By Eddie Clark
(September 10, 2011) BEECH MOUNTAIN, NC.—In returning to the East Coast, dual slalom and especially downhill racers were greeted with ample moisture that is common place in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. During the week preceding the big show, rain clouds drenched Beech Mountain to create challenging muddy conditions during downhill practice sessions and dual slalom qualifications.
Fortunately, Saturday saw a return of drying sunshine which turned the dual slalom course into a very desirable and perfectly tacky 778 foot long course for the finals on Saturday. To state it bluntly, Chris Herndon and company did a fantastic job in creating a near perfect course for the dual slalom national championship, which drew thankful accolades from all of the racers. Some very impressive racing went down as junior’s and cat1’s battled through elimination rounds that lead to action packed finals.
With the crowd cheering nearing a crescendo, the pro’s took the stage and upped the ante with an option to hit two alternate big doubles which were closed off during the previous racing. To little surprise, former BMX Olympian and 2010 4-cross national champ Jill Kintner (Red Bull/Transition Bikes) came out swinging, and decidedly advanced through all her runs into the finals which she also convincingly won. Vixen Racing teammates Darian Harvey and Jacky Harmony also put on a nail-biter of a show in the semi finals that saw Harvey advance and Harmony going into the small finals to claim the bronze medal.
The pro men were last to race, and in doing so put on an excellent show for the boisterous and supportive spectators who lined the course 5 to 6 people deep in places. Notably and hopefully, America has a new generation of riders in its ranks that are steeped in talent and the drive needed to succeed in the World Cup arena. No place else was this more obvious than on this evening as the top three finishers were all under twenty years of age.
Namely, 2009 4-cross national champion, Mitch Ropelato (Oakley SPS North America), literally attacked the course heat after heat with savage determination and graceful precision to deftly advance into the finals which he narrowly won by hundredths of a second. In his first ever dual slalom 18 year old Neko Mullaly (Trek World Racing) took to the air by jumping both doubles in almost every heat to claim the dual slalom silver medal. 17 year old Cody Kelly (Café Rio), a former teammate friend and training partner of Ropelato, let his talent shine by claiming the bronze medal over Logan Bingelli (KHS) in the small finals.
“Herndon did a really good job with the course, it was just flowy” said Kintner to which Ropelato added, “Yeah, it was a real good course. You could pump the corners, it had real snappy tight turns, and it had cool jumps”.
On Saturday night and into Sunday morning the skies dropped buckets of rain totaling close to 5 inches onto Beech Mountain, and the course turned into a ridiculously muddy mess for the early morning practice. By all accounts it was already a very demanding run with very tricky rock gardens on the top half and slick off camber grass and jumps on the bottom. By the numbers, it dropped 752 feet in elevation in less than 2 miles.
The pro women’s race saw world cup contenders doing battle against the track and challenging conditions. Jacky Harmony had an excellent race to finish within 2 seconds of Jill Kintner who claimed her second gold medal in as many days.
In the pro men’s race, all eyes were on World Cup winner Aaron Gwinn (Trek World Racing) who clocked an astounding 12 second gap over the field on his qualifier run the previous day. Undeterred, Logan Bingelli got to work early and took several extra practice runs to capitalize on the drastically different conditions from Saturdays qualifiers. The practice paid off in spades as Bingelli set the fastest pro men’s time for the day. Meanwhile, Gwinn crashed at the drop-in to the rock garden while trying to get clipped back in to a mud jammed pedal, but still finished fast enough to claim second place. Mitch Ropelato also unleashed a great run which earned him the bronze medal.
As further notice of the new generation of American gravity racers, Neko Mullaly, who was required by USAC to race in the junior’s 17-18 category, claimed his second gold medal with a time that would have also been first in the pro men’s race.