It’s not about the bikes, though they are lighter and perform better and more consistenly than ever before.
It’s also not about the trails, though Tsalteshi Trails are getting enough cachet that it’s no longer rare to see out-of-state riders there.
No, the reason mountain biking at Tsalteshi has grown from one event that drew 10 riders in 2012 to weekly races — one which drew over 90 riders — that stretch from the end of June to early October is the people.
“Did I expect this?” asked Kenai’s Mike Crawford, who organized that first race in 2012. “Not at all.
“It just shows a small group of people in a small community can make quite a difference.”
And also that the small group can attract a larger group of like-minded followers. Mark Beeson, president of the Tsalteshi Trails Association and also the co-owner of Beemuns Variety, has been organizing the bike races since 2015.
He has seen numbers spike to 91 in the first race this year, 86 in the second race and 68 in the third race on Thursday.
“The biggest thing is it’s a really good group of people who come out for the races,” Beeson said. “Everybody is super encouraging.
“Everybody thinks bike racing is serious, Tour de France stuff. But really, this is a lot more like a 5K run. People are just coming out to do their best.”
Kenai’s Matt Brown may be more familiar to area sports fans as a motor sports enthusiast, but he is in his second year of doing the Soldotna Cycle Series thanks to going on a health kick.
“It’s horribly painful, but it’s fun,” Brown said.
He only made it to three of the bike races last year, but this year his goal is every bike race and every Salmon Run Series.
Brown broke a chain this week and wrecked last week, but the group keeps him coming back.
“Everyone is great out here,” he said. “They give everybody encouragement, whether you are fast or slow.”
Brown also gave Beeson credit for spending extra time to open the trails to everybody. Instead of just a 10K race, last year Beeson switched to 6K and 12k distances so more would race.
“One day I came out here by myself and got lost,” Brown said. “Mark Beeson spends a lot of time out on the course and does a great job.”
A big reason for the growth this year is the Tsalteshi Sprockets program, which started last year and teaches kids 16 and under how to mountain bike.
The brainchild of Jen Showalter, Jen Tabor and Amy Hogue, the program drew 45 last year and has about 70 riding this year. Showalter said there could have been more, but the number was capped because the program has about 20 volunteer insructors.
In that first race that drew 91, 25 Sprockets raced, and 40 kids overall raced. If the kids ramble is included, that first night drew 99 riders.
Katie Tallent of Kenai got her sons Cooper Tallent-Darling and Sailor Tallent, both 11, involved in Sprockets last year. Katie also volunteers at the bike shack for the 10-night program.
Katie said the program keeps kids motivated and having fun by organizing riders into groups based on ability, with the chance to move up over time.
“It’s word of mouth,” Katie said of the popularity of the program. “After every class, the kids say, ‘This class was better than the last class.’”
Last summer, Cooper said he jumped at the opportunity to join the program because it was a chance to make new friends. The fun of the first class quickly erased any nerves he had.
“I just like doing stuff all summer long and using all of my energy,” Cooper said.
Cooper finished second in the 6K race. Katie said that Tuesday classes preview the races for the riders, and also that Sprockets riders get to race for free.
“It gives you the skills to be prepared for the next race,” said Cooper, who has been riding his bike at least 5 miles a day for most of the summer.
Beeson, Brown, Tallent-Darling, Crawford and Thursday women’s winner Morgan Aldridge all agreed another factor keeping the Soldotna Cycle Series humming is Tsalteshi Trails.
“The versatility is amazing,” Brown said. “The hills are brutal. This was my first time doing singletrack. It was very frustrating and rough.”
Tallent-Darling loves riding the new singletrack at the Slikok Trails and the big downhills.
“The sled hill is my favorite,” he said of the large drop onto the soccer fields at Skyview Middle School.
More than just fresh riders are loving the trails. The system is on the go-to mountain biking database at trailforks.com.
“I tell people about the races all the time,” Aldridge said. “I’ll see people out here at lunch on trailforks and they won’t know about the races.”
Tsalteshi and Slikok combine to have about 7 miles of singletrack, with each trail system contributing about half to the amount.
Beeson said the Tsalteshi singletrack is designed to bypass the ski trails and thus can be ridden by everyone. The Slikok singletrack has advancing levels of difficulty and has even veteran, advanced riders like Crawford stoked.
