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Massanutten Hoo-Ha! celebrates 20 years

By Sue George in Harrisonburg, Virginia

The Massanutten Hoo-Ha!, a mainstay on the East Coast cross country racing circuit, will celebrate its 20th annual running this Sunday, June 1 near Harrisonburg, Virginia. The event serves as a stop on the cross country USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Calendar and is a qualifier for the US National Championship coming up in mid-July in Mount Snow, Vermont. The former National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) designated classic is also the finals of the three-race Virginia Series.

"Mark Nissely, Tom Proctor, Eric Bickert were among those sitting around one Wednesday evening at a bike shop meeting and came up with the idea," said George Willetts of the Massanutten Ski Resort, which promotes the event. "They approached the Massanutten ski office and asked about running the race. They decided to do a pond jump and observed trials and dual slalom on a Saturday and cross country on Sunday."

The first event in 1989 was won by Steve Hetherington and Tora Stith. In fact, Stith won the first four women's editions. Coming from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, near Michaux State Forest, she was not deterred by Massanutten's legendary rocks. Early editions of the race were attended and sometimes also won by one of the East Coast's first professional mountain bike teams, Team Tuffy Muffler.

Race director Kenny Hess has been in charge of every edition of the race, and Willetts is his right-hand man; he spends days clearing the course that runs all over the West side of Massanutten Mountain, the namesake of the ski resort. Fortunately for him, those days are a little bit cooler ever since the race moved from its August spot on the calendar to the first weekend of June.

Talking to Willetts about the early editions of the race is like getting a crash course in the who's who of East Coast mountain biking. "Where all this came from was West Virginia. We learned from Laird Knight [of Granny Gear Productions' National Points Series - ed.] and the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association (WVMBA). It was all Matt Marcus and Laird." Knight was hired to serve as the race's emcee in 1989 and 1990. When he wasn't busy with the mike, he also competed in the observed trials.

For the 20th edition, Hoo-Ha! organizers have invited back all past winners for the weekend. "We're all going to ride Saturday in the Super D." One former multi-time winner Shawn Withers will be among those out to enjoy the Super D - an approximately 20 minute singletrack individual time trial descent from Kaylor's Knob, a high point on the Massanutten Ridge. The 4.5 mile Super D will happen the evening before the cross country, with riders departing from the top [after an hour or more ride to the top, of course] at 5:00 pm local time.

"The cross country race started out as a lap race for eight or nine years. Then Kyle Inman of the Virginia Series convinced us to adopt a point to point approach," said Willetts who competed in the very first event - taking sixth overall and second in his then-sport category.

The course has changed over the years, in part thanks to trail work by the local Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition mountain bikers and IMBA Trail Solutions. "We now have trails built by cyclists for cyclists. We want cyclists to enjoy those, and we want to showcase flowy, fun bicycles trails," said Willetts, "but there will still be some climbing."

This year's course will repeat some trail for certain categories and events. Beginners and first timers will race one lap while sports and experts will race two laps of a 10.5 mile course. The XXC, part of the West Virginia / Virginia Ultra Series, will run about 32 miles and include the main lap plus additional trail in the adjacent George Washington National Forest. The XXC will start at 9:00 am and the XC at 11:00.

Massanutten has previously hosted the UCI Downhill World Cup, and it continues to host the annual Yee Ha downhill race every spring. Last year's cross country, won by Jeff Schalk and Carolyn Popovic (Trek VW East), attracted 225 racers, despite cold and rainy conditions. Missing from this year's event will be Harrisonburg locals Sue Haywood and Jeremiah Bishop. Both pros will be contesting the World Cup in Andorra.

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