It's difficult to imagine a place better suited to hosting the first internationally sanctioned World Mountain Bike Championships than one called Purgatory, for rarely in the history of sport have so many traveled so far to suffer so much, all with heaven so clearly in sight. More than 800 riders from 24 countries showed up last week for the championships of a sport that didn't even exist 15 years ago—unless you want to count certain jollier moments of the Inquisition—and the only consolation for all their suffering was that the competition took place in a setting of such surpassing beauty as to make exquisite even the tortures of the damned.
The two events for which the Union Cycliste Internationale had decided to award its world championship rainbow jersey at the Purgatory ski area outside Durango, Colo., were the downhill and the cross-country. The UCI is a group of toe-clipped bureaucrats not generally known to esteem the sort of person who might greet one of them with the words "Hey, face!" Which is to say, most mountain bikers, a group whose number in the U.S. stood at only 200,000 in 1983 and since then has soared to nearly 15 million. Trends indicate that this year, for the first time, more mountain bikes will be sold in the U.S. than standard road bikes.
The favorite in the men's cross-country race—a 32.4-mile grind both gruesome and glamorous, with 1,200 feet of elevation changes on each of its four laps—was 35-year-old Ned Overend of Durango. A three-time national champion, Overend more or less explained the race's limited appeal early in the week when he admiringly described another American rider as "a guy who knows how to suffer." Overend warmed up last Thursday for the big race by finishing second to Britain's Tim Gould in a four-mile hill climb up 1,470 vertical feet of the Purgatory ski slope to a finish line at 10,420 feet. The event is so overtly masochistic that even the UCI wouldn't sanction it.
The downhill attracted the sort of adventurers who rode into Durango 110 years ago when it was a frontier mining town. On Sept. 11 a downhiller fractured his neck and hand during a training run. Two days later Philippe Perakis of Switzerland qualified second for the men's race and then promptly went back out and broke his hand in practice. Greg Herbold saw Perakis moments before his accident. "The way he was riding scared me half to death," Herbold said.
The next morning Herbold saw another rider go down in a terrifying end-over-end crash on the fastest part of the downhill course and listened to his agonized screams until the rider was carried off on a stretcher with a shattered clavicle. "It shakes you up," Herbold said. Only by making his mind go completely blank could Herbold himself go thundering down the steep, 2.86-mile course in 6:37.75, more than three seconds faster than anyone else in the race. "I was going as smooth as you can go and still be touching the ground," he said.
The women's downhill winner was Cindy B. Devine of Canada. Devine once rode a bike around the world, but she didn't start racing until three years ago, and it took her a year to get over her terror of going downhill. Finally, she crashed and underwent knee surgery, which for some reason rid her of her fear. Devine's margin of victory was just .35 of a second over her countrywoman Elladee Brown, who is 19 and fearless.
"You have to be confident enough not to pull the brakes," said Brown. "Sometimes even when my brakes are on I try to pedal. But you don't have to crash and burn to be good."
Brown knows this because her parents gave her a motorcycle when she was five. "I had a head-on collision with a tractor when I was nine and broke my femur," she said, "so I kind of mellowed on the motorcycles." Elladee be fast, but Cindy B. Devine.
Though the U.S. racers dominated these first world championships, the success of the Canadians and of several Europeans made it clear that the rest of the world has embraced this new American sport. Even Bangladesh entered a contingent of 13 riders. That, however, was evidently before someone pointed out that Bangladesh is situated on a flood plain and, significantly, has no known mountains. Apparently the Bangladeshi had second thoughts about their chances, because none of the 13 showed up.
The organizers of last week's mountain bike summit didn't let such minor setbacks discourage them. They provided all the necessary amenities to the national delegations, including a team of translators that was standing by to intercede at the first sign of a foreign accent. At midweek, when a rider approached the registration desk to pick up her credentials, she spoke in such a thick accent that the volunteer behind the desk called for an interpreter. The rider and interpreter were eventually able to communicate with each other, and when they finished talking, the interpreter returned to her desk and announced that the woman was from Alabama and therefore beyond her help.
No interpreters were needed on Sunday, as 23-year-old Juliana Furtado, a former member of the U.S. ski team, led an American sweep of the women's 24.3-mile cross-country race. Furtado's tendency to self-destruct in reckless descents gave the world's top woman rider, Sara Ballantyne of Colorado, all the reason she needed to hang back. "I usually stay behind her and wait for her to go into a pile of rocks," Ballantyne said.
But Furtado took the descents more conservatively than usual, after having nearly lost control of her bike on the way to a fifth-place finish in the downhill. "I scared myself to death in the downhill," she said. "I almost endo'd. There was no way I was going to do that again." She didn't, and defeated Ballantyne, her closest pursuer, by 2½ minutes.
Overend appeared to be having considerably more trouble shaking Thomas Frischknecht of Switzerland in the men's cross-country, but even Frischknecht seemed to know it was only a matter of time before Overend left him. Twice he beat Overend to the start/finish line to collect the premiums awarded to the leader at the end of each lap. "He was saying, 'I'll take the preems and you'll probably take the medal,' " Overend recalled later. "So I think he knew I was stronger than he was."
Overend knew the race was his to win during a long hill climb on the third lap, when he realized Frischknecht had dismounted and was pushing his bike up the hill. "He wasn't running; he was walking," Overend said later. "I could hear his footsteps."
After that it was just a matter of being careful not to become Ned (End) Over-end as he built a 2½-minute lead during the final lap. All that remained for Frischknecht was what seemed like an eternity in Purgatory.