Howelsen beckons the brave

Mountain bike slalom provides Winter Carnival entertainment

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— Mountain bikers who were thinking the X-Games had already passed them by needn't give up on extreme sports altogether.

All that's needed to enter the dual mountain bike snow slalom at Howelsen Hill Feb. 9 is a bike, a helmet, a Winter Carnival button and some nerve. Make that plenty of nerve. Cyclists must navigate through slalom gates on a snowy hill that is steep enough to host a women's World Cup slalom on skis.

Organizer Ed Crislip said the annual competition has always attracted a mixture of skilled cyclists and thrill-seekers, just wanting to see if they can finish the course without crashing. In the end, the winners are competing for bragging rights only, Crislip said.

"There are always some crashes," he promised.

Last year, when about 40 people entered the contest, the best crash award was in the form of a trophy fashioned out of a pink Power Ranger action figure.

Competition is in men's, women's and junior divisions. In recent years, Crislip said, participation by women has been on the wane, and he'd like to see more female entrants.

For several years, Brian Deem and Chris Johns have been the top locals dueling in the mountain bike slalom. Every year they are challenged by several ringers from Summit County and the Front Range.

Longtime Steamboat mountain bike pioneer Kent Eriksen said he founded the original event in 1981 during Winter Carnival. The first race was held on Headwall at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area.

Crislip said the crew that maintains Howelsen Hill does a nice job of grooming the race course and using a Snowcat to gouge out a level start platform for the cyclists. However, fresh snow overnight is often a wild card in just how tricky the course is to ride.

Each contestant will get two runs in the dual format, once down the red course and a second time down the blue course. The times of the two runs are combined to determine the order of finish. Riders who crash have the option of humping their bikes back uphill to catch a missed gate and completing the course.

Experienced riders will use wide tires and under inflate them to between 20 and 30 pounds of pressure, Crislip said. Although many winter riders in Steamboat use studded bicycle tires, the studs don't really seem to have any positive effect on snow, he added.

The biggest cause of crashes on the slalom course occurs when the front wheel of the bike breaks through the snow, resulting in an end-over-end flip. For that reason, Crislip said cyclists strive to keep their weight back.

"You can't really use your front brakes," Crislip said. Locking up the front wheel often causes it to break through the snow, he said.

Experienced riders pick a line through the gates that allows them to avoid sudden movements or course corrections. The course is set to make it challenging, but not too difficult so novices can survive.

"We try to make it difficult, but not impossible," Crislip said.

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