A surprising twist of fate on Burl-Mil Park’s dirt bike trails

by Jordan Green

Will Hoffarth, a 20-year-old Lees-McRae College student, plunges down the slope they call the “Devil’s Drop,” closely pursued by Charlie Pendry, a member of the Inland BTD team, in the second lap of the July Sizzler pro-expert mountain bike race on Sunday. A third rider, Inland BTD’s Charlie Storm, struggles to keep pace.

The drop is the most technical aspect of the course, which runs over sloped meadows, rounds a pond, and hugs Lake Brandt in a rough dirt trail full of planks, exposed roots and banked curves before emerging on the paved greenway for the final sprint to the finish line. The pro-expert men and women will round the course three times to complete a 24-mile race. Less advanced categories such as “sport,” “junior,” “beginner,” “Clydesdale” (riders 200 pounds or heavier) and “masters” (riders 50 years or older) are covering one or two laps in races respectively eight and 16 miles long.

The drop begins at a break in the fence between two poplar trees with exposed roots crossing the path and a deepening gash in the soft dirt near the bottom where the riders veer right to stay on the gravel path that leads to the lakeside stretch.

Several riders will lose control at the bottom, laying their bikes down in a nasty skid that tears flesh from arms and legs, or throwing a shoulder into the roadway as fellow cyclists swerve to avoid piling up. One of the riders hits the gravel roadway so hard his back tire blows out in a sharp blast. Hoffarth, Pendry and Storm are the fastest; they neither brake nor falter at the bottom, swooping gracefully through the drop, and maintaining momentum for the tough climb onto the Owl’s Roost Trail along Lake Brandt.

“By the time you get through the field you’re so wasted that you just free fall,” says Derik Broach, a 33-year-old volunteer with the Greensboro Fat Tire Society who has spent the previous day getting the trails in shape for the races. “You kind of ease down. Why people bust is they try to brake at the bottom instead of going with the movement.”

Oftentimes in mountain bike racing, a sport where the trails tend to be narrow and treacherous, riders pay each other the courtesy of honoring a request to pass from a faster competitor; a slow rider who bottlenecks the course can expect payback during the next race. So it is a thrilling spectacle for the bystanders to watch Pendry cut to the right at the beginning of the Owl’s Roost Trail to take a steeper, more direct route over gnarled roots to overtake Hoffarth. It’s a gutsy move, especially considering that more cautious riders who took the drop slow find themselves walking their bikes up the incline.

The pass will turn out to be one of a series of reversals in a race that will end in oblivion for these two, with Pendry’s startled teammate Storm finding himself an unexpected champion.

Hoffarth will recount after the race: “I just held to his wheel the whole second lap.”

“I can’t keep doing this, dude,” Hoffarth recalls Pendry telling him. “I’ve got tendonitis.”

Hoffarth shot back an expletive conveying utter skepticism that someone with such a competitive streak would so easily forfeit the race. Was Pendry trying to get him to let down his guard so he could shake him loose?

“I passed him,” he says later. “He pushed me hard, and that gave me a couple extra minutes on Charlie [Storm].”

Pendry will stay true to his word and drop out before the end of the race. Hoffarth, who says this was his first time on this course, rides into the parking lot at the end of the third lap, neglecting a final meander through the woods, around a pond and into the flagged path leading to the finish line. By the time he realizes his error eight riders have crossed the line.

So it’s somewhat surreal and anticlimactic when roughly an hour after the flashy Pendry-Hoffarth pass, Charlie Storm grinds out a finish with no riders in sight in front of him and no sign of competition from behind. He pedals farther up the grassy hill and rests on his bike, leaning against a section of orange plastic storm fencing as a volunteer rushes over to write down his racing number.

“It’s lonely being first,” she says.

“I wasn’t first,” Storm replies flatly.

“You were the first to cross the line.”

“Where’d they go?” he asks.

With Pendry and Hoffarth out of the running, it’s Storm’s race. With a time of one hour 23 minutes and 48 seconds, the 29-year-old bicycle shop owner from Sanford finishes well over a minute ahead of second-placed Darrell Prillaman. The next three finishers cross the line a half minute later at 10-second intervals. Among them is Rob Moran, also 29, a pediatric dentist who competes along with Storm and Pendry for Inland BTD. The team takes its name from Inland Construction Co., a Raleigh commercial contractor that sponsors the riders. The initials BTD stand for “back to dirt.”

While teams do not earn standings based on their members’ performances, Inland BTD imposes a formidable presence, with Storm and Moran respectively taking first and third place in the men’s pro-expert race, and team member Greg Hales taking third place in the 16-mile men’s sport race.

For his part, Hoffarth is happy to get some training. He says he is looking forward to competing in some national races this year, insisting he does not begrudge Storm his win.

The twenty-something professionals are not the only riders turning heads.

Just before the nine o’clock start of the junior men’s race for males 18 years and younger, the crowd is yelling, “Go, Jordan!” That would Jordan Spoon, a 16-year-old rider from Kernersville who currently claims the No. 1 ranking for juniors 18 years or younger by USA Cycling, an organization maintained for the purpose of selecting cyclists to represent the United States in international competition.

His uncle has staked out a spot a hundred yards or so from where the last of woodland trail spills onto the greenway before the final stretch. A slender boy dressed in a red shirt, Spoon appears out of nowhere, powering his bike along with unflagging energy and smiling with confidence.

“All right, Jordan,” says the uncle, who is ecstatic. “Way to smoke! He passed eighteen year olds.”

Spoon finishes the eight-mile race in 30 minutes and 58 seconds, averaging 15.5 mph. Both he and Cody Chandler, also 16, best the top finisher in the 17-18 year old category.

Despite the professional aspirations and the attainment of sponsorships by the best riders, mountain biking is “more grassroots” and “more accessible” than its more disciplined cousin road racing, says Dale Brown, co-promoter of the July Sizzler and owner of the Greensboro bike shop Cycles de Oro.

The Harveys of Charlotte exemplify the family spirit of the sport. Maria Harvey, as the only contender in her category, takes first place for the women’s 16-mile in the 40 years and older bracket. Maria’s husband John, whom she describes as “competitive,” takes eighth place in the Clydesdale race. Their sons, 9-year-old Richard and 7-year-old Will, have ridden in most of the Cane Creek Cup races, a series not unlike NASCAR in which riders accumulate points over the season at independently promoted events across the Carolinas.

Richard places third today in the five-mile race for boys 12 years and younger.

His younger brother has a tougher time of it.

Attempting to overcome the root-covered entry to the Owl’s Roost Trail he slams on his brakes to avoid running over a copperhead.

“Snake!” he yells, dropping his bike on the side of the trail. “Last time I rode with my mom. I want my mom.”

As the brown and silver snake with diamond patterns along its back slithers toward the lake Will bucks up his courage and starts to walk the bike back towards the meadow where most of the people are gathered.

“Yesterday we came out to pre-ride the course and his bike slipped off the bridge and he fell face down in the mud,” Maria Harvey says later. “He was mad. I said I liked to look for animals in the woods, to get him back into it. So he said he saw a crocodile in the lake.”

She has her doubts about the existence of the crocodile, but riders have attested to other animal sightings, including deer, a turtle large enough to block the path and a heron that occupies the center of a lake next to the greenway.

“Mountain bike racing is more people friendly,” Brown says. “In road racing, if you don’t do well they blow the whistle on you. That’s the cruel reality. Mountain biking tends to be more individualized, and it’s full blast from the gun.”

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