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Christopher Kolnik, 36, of Phoenix, finishes the Fire on the Rim race with a time of 1:56.

The annual Fire on the Rim Mountain Bike Race in Pine attracted more riders this year than ever in its seven-year history.

The event could never seem to surpass the 300-rider mark, but this year blew past that and all expectations with 345 riders.

Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction Trails Committee members Roland Maier said if the event gets any bigger, they’ll need a bigger venue.

Announcers said the course is one of the most challenging races in Arizona and they predicted their would be plenty of carnage on the 15-mile course, which loops around Pine, making a grueling climb up Hardscrabble Road, north to Strawberry and then looping south on rocky, technical singletrack to the finish.

Repeat riders said it was one of the most spirited races to date.

Matt Sopeland, 42, of Payson, has ridden Fire on the Rim a handful of times, but said this year the field was incredibly competitive, pushing him to complete the 15-mile course in one hour and 20 minutes — putting him second in the adult male group.

He said he stuck with the same five riders from the start, jockeying for the top spot. He was neck and neck for first until the very end when one of the tires went flat on his Santa Cruz Tallboy. He managed to reach the finish anyway, but couldn’t quite keep up.

Sopeland, a local builder, said he started riding 10 years ago to get in shape. Today, he rides on average of three times a week.

His favorite trails in Rim Country include the unofficial 200 Trail at the end of Phoenix Street; the Highline Trail from the 260 Trailhead and Horton Creek Trail.

While Sopeland barely broke a sweat on the Fire on the Rim trail, as other riders finished Saturday their reactions ranged from “that was painful” to “awesome!”

Jerry Baker, 36, who used to own Payson Athletic Center many years ago, said he loves riding Fire on the Rim. He competes in a handful of races each year and said he likes the downhill section outside of Strawberry best. It was just after this section that Baker wrecked, losing his first place position.

This year, Baker said he could definitely tell there were more racers and better riders.

He finished sixth in the 15-mile ride.

Another rider, 49 years old, who didn’t stop long enough to give his name, said this was his fourth time competing and he had broken his heart rate record at 173 beats per minute and shaved five minutes off last year’s time.

On the junior race, Holly Shelander looked on anxiously as she waited for her 13-year-old daughter Zoe Lee to finish. The family used to live in Payson and relocated to Flagstaff several years ago. There, Zoe started riding mountain bikes competitively. She now ranks fourth in the state among eighth-grade girls in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association of Arizona.

Zoe came in first among the junior women on Saturday with a time just over two hours.

Contact the reporter at abechman@payson.com

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