, and I think it will be a pretty good course for it. It’ll be fun; a fun way to get a good training ride in. That’s sort of how I’m looking at the short-track too. It sounds like it’s going to be a pretty fun exhibition-style event under the lights at night. The cross-country is definitely the high priority of the weekend, though.”
Horgan-Kobelski’s wife, Heather Irmiger, (Subaru-Gary Fisher) will be looking for a solid result to open her 2007 NMBS campaign, as she took second to Mary McConneloug at last weekend’s C2 UCI event in Puerto Rico. Irmiger will also be racing all three days.
“The races leading up to Sunday’s cross-country race are really short and if anything, they’re a really good opener for Sunday,” said Irmiger. “That’s how I’m looking at those two races. I’m not racing them easy or anything I’m going to go for it, but Sunday is the most important race and the big reason is the UCI points, especially for the women who are being considered for those Olympic spots right now. It’s really important that we keep building those [points.]”
Irmiger and Georgia Gould (Luna), who won the Continental Championships in Argentina, will both have their hands full with veterans Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven) and Shonny Vanlandingham (Luna) and others. McConneloug took the win at the C2 event in Puerto Rico, while Vanlandingham did not start the Continental Championships due to illness. Both should be out to race hard this weekend, especially in Sunday’s cross-country.
“It’s really good to know when you have good fitness coming into the season,” said Gould. “This year I really feel like I should be there [on the international circuit] that I’ve stepped it up enough that it’s worth it for me to go [to the World Cups]. Having only done two World Cups, I don’t have much experience but I think I race the best when the racing is the hardest. I have kind of a ‘take it as it comes’ outlook on the season. I try not to plan too far ahead and just keep a positive attitude.”
Gould’s plans for this weekend include all three days of racing. She has raced the event in the past, when it was part of the NMBS in 2005.
“I kind of suffered a little because there was such a short starting straight [before it funneled into single-track] and I wasn’t aggressive at the starts back then, so I kind of got the shaft at that start,” said Gould of the race in 2005. “I had to work my way up and that course isn’t very good for passing, so it was hard.”
She plans to take the start much more seriously this time around.
2007 NOVA National presented by Bear Naked–Cannondale
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Fountain Hills, Arizona Friday March 30, 2007 Time Trial (30 second intervals) 12:00 pm Pro Men 12:30 pm Pro Women Saturday March 31, 2007 Super D 3:00 pm Pro Men 3:15 pm Pro Women
Fountain Hills Chamber of Commerce Downtown short track races 7:30 pm Pro Women 8:00 pm Pro Men
Sunday April 1, 2007 Kenda Cross-Country race 1:00 pm Pro Women 3:30 pm Pro Men