SPOKANE, Wash. The path loomed ahead a narrow, gritty trail pockmarked with roots, rocks and tree branches.
But none of the bikers was the least bit fazed. With their fat tires, clip-in shoes and moisture-wicking jerseys, all 200 of them at High Bridge Park were raring to hammer the singletrack.
''It's more fun than a human is allowed to have,'' said Katie Boerner of Naples, Idaho. ''It's so exhilarating.''
Riders from all over Washington and Idaho gathered at this park near downtown Spokane for the fifth annual McMud Fest, a cross-country race for mountain bikers of all ages and abilities.
The event is the first of a seven-part race series organized by Round and Round, a Spokane-based sports event management company. McMud so named because it happens at a rainy time of year, producing muddy trail conditions required riders to circle a craggy, undulating 3.5-mile loop around the park for at least an hour, depending on their race category.
It's the ideal course early in the season, especially for those who didn't train much during the winter, said Wendy Bailey, owner of Round and Round. ''We try to break them in easy,'' she said, pointing out that the short loop has only 100 feet of elevation change. ''It's also a great course for beginners.''
On this cold, wintry day with temperatures dipping into the 30s, the only warm place for the shivering riders was on their bike seats, pedaling fast enough to boost their heart rates and thaw their bodies.
Compared to road biking, which has been glamorized by Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France, mountain bike riding is often considered a rough-and-tumble sport that draws few spectators.
But those who prefer off-road riding are more laid-back, they say they don't mind the dirt, the dust and the many obstacles that could force them to do a Superman over the handlebars. They maneuver through crags, hop over tree branches and ignore the splash of mud and water on their calves as they cross narrow streambeds.
''These people are serious,'' said Dave West, who drove from the Tri-Cities to take part in Saturday's event.
An avid rider, the event was his first race ever. But instead of competing against the first-timers or even the beginners, he entered the sport class. ''I didn't want to get caught with the slower people who might fall off their bikes,'' explained the 31-year-old forklift operator from Richland.
Riders raced in heats, based on their age groups. While many were in their 20s and 30s, the crowd included young kids who raced on a smaller course with help from their parents, as well as bikers well into their 50s and 60s, and perhaps older.
Some hit the trail at higher gears, muscling through with their powerful quads. Others preferred to spin at a lower gear, saving their energy for that final, speedy lap.
For experts like Justin Hofeldt of Post Falls, Idaho, who owns a Kona that costs as much as some people's cars, mountain biking is really about racing against the course. You have to have balance and technical skills to maneuver through the rocks and twists in the road, especially when it's downhill, he explained. ''But that's the fun part,'' said the 31-year-old, a member of the Vertical Earth racing team.
Like many mountain bike races, McMud drew a mostly male contestant field. Only about 25 of the 200 participants were women.
''It's a rough, intimidating sport,'' admitted Erika Krumpelman, another Vertical Earth race team member and one of only two females who competed in the expert division.
When she first started racing six years ago, she was so nervous that she once got off the trail to let some aggressive male riders pass by, Krumpelman recalled. Now, she gets right in the middle, racing against her husband, Doug, unaffected by all the aggression on the course.
''As you improve, you build up self-confidence,'' she explained. ''The more I rode, the more I enjoyed the challenge. I really like pushing myself.''
Boerner, who's 54, started mountain bike riding two years ago after spending decades as a ''roadie.'' She used to be scared of falling until she actually crashed one day after a branch got stuck in a wheel spoke. She could hardly breathe after her handlebars struck her in the ribs.
But she was relieved to get that fall over with. Now she rides with wild abandon, smelling the pine trees and reveling in the outdoors.
''It's one of those sports that you have to give everything inside of you,'' said Boerner, a registered nurse. ''It's demanding but so much fun.''
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