Windham, New York: The Little Mountain That Could
By: Chris Lesser
When the UCI announced its 2010 World Cup race schedule last month, the biggest question on the minds of racers, teams and fans was a simple one: “Where in the hell is Windham Mountain?”
The small resort in the Catskills doesn’t have a long history with mountain bikes, but it does have a few things going for it—such as its close proximity to New York City, just 2.5 hours from JFK International Airport. As importantly, it’s just a day’s drive from Mont-Sainte-Anne, where the 2010 World Cup finals will be held the week after the Windham World Cup finals—which will include XC, DH and 4X events.
The U.S. hasn’t seen a World Cup mountain bike event since Angel Fire, New Mexico, in 2005—a race plagued by poor attendance from European teams and fans alike that was expected to run again in 2006, until the mountain pulled out. Windham organizers say attendance won’t be an issue.
“There are millions of people in the New Jersey/Metro-New York area,” says Windham Mountain Events Manager Rick Hodge. “And there could conceivably be upwards of 20,000 people in attendance that weekend.”
With 1,600 feet of vertical, the mountain cut its downhill course for the 2008 East Coast Nationals of the now-defunct National Mountain Bike Series. The course came together in just two months, but garnered rave reviews from racers.
That positive athlete feedback was critical to Windham getting the bid, says UCI technical delegate Simon Burney, who oversaw the mountain’s official site inspection.
“[Windham has] been proven as a suitable venue for U.S. domestic racing,” Burney said. “It has a huge population within a couple of hours, a lot of beds available, a ski mountain to take advantage of and a great ski lodge that is certainly large enough to cope with all the infrastructure required.”
The process began last September at the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas, where Hodge and USA Cycling’s mountain bike events and program director Kelli Lusk met with Peter Van den Abeele, the UCI’s mountain bike co-coordinator.
“It was important that the World Cup came back to the USA; it’s a country at the heart of the sport with a great history…it’s been too long,” Burney added.
Windham proved itself last year with the East Coast Nationals, and its first chance to again show the world it has what it takes came just weeks after its place on the 2010 World Cup schedule was announced. Though it was just a small regional race series stop, a DH and dual-slalom Gravity East Series on June 27-28, it was plagued with problems. Race organizers called it a perfect storm.
For starters, the paperwork to sanction the race with USA Cycling was never submitted—a fact not discovered until the race was already underway. Cue confusion. To make matters worse, many of the 196 racers that showed up expected to run the World Cup DH track, but instead they got a slightly less-challenging course, made all the more mediocre by a month’s worth of rain and mud.
And to add insult to injury, the first three podium spots for the pro-class DH category were rewarded with nothing more than a commemorative pint glass, since no one had secured the prize purse for the event. (Prize purses have since been paid out.)
“We had 11 inches of rain in the 10 days before the race, and we had a lot of things that didn’t go right,” said Windham’s Hodge. “Some were our responsibility, some were not, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse.”
Instead, Hodge says he’s trying to get his team up to speed for the next event—a double header in mid-August combining the Kenda Cup Pro XCT cross-country race with the Yankee Clipper, which includes DH, Super D and 4X races.
To show it’s serious about doing racing right, Windham is bringing in a ringer, and has hired Jeff Frost of Blue Wolf Events to serve as a consultant and technical director for the Windham World Cup. In addition to running his own national mountain bike race series in the past, he held the title of technical director at five previous U.S. World Cup events—twice at Napa, twice at Mount Snow, and once at Telluride.
“Obviously, we know how important it is to have this [next] race go smoothly. I’m the event manager, but Frosty—he’s the guru. We decided to get him on board this August to help guide us through the next 12 months,” said Hodge. “We’re going to do what it takes and are willing to spend the money to do things right.”
“They’re new at this, but they know that they don’t know everything, and they’re ready to do what it takes. They want to make it perfect,” Frost said. “I think this will be an unbelievable opportunity for cycling, for mountain biking, and for the country. I worked at the World Cup at [nearby] Hunter Mountain, and that was just awesome. It was so easy for athletes and teams to get in and out.”
Frost has already worked with Windham as the organizer for last year’s East Coast Nationals, and will be making a half-dozen extended trips to the mountain in the coming year.
“I feel they’re in pretty good shape for the upcoming August event. They’ve hired Team Big Bear for timing and scoring, and they learned a lot of lessons from the [Gravity East Series] race in June.”
Frost said he is working on getting well-known and respected athletes to create signature World Cup courses for the 4X, DH and XC tracks, and will live on-site at Windham for the end of next summer leading up to the World Cup.
// T-Minus 12 Months //
In addition to signing on Frost, the operations staff of Windham recently took a field trip to the World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne to see how it’s done by a venue that’s been at it for 19 straight years.
“It’s a huge financial commitment from Windham Mountain to take on this kind of event,” Hodge said. “It’s a huge investment, from the inscription fees to making sure the garbage cans are emptied. The prize purse alone is $50,000.”
Whether it’s dealing with trash collection or fielding phone calls from as far afield as the Uganda Cycling Association, as he did last month, Hodge and his team have their work cut out.
“Provided that the [Gravity East Series race] was a learning experience, I think the East Coast scene will rally around Windham,” said Todd Seplavy, co-owner of Evil Bikes and Board of Trustees member for USA Cycling. “Sometimes you have to take one on the chin, and I think that’s what they’ve done here. And the good news is that from an event-planning perspective, they’ve got an eon to get things fixed.”
Seplavy added that after running the mud-bogged course at Windham during the Gravity East Series race, he ranks it among the all-time worst track conditions he’s ever seen.
“It rained 27 of 30 days in June in New York, and any time that happens, you overburden the timing company, and the racers, the people and equipment out there getting soggy, that never helps,” said Seplavy. “But the venue is more than adequate, and the bottom line is that the East Coast race scene can support a World Cup race—there are enough active riders here to ensure we’ll have a solid fan base representing.”
/// Contemplating a Future in Freeride ///
Beyond just preparing for the Yankee Clipper/Kenda Cup race in mid-August, Windham Mountain is looking at the big picture, and considering how to use the World Cup event to springboard the mountain into the sport.
“At one point we had a rental fleet and trails top to bottom, all over the mountain. But it was something that the prior management never embraced,” says Tim Woods, president of Windham Mountain, adding that the mountain also has hosted NORBA events in years past.
The current ownership group has been running the mountain for the last four years, and Woods says they are actively pursuing ways to create more off-season and year-round activities—and mountain biking, along with aerial zip-line tours, is high on the list because it is more weatherproof than the ski business.
“The money it took to get ready for the [2008 East Coast Nationals] was more than what we realized in revenue, but it had to be viewed as an investment,” Woods said. “We are still building infrastructure here to continue to hold events like that. This is our turnaround year.”
And if Windham is looking for a turnaround, they’ve tapped the right people. Besides Frost, representatives from Gravity Logic—the bike park consulting group created and then spun off from the Whistler Bike Park—visited Windham Mountain for three days earlier this month to walk the course and survey the terrain.
“They’re going to put a proposal for what it takes to create a true freeride park—basically what they’ve done at Winter Park and at Whistler Bike Park,” Hodge says. “We just have to find out how to make it a financial win. We want to develop recreational trails—not just a racing venue.”
Hodge said that if an agreement can be reached, the mountain will start cutting trails and prepping the mountaintop as soon as this fall. “That way, when the snow melts after next winter, we’ll be in the freeride business.”
Click HERE for more on the upcoming Kenda Cup/Yankee Clipper race August 13-16.