Jay Rutherford rolls to the edge, rolls back, rolls to the edge again, then shakes his head. He's in the middle of riding the latest and greatest addition to Missoula mountain biking but its centerpiece is giving him pause.
"I'm contemplating it," Rutherford says of the intimidating five-foot jump that greets riders along the newly completed, championship-caliber course on Marshall Mountain. "I'm just not sure yet."
Rutherford's not alone in his hesitation. On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon, eight mountain bikers congregate around the jump, known as "The A-Line," discussing whether or not they have the gumption to give it a shot.
"Uh, no," says Matt Quinlan. "I value my life."
Most of the other riders side with Quinlan, saying they'll opt for the safer, slower "B-Line" route that avoids launching into the air.
Just then, a "Hep! Hep!" comes from farther up the course and the group of eight move out of the way. In a blur, another rider comes blazing down the hill and effortlessly hits the A-Line. Silence. Then, in another blur of kicked up dirt and mud, he's gone, heading down the mountain to the next test.
The A-Line constitutes just one challenge in a course designed to push some of the best mountain bikers in the world—and, in the meantime, fearless locals. "There's nothing else like this in the area," says Rutherford, who's already ridden the course 12 times. "Nothing even close."
Next month, the course will play host to the inaugural Missoula XC, the season-ending race in the professional mountain bike series sanctioned by USA Cycling. The Pro XCT (or cross-country tour) gives riders a chance to accumulate International Biking Union, or UCI, ranking points. UCI points are crucial in helping the United States qualify for mountain biking spots for the 2012 Olympic Games and determining the start order for the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships. In other words, it's a big deal, and the first race of its kind to be staged in Missoula.
Approximately 80 professional riders are expected to compete in the July 23 race, including Missoula native and rising mountain biking star Sam Schultz.
But before the professionals tackle the course, race promoter Shaun Radley and course designer Ben Horan expect tons of traffic. To help break it in, they've scheduled informal group rides throughout the week (announced at missoulaxc.org). Starting June 29, a weekly Wednesday night race series sponsored by Kettlehouse Brewery will feature both mountain bike and trail running competitions. While the course is not open to the public—Marshall Mountain is private property and being leased by race organizers—locals will have plenty of opportunities to find their line.
"Now that the course is mostly done, we're at the point where we need people to ride it," says Horan. "The more people ride it, the more it'll firm up and ride even better than it does now. And, really, it's already riding pretty well."
Horan and Radley started work on the Missoula XC more than a year ago. The duo secured the space at Marshall Mountain through owner Bruce Doering, mapped out a rough course that would meet International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) and Pro XCT guidelines, worked with a group of small business owners for sponsorships, and then approached USA Cycling about adding a race to the Pro XCT.
"They made a solid presentation that made it easy to approve," says Kelli Lusk, national events director for USA Cycling. "I think you're going to see a course unlike others on the tour, and a real fan-friendly event."
Horan says the Missoula XC race weekend will include live music, vendors, and, in addition to the Pro XCT main event, competitions for all levels of riders. In all, he's planning for about 300 riders and more than 1,000 spectators.
"We wanted to stick with what we know, and that's half-party, half-race," says Horan, whose biggest race planning prior to the Missoula XC has been the annual Rolling Thunder nighttime race. "It should be representative of the local mountain biking community."
But before any of that could take place, Horan and Radley had to start digging. With a core group of volunteers and help from the Montana Conservation Corps, they cleared six kilometers (four miles) of single- and double-track sections into the former ski hill. The result is a course that rises more than 900 feet in elevation and is highlighted by short, punchy climbs that will test riders' fitness. A brutal, switch-backing descent is designed to require technical skill.
"It's not just straight up and straight down like a lot of the local trails," says Brian Williams, who worked on the course through MCC. "I would describe it as fun, technical, but still pretty safe. It's more challenging than anything else in the area, but with practice, it's definitely rideable."
That description even holds for the already infamous A-Line. Horan approached jump experts at the Bike Doctor about building the feature in hopes that it would provide riders with a pivotal mid-race choice: risk the jump and save time, or take the slower B-Line. While most riders are balking at the chance now, things will change come race time.
"Give people a little more time," says Andy Frank of the Bike Doctor. "After some practice, and when they see the crowds up there ready to boo if they go the easy route, people will jump. It'll just take some time for Missoula riders to get used to something new like this."