Grueling climbs, loose rocky sections, two new races and thousands of screaming fans await some of the country's best riders at this year's Mountain Bike Cross-Country National Championships, the anchor event of the second-annual Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival.
From Thursday, July 5, to Sunday, July 8, more than 1,000 riders of all ages and skill levels will compete on challenging courses crisscrossing the hills surrounding Sun Valley.
Racers range in age from "12 years old all the way up to however old you can be and still ride a bike," said Greg Randolph, former Olympic cyclist and general manager of the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The races aren't just about bragging rights. In order to reach the championships in the first place, racers have to chalk up enough top finishes or accumulate enough points during the preceding race season, and those who come out on top at the Sun Valley event will be in the running to be crowned the U.S. national champions.
Riders from around the country will be on the trails in search of the title, including local favorites Rebecca Rusch, Simone Kastner and Josh Berry. For the racers, competing at this level takes talent, dedication, hard work and training. Riders compete on mountain courses that take roughly two hours to complete.
"[They face] a lot of climbing, there's some loose rocky sections, technical rocky sections, a lot of different turns, having to navigate the forest and throngs of screaming fans," Randolph said.
He pointed out that the term "cross-country" refers more to time than distance, but two hours equates to about 18 miles, depending on the course.
Two races have been added to this year's event: the 22.5-mile Galena Grinder and the nine-mile Sun Valley Super Duper Downhill. The grinder is a cross-country race starting from the Galena Lodge, while the downhill goes from the top to the bottom of Bald Mountain. The course has significantly more downhill than uphill sections and it will test both endurance and bike-handling skills.
This year also marks the return of the Fat Tire Criterium, an evening race in downtown Ketchum. Racers faring well in all three events have the chance to take the overall Sun Valley All Mountain honor. This award takes the best times from the three races and scores them in an overall competition.
There's also a new amateur course this year, which takes riders through a full lap around Bald Mountain. It's one big loop that climbs and finishes at the same spot.
"Rather than having a lot of short routes, you have one big adventure route, which is what amateur riders love," Randolph said.
For nonracers the Ride Sun Valley Festival as a whole, which kicks off Friday, June 29, offers a weekend full of music, guided rides, beer gardens and other treats. It's these something-for-everyone events that set the championships apart from most biking events.
"We know people who come to race bring their family and friends who don't race but love to ride bikes," Randolph said.
Noncompetitors can partake in local stoker riders, which are free, guided, shuttled rides. There are also kids races, as well as the Idaho Pump Track State Championships.
There's plenty for those who just want to watch, too. Randolph said roughly 5,000 spectators turned out for last year's event.
"The pro course is much different than the amateur course, in that it's a bunch of short laps around the River Run base area, which makes it really good for spectators," he said.
Adding to the appeal is the fact that the course offers many areas visible to spectators, as well as a beer garden and barbecue within walking distance.
The entertainment isn't limited to the daylight hours. The event features Saturday night performances by the Sun Valley Music Festival, featuring J.J. Grey and Mofro, a rhythm, blues and rock 'n' roll band from Florida. Dirty Dozen Brass Band will open the show.
Last year, about 75 percent of competitors came from out of state, and although a formal study hasn't been done to measure the event's economic impact, Randolph estimates the event brings in about $3 million to $5 million.
"It's a great excuse to come up here," Randolph said. "Bring your bike and have a good time."