December 1, 2009
West Virginia Mountain Bike Racing
Mountain biking is a sport where anything can happen. You have to bring your own tools and do your own repairs. Accidents and mechanical malfunctions can, and do decide the outcomes of some rides and races, so you have to be familiar with your equipment, and know how to ride smooth. And most important of all, you should never give up.
When the starter shouted “Go!” 150 of the top mountain bike racers from West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland started cranking their bikes up the two mile climb that makes up the first leg of the Cooper’s Rock 30K. Sunday September 20, 2009, marked the twenty-first running of this event, making it one of the oldest annual mountain bike races in the world. The race proceeded up the pavement before entering the trails at the Cooper’s Rock State Forest entrance, near I-68 just east of Morgantown, WV.
The 2009 version of the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association Points Series Finals at Cooper’s Rock started and finished in the Henry Clay Iron Furnace picnic area, in the same spot as it did twenty-one years ago. Tommy Harris was the Henry Clay - Cooper’s Rock race promoter of the inaugural edition back in 1988. “It was the first race I put on, pretty much. The race was right around when we started WVMBA (the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association). The first year the Cooper’s Rock race was [sanctioned by] NORBA (the National Off Road Bicycle Association), but it became a part of WVMBA’s first 11 race series in 1989.”
iPlayoutside.com’s Marty Lamp summed up Harris’ reputation in the mountain bike world in his event report from 2001. “The original Henry Clay 30+K races were the product of [Morgantown] local riding legend Tommy Harris, who among many other things was also one of the founding members of WVMBA. One thousand pages could not hold the exploits of Harris on two wheels, but trust me when I say the man was, and still is, very tough. He was stretching the limits of mountain biking back in the day when bio-pace chainrings and chainstay mounted U-brakes were the latest rage, and suspension on a mountain bike was nothing more than how much pressure you put in your tires.”
If you ever attended a mountain bike race in West Virginia in the, “old days,” of the 80’s or 90’s, chances are you would have seen another guy with Tommy. He was usually wearing a tie dyed tee shirt, and had a large female parrot, named Jon-boy, sitting on his shoulder. You might even know him. He lives in Morgantown and works for WVU.
His name is Jon Leyton.
“When they invented mountain bikes, I bought the first one they brought to Morgantown. I wish they had invented suspension first! I used to be a USCF cat three road bike racer. This [mountain biking] was more fun! It was great being in on the ground floor of a new sport. We had a lot of fun!”
“I’ll never forget the time we drove that guy, who broke his two front teeth out, down from the Fat Tire Festival in Slatyfork, to Greenbank to go to the dentist’s office. We had a bottle of moonshine with us. Everyone in the dentist’s office was rolling on the floor laughing, because our friend Susan, the gynecologist had used a tampon to stop the bleeding in this guy’s mouth!”
Besides having fun and enjoying the mountain bike scene, Jon spearheaded the formation of West Virginia’s premier mountain bike club. Race promoters stopped paying NORBA to sanction the events in WV, and formed their own organization and race series by buying their own insurance and keeping the money in WV. Jon Leyton, Tommy Harris and the other founding members of the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association didn’t see the need to send money to a sanctioning body in California or Colorado just to get liability insurance to run races. West Virginians were already doing trail maintenance and land access advocacy, which the national organization, NORBA was doing nothing to support.
Jon was one of the founding Board members of the WVMBA, and served as its first president for a ten year stretch. “Trail maintenance weekends were great. We let the land managers pick projects. We had a lot of fun! Al Kerns used to be the Forest Supervisor [at Cooper’s Rock], he was great. Land Managers. Always be nice to them.”
In 1989, shortly after the WVMBA came into existence, the West Virginia DNR proposed a rule change that would have banned mountain bikes in all West Virginia State lands, including Public Hunting Areas, State Parks and State Forests (like Cooper’s Rock and Kanawha) unless the trails were designated as open to bikes. WVMBA members packed the public meetings, presented legitimate arguments and were able to successfully change the proposed negative, “closed to bikes unless posted open,” policy to the more positive, “open unless posted closed to bikes,” policy still in effect today.
This was one of the first instances of mountain bike advocates actually winning an access battle. This was at a time when federal and state agencies were quickly closing trails to bikes and there was no national advocacy organization yet able to deal with the negative and often unjustified rules making trend.
The overwhelming majority of trails on state lands in WV continue to remain open to bikes today, and provide the state with a major tourism draw, economic benefits and community health opportunities. The WV Division of Tourism was one of the first in the world to market mountain biking, and created ad campaigns that were later copied by scores of other states.
