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The 16th annual Barking Spider Heralds the Racing Season

Wild Rockies' first race a test of winter fitness

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The term "barking spider" can refer either to a stinging tarantula or a gastrointestinal discharge--or in Southern Idaho, it refers to one weekend every April when hundreds of mountain bikers gather to test their cardiovascular might against one another in the Wild Rockies Racing Series opener, the Barking Spider Bash.

The Spider is the region's premier inaugural springtime cross-country competitive biking event. It presents athletes with a nice transition into spring/summer outdoor activity after a long Idaho winter, offering a cross-country lap race for mountain bikers and a morning trail run for those who shy away from two-wheeled shenanigans.

A six-time Spider veteran myself, the race is like to going to a high school dance for the first time with nerves, anticipation and overzealous expectations while trying to ignore that little voice in your mind asking, "Am I out of my league here?"

Whether you're new to racing or a seasoned professional, the reality of the first cross-country race of the year is enough to get into anyone's head. And rightly so: It's unlikely that area residents have much time in the saddle this year so far.

The Spider race features a 9-mile lap course with rolling terrain and opportunities for terrific spectator viewing. Although race organizers will be adding a few twists and turns this season, the course has remained mostly unchanged since its inception nearly two decades ago.

The race includes sections that have become the stuff of legend over the years, including the Skateboard Park descent and the old Fill Yer Pants Drop. The Skateboard Park is a banking, twisty canyon descent--complete with whoops--that takes racers through some of the most scenic landscapes of Southern Idaho.

Fill Yer Pants Drop--now with an optional way around--will test even the best high-speed technical rider's abilities. Riders plummet off the top of a blind plateau into a series of steep and deep and rollers. Back in 2005, I broke my ass and one of my seat rails on this little gem.

People return again and again to this race, in part, because the course offers a little bit of everything: tight twisty downhills and rolling climbs that take them through epic desert scenery. For first-timers, getting to the race site--set against the foothills of the Owyhee Mountains, about an hour from Boise--can be a little confusing.

The course appears to head immediately north toward the Snake River, but that is a little deceiving. In fact, the course is a figure-eight style lap that meanders through several different parts of the Hemingway Butte OHV. Ultimately, racers traverse back to a long, sustained climb to the south before embarking on the aforementioned series of rip-roaring fun descents.

Wild Rockies organizer Darren Lightfield is especially excited for the 2011 race season.

"The Spider is the largest continuous mountain bike race in Idaho, with 200 to 300 participants on average," he said. "We'll be qualifying the top riders in age categories for the U.S. National Mountain Bike Championship in Sun Valley this year."

Wild Rockies regular and Joyride Cycles shop guru Phil Vega has raced the Barking Spider numerous times, noting that over the years, "It's always been a great course, fun and challenging."

Vega says that despite the occasional wind exposure on the last climb, the race is an exciting spring event.

"[It's] a great way to see where you're at fitness-wise early in the year."

The Spider--and Wild Rockies, at-large--isn't just about competition though. The organization advocates for responsible trail etiquette, youth cycling education and other charitable functions in the Boise area.

"These events don't make a profit, so we are dedicated to provide a healthy community outlet that kids and adults can participate in," Lightfield said. "Some [participants] develop a positive lifestyle that they can share with others."

One of the groups that Wild Rockies supports financially and through its volunteer efforts is the Bear Camp Freedom Riders, a Boise-based nonprofit program that teaches refugee youth life skills through mountain biking. The Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association, Eagle Bike Park and Central Idaho Mountain Biking Association are also beneficiaries of Wild Rockies events as are racers. The prize purse for professional Spider riders is $2,000, and medals will be awarded to the top three finishers in each category.

If you plan on giving the 16th iteration of the Barking Spider a whirl, head out to Hemingway Butte, 17 miles southwest of Nampa on Highway 45 off of Reynold's Creek Road. Racers should plan on 50 to 60 degree temperatures and take a spare tube, tools and plenty of water. Entry fees are $20-$45 depending on your category.

And if after the Spider you fall in love with cross-country mountain-bike racing, the rest of the 2011 Wild Rockies series includes 28 cross-country and 13 downhill categories, a trail-running option and a mountain triathlon. And there's a racing option for all ages and abilities, ranging from weekend warriors to pros.

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