By Steve Medcroft
A handful of U.S. pro mountain bikers got a chance to stretch their legs against real competition for the first time at last weekend's Medalla Light Ultimate Dirt Challenge in Rincon, Puerto Rico. U.S. Cyclo-Cross National Champions Todd Wells (GT / Hyundai) and U.S. MTB National Champion Mary McConneloug (Kenda/Seven) took the UCI E1 race, scoring the first of many points the U.S. needs to increase its number of qualifying spots for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Also chasing points and getting some tropical training in advance of the UCI World Cup opener in nearby Curacao were a number of other Americans including Chris Eatough, Lea Davison and Jeremiah Bishop of the Trek/VW factory team, Adam Craig and Carl Decker of Team Giant, Mike Broderick (Kenda/Seven), and Jason Sager.
The Ultimate Bike Challenge wasn't just a cross-country race though, says thirty-two year old Doel Gonzalez; owner of the Ciclomundo West bike shop in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and member of the fifty-strong cycling club (the Contra el Viento - Against the Wind) that puts on the event. "We've been putting on the race for three years," Gonzalez said by phone on Tuesday. "Every year, we try to make it better, try to make it more interesting."
Held fifty meters from some of the world's greatest surfing beaches, promoters put on two additional attractions to complement the two-hour cross-country race. "We invited about ten dirt jumpers from the States and Canada and there were five rock bands playing on the main stage," Gonzalez said. An emcee tied all three events together. "You could watch the concert, the dirt jumps and the cross country from one spot. The announcer was always talking about everything, talking about the current standing in the race or explaining the tricks, introducing the bands."
Gonzalez says he loves that the Ultimate Dirt Challenge is getting a reputation among racers as a great, warm way to end winter. "The club has been putting on races for locals since 1984," he said. "(At first) we started the Ultimate Dirt Challenge as a way to give local riders a great race. But we've been getting a lot of elite riders from the U.S. and Canada because Rincon makes the perfect training setup. Todd (Wells, who won his third Ultimate Dirt Challenge in a row) has been here two weeks, for example. He gets to take advantage of our local course local course and the temperature. He'll leave here just in time to make the two-hour flight to Curacao for the first World Cup."
The 2007 edition of the race will be held March 25th.