“Yes, ten years is enough for anybody,” Jon exclaimed, referring to his tenure as President of WVMBA. “It got too serious. Diplomacy was never my best suit back then.” During Jon’s years at the helm of WVMBA, WV hosted many USA Cycling National Series races, gave birth to the new genre of 24 hour mountain bike racing, and saw a growth in the WVMBA cross-country race series to an average of 15 points races a year.
In the last twenty-one years, the Cooper’s Rock trails and race course have been improved with the addition of several bridges, increased trail maintenance and many miles of newer single-track and double track dirt trails. As part of their Paydirt Program, WVMBA has tracked over three thousand hours mountain bikers have clocked, doing volunteer trail maintenance in WV in the last three years. As the trails have improved over the years, the bikes have improved also, with the addition of suspension, disc brakes and more gear choices.
In 2009, the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association (WVMBA) point series awarded points for all finishers in each of the 15 series events. The Cooper’s Rock event was the Point Series Finals, and I was tied for second place in the 45+ expert class with Mike B. Mike and I had battled it out at six races already in 2009. Whoever finished in front of the other guy in this race would clinch second place overall in the series.
This year I started at the front of the pack, but about a mile into the race, I was being passed by all of the other expert class riders. The race was not looking good for me. Mike was the first one in my class to pass me, and then came the man who won almost every event in my class in 2009, Scott R. “There’s your man,” I said to him, pointing to Mike’s back as they rode away from me up the paved climb. All Scott had to do at Cooper’s Rock was get a decent finish, and he would clinch the overall series title. If he had a bad problem, or was unable to finish, he would risk dropping back to third place overall the series.
One by one, all seven of the guys in my class passed me going up the pavement before we hit the trails putting me back in eighth place. This wasn’t looking good for my series finale!
When we hit the single-track trail, I wasn’t thinking about my position in the race any more. I was concentrating on the high speed descent down Scotts Run Trail. Thanks to the dry weather, and bermed turns on the trail, the downhill run down Scott’s was particularly fast. The course was a mix of high speed maneuvering through immovable rocks, ruts, loose rocks, roots, tight turns, narrow bridges and ledges mixed in with a couple of short climbs that would catch you in too high of a gear if you weren’t careful. I passed my friend Jason C. standing off to the side of the trail with his bike in his hands. “I blew out my rear derailleur,” he yelled as I went by, “The guy in front of me wrecked when
I was in second place!”
I turned the sharp right hand corner at the bottom of Scott’s Run, and looked up the rock strewn trail. The surface had the consistency of loose marbles on a blackboard. Low and behold. All the guys in my class were right in front of me on the climb! I could see them all!
I left the chain in the middle chainring and climbed up the loose trail, tires kicking small rocks out to the side. Going up the hill, one by one, I passed all of my fellow masters class riders, including Mike B., until only two remained. Brocc K. and Scott R. were still ahead, but once Scott disappeared over the top of the hill into the campground, I wouldn’t see him again until I crossed the finish line. Don C. caught back on my wheel on the Roadside Trail, and later we succeeded in catching Brocc. Brocc, Don and I all traded leads, and finally we all came back together just a mile or so before the finish. It looked like it was going to end up as a race for second place.
Brocc was saying something about losing air in his tires, when I ran by him on the rugged hike-a-bike section of trail next to the creek bed below the Furnace. I couldn’t hear Don behind me anymore, and I jumped on my bike, turned on the gas, and tried to put some room between my competitors and myself going up the knarly, rocky grade to the finish line. I charged up to the finish, and came across the line with neither of them in sight.
It was a close race! Scott, who won our class in one hour and 56 minutes, had only come in three minutes ahead of me. A minute and a half after I was done, Don showed up, his shoulder covered in dust and dirt. He had crashed on the super high speed descent of the Ridge Trail coming from Rock City, but was unhurt. Brocc came in a minute after Don, nursing a soft tire to take fourth in our division.
That first race back in 1988 had been a lot closer for me. When I made the final turn about 30 yards from the finish, I was handlebar to handlebar with Joe R. We were in the lead, and the overall win was on the line. We both rode over a log that was lying across the trail, locked handlebars, and Joe went down. I managed to stay up, and crossed the line first. Joe came across the line a couple of seconds later, and asked what place he had finished. When Tommy Harris told him he was second, he was surprised. He didn’t realize we were sprinting for the win.
In 1988 and 2009, I managed to finish strong, and surprise myself with the results. One thing I’ve learned at Cooper’s Rock is to never give up, because you never know what is going to happen in a mountain bike race. Mountain bike racing is a lot like life in that respect. Oh yeah, make sure to bring an extra tube, a patch kit and a pump along for the ride!
Leyton, Jon. Personal interview. 5 October, 2009.
Harris, Tommy. Personal interview. 5 October, 2009.
Lamp, Marty. “Henry Clay 30K.” iPlayoutside.com. September 9, 2001. Web. 1 October, 2009.