By Justin Steiner,
USA Cycling’s Gravity Nationals weekend wrapped up Sunday at Beech Mountain, N.C., culminating in the men’s and women’s Pro downhill races to crown new national champions. Racers of all ages and ability levels traveled from all over the country to participate in four days of dual slalom and downhill racing. Even before on-sight registration closed Saturday afternoon, attendance was said to be up around 14 percent over last year with roughly 470 race registrations for the weekend. Here’s a day-by-day recap of the highlights.
The weekend’s festivities kicked off Thursday with registration and practice on the dual slalom and downhill tracks. Check out our Pro course walk video as well as a few photos here.
Overnight storms dropped a fair bit of rain on Beech Mountain, making for moist course conditions for Cat 2 and 3 racers that morning. Not only that, but Beech Mountain’s 5,500 feet of elevation meant we were solidly within the low-slung clouds.
Beech’s starting gate is perched right at the tippy top of the mountain. Visibility here wasn’t great—we’ll call it pea soup. Here Joaquin Canizales, from Little Falls, N.J., rolls down the starting gate.
Just down course, Michael Lemon, from Pottstown, Pa., rolls over the hump below the lift house.
Here we spied our first glimpse of Green Man for the weekend. Little did we know, this would not be our only sighting of this character.
Beech Mountain’s soil is soft and loamy in the wooded sections. Fortunately, the sandy soil mix doesn’t stick to tires like a clay-heavy soil might.
Joe Olivas, from Columbus, Ohio, negotiates a tricky and slippery rock section. Olivas works to promote the Gravity East Series DH races, so it’s awesome to see him walking the walk.
Clealan Watts, from Fairview, N.C., rips through one of the many greasy grass sections on the amateur course.
Blake Bass, from Asheville, N.C., was lucky to have the clouds roll out as the day progressed, allowing for much better visibility.
It’s always nice to see a sense of humor thrown into such a serious event. William Miller, from Ocala, Fla., brought out his neon green onesie and a wig to do just that. Are costumes legal at USAC events?
In a familiar theme, storms rolled through the area again Friday night, making for damp and cloudy conditions Saturday morning. Surprisingly, both the dual slalom and downhill courses hold up beautifully thanks to primo course design by Beech Mountain’s Christopher Herndon.
Saturday’s main feature event was the Pro dual slalom. Fans turned out in droves to see how the men and women would stack up.
Stars and stripes flying proud above Beech Mountain’s dual slalom course.
Pro womens riders Jacqueline Harmony, from Sedona, Ariz., and Katelyn Parhiala, from Arlington, Mass., duke it out for third. Harmony came out on top.
Brian Buell, from Jamestown, Colo., and Ben Calhoun, from Pittsboro, N.C., crank out of one the tight berms on the upper portion of the dual slalom course.
Cody Kelley, from Riverton, Utah, sprints out of the gate against Buell.
It all came down to Neko Mulally, from Reading, Pa., and Blake Carney, from Camarillo, Calif., in the finals. Mulally edged Carney out for the National Championship title. Their finals runs were epically tight, check out the final gate below.
Sunday is the big day for Pro downhill racers and spectators alike. As we had come to expect, rain fell overnight, making for the most damp track conditions of the weekend for the final Cat 1 and Pro practice sessions this morning. Cat 1 racers bore the brunt of wet track as conditions dried out rapidly for the Cat 1 Junior 17-18 (Junior Expert) riders, Pro Women, and Pro Men.
Amber Price, from Westminster, Colo., started the Pro Women down the mountain.
Melissa Buhl, from Chandler, Ariz., rolls through the upper woods section. Buhl finished second overall.
Pro Women’s champion Jacqueline Harmony, from Sedona, Ariz., claimed the title with over nine seconds to spare.
The Cat 1 Junior 17-18 riders always put on a good show. Here Bas Van Steenbergen rails a berm in the upper section of woods.
Here Cat 1 Junior 17-18 rider Cody Kelley slips and slides his way through the rock garden to a third place finish.
Watching the Pro Men dance through the rock garden is simultaneously inspiring and disheartening as they make it look so easy you’re left wondering why you’re just so damn slow through the same section. Here Bradley Benedict, from Morgan Hill, Calif., makes it look so easy.
Eliot Jackson, from Westlake Village, Calif., makes the same section look even easier. Jackson was flying to a third place finish.
It’s not all roses, however. There was no shortage of Pro riders going down or getting off in the rocks making the rest of us feel human too.
And, of course, Aaron Gwin was on hand to show everyone how it was done. Gwin bounded so effortlessly through the rocks I wondered if he was even riding the same course as the rest of us. I guess you can’t expect anything less from someone who is so thoroughly dominating the World Cup.
Juniors, left to right: Ray Syron, Cole Picchiottino, Alexander Willie, Cody Kelley, Lucas Cowan.
Pro women, left to right: Lauren Daney, Melissa Buhl, Jacqueline Harmony, Jaime Rees, Katie Holden.
Pro Men, left to right: Logan Binggeli, Neko Mulally, Aaron Gwin, Eliot Jackson, Kevin Littlefield.
All said and done, I’m impressed with everything about this weekend’s racing. Beach Mountain is a beautiful venue with two wonderfully designed downhill tracks and what appeared to be an equally nice dual slalom course. Watching, and riding with, some of the best riders in the country was a truly humbling and inspiring experience.
From a personal perspective, my riding game was elevated simply by participating at the national level and being pushed by the stellar athletes surrounding me. If you’re looking to take the next step in your career, it’s high time you purchase a USA Cycling license to work toward qualifying for the national competition. What better excuse to travel someplace new to race your bicycle?
USA Cycling runs a pretty tight ship and they certainly seemed to have everything pretty well organized. If you plan to race a national level event, be sure you understand the rules and regulations prior to your arrival. See all final results here.
The 2013 and 2014 Gravity Nationals Championships will be held at Angel Fire Resort and Bike Park in New Mexico.
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