A week before Saturday’s Fire on the Rim mountain bike race, volunteers gathered early in the morning at the Ponderosa Market parking lot in Pine. They’ve come together to prepare the trail for some of the best mountain bikers in the West — and raise money to protect Pine and Strawberry from wildfires at the same time.
Scott Davidson organized this volunteer event. He runs an informal trail building group called the Payson Area Single Track Association (PASTA), which hopes challenging, bike-friendly trails and a good turnout will finally put Rim Country on the map for mountain bikers — a potentially vital constituency for an area that relies on outdoor tourism.
Moreover, PASTA partnered with the Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee to sponsor this potentially game-changing race.
The event will help to pay for continued fuel reduction efforts, say organizers. One of the race organizers and member of the Fuel Reduction Committee, Mike Blaes, volunteers with Davidson this morning.
“OK, we’ll divide up the racecourse. One area to work is the Randall Ranch section — it’s pretty flat. The other is a steep decline from the back of the ranch to Ralls Road, then there’s the Pine-Strawberry trailhead. The monsoons have made quite a bit of damage we need to repair,” said Davidson.
The partnership between the local bikers and residents worried about the threat of wildfires roaring out of thick forests seems a natural for an area where forested recreation is a major draw.
Wildfires are the only natural disaster that can destroy the communities of the Rim Country. In past years, government grants covered the costs of thinning forests to reduce fuel for fires.
“We’ve spent between $8 and $10 million on fuel reduction in the past years. Now, with the current economic downturn, those grants are disappearing,” said Blaes.
To continue their work, the Fuel Reduction Committee cast about for ideas on how to maintain funding their efforts, said Blaes.
The committee met Davidson through local bike shop owner Mick Wolf. Davidson, a tall, gentle soul, teaches science and engineering to Rim Country Middle School students in his daily life. On the weekends, when he can spare the time, he heads out into the forest to convert existing hiking into single-track mountain biking trails because he has a passion for mountain biking and fixing up trails gives him more places to ride.
While working on the trails around Pine, members of the Fuel Reduction Committee approached Davidson and his group to help build trails for the race. Davidson, immediately saw the benefit and offered to help in any way.
“I’ve never seen a group go so quickly from feeling so-so about an idea to embracing it wholeheartedly in less than a year,” said Davidson.
The reason for their excitement? The potential to make the race and Pine a mountain biking Mecca.
Mountain bikers constantly search for new and exciting terrain to challenge their skills and stamina. The Rim Country remains virtually undiscovered by mountain bikers.
With his connections to the Mountain Biking Association of Arizona, Davidson got the word out about this race quickly, he said.
“I’ve heard there are posters about this event in bike shops in California and Oregon,” said Blaes.
It’s all about the trail, though. If the bikers aren’t challenged, they won’t want to come back.
Davidson and his crew worked over the summer to hew out the major portions of the trail. The ideal single-track trail for mountain bikers will follow contour instead of heading straight up a hillside and will remain free from boulders, roots and ruts that can cause a nasty fall for hurtling riders. That makes many of rutted roads and ATV trails unsuited for mountain bikers.
This morning, the volunteers will do more housekeeping than major building: removing baseball sized rocks from the trail, clearing sticks that could jam the spoke of a tire and smoothing out gullies created by the rushing waters from monsoon rains.
The volunteers divide into three groups. Davidson takes a group of middle school students and recently graduated high school students. Blaes partners up with Bruce Weidenhamer, and Pat McLaughlin heads up a third group.
Weidenhamer is the chief trails technical adviser of Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona and functions as their lead instructor for trail training. He also volunteers and does training for the Arizona Trail Association. McLaughlin stewards parts of the Washington Park Trail and spends days in a week throughout the Rim Country repairing trails. This race has inspired some heavy-hitters in the world of trail volunteering to pitch in to make this trail safe and challenging for the racers.
Driving to the trailheads, the cars full of volunteers pass packs of mountain bikers roaming the streets of Pine. Excitement fills the air as everyone wonders what is possible. How many people will come? Will they stay, eat and shop? Can this race stimulate the outdoor recreation market? Will mountain bikers discover the Rim Country and make it another Mecca for the sport?
McLaughlin and his group head up Ralls Road to a section marked off by arrows. Part of the race will wind down Ralls Road to the Pine-Strawberry Trail. Parking his truck and walking up the trail to meet up with Blaes and Weidenhamer, McLaughlin and his group pass mountain bikers testing out the trail before the race.
Jason Allen came up from Phoenix to pre-ride the racecourse. “It’s beautiful out here. I’m training for the Barn Burner race in Flagstaff. Instead of driving all the way up there, I decided to try this place out. I had no idea this was here,” said Allen.
“Great! Hope you enjoy the trail,” said McLaughlin.
“This trail certainly isn’t a beginners trail. I’m getting a workout. Thanks for the work you do,” said Allen, before taking off to finish his ride.