“They are spectacular,” he said.
The Slikok system, which lies to the south of Tsalteshi across Isaak Road, has come together fast.
Bill Holt, maintenance and development manager at Tsalteshi, put in a one-mile multiuse loop in June 2017, then expanded the loops to 3 miles in June 2018. The Tsalteshi Trails Association then landed a Recreational Trails Program grant and the Slikok singletrack quickly followed.
“It happened fast because there was already an established and respected trails system,” Crawford said.
Since most of the singletrack went in after the freeze last fall, Crawford has organized Wednesday work groups to tidy up areas that lost form once the frost broke.
He said caring for the trails makes them even more fun to ride.
“The trails have actually become a mountain biking destination,” he said.
Slikok was supposed to take a longer time to happen, so it’s hard to know where mountain biking is headed now. Crawford talks of dirt jumps, wooden features, pump tracks and some young riders getting good enough to earn college scholarships, but Beeson is keeping things simple.
“In terms of the Cycle Series, I want to keep it a good place, a good environment,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not totally under my control, but I want to keep it a place where everyone can come out and participate.
“I don’t have goals beyond that.”
Soldotna Cycle Series Week 3
1. Tyle Owens – 31:32; 2. Brian Beeson – 32:09; 3. Nathan Kincaid – 32:47; 4. Dave Edwards-Smith – 32:55; 5. Jordan Chilson – 33:23; 6. Will Steffe – 33:47; 7. Eric Willets – 33:49; 8. Matthew Dura – 33:59; 9. Scott Jackson – 35:16; 10. Jamie Nelson – 35:56; 11. Morgan Alrdidge – 35:38 (1st Place Women); 12. Kevin Lauver – 36:50; 13. Chase Laker – 36:52 (1st Place Youth); 14. Rob Carson – 37:36; 15. Joel Todd – 38:23; 16. Jon Iannoccone – 39:26; 17. Dylan Hogue – 41:15 (2nd Place Youth); 18. John Tabor – 42:26; 19. Melissa Smith – 42:57 (2nd Place Women); 20. Sorin Sorensen – 42:58; 21. Ethan Hogue – 43:15 (3rd Place Youth); 22. Alicia Driscoll – 43:25 (3rd Place Women); 23. Will Morrow – 43:51; 24. Jack Laker – 44:29 (Youth); 25. Ryan Nelson – 44:53.
26. Will Walton – 45:27; 27. Carl Kincaid – 46:36; 28. Robert Carson – 49:58 (Youth); 29. Darrell Kincaid – 52:57; 30. Ollie Dahl – 65:26; 31. Tor Dahl – 65:26; 32. Jeff McDonald – 16:50 – (Assistance/6k Hot Lap); 33. Jodie Dura – DNF Assistance; 34. Matt Brown – DNF Chainwreck’d; 35. Angie Brennan – DNF Crash.
1. Brianna Baeten – 19:07; 2. Cooper Tallent-Darling – 19:27; 3. Garret Ussing – 19:31; 4. Cody Tunks – 19:37; 5. Nora Moloney – 20:53; 6. Ian McGarry – 22:19; 7. Alek McGarry – 22:20; 8. Maverick Boyer – 24:49; 9. Lauri Lingafelt – 24:50; 10. David Abel – 25:09; 11. Eric McKinley – 25:26; 12. Caden McKinley – 25:47; 13. Cyndy Bybee – 25:53; 14. Caleb Abel – 26:00; 15. Makayla McKinley – 27:04; 16. Leif Laker – 28:53; 17. Colbie Broyles – 30:26; 18. Justin Broyles – 30:27; 19. Nathan White – 30:33; 20. Johnathan White – 31:04; 21. Ruby Davis – 33:06; 22. Alana McKinley – 33:10; 23. Lucia Carson – 33:38; 24. Holden McGarry – 34:26; 25. Ben McGarry – 34:30.
26. Gus Reimer – 34:50; 27. Adam Reimer – 34:52; 28. Carrie Wawrzyk – 35:50; 29. Sailor Tallent – 35:56; 30. Amy McKinley – 39:08; 31. Moriah McKinley – 40:04; 32. Mason McMilin – 52:02; 33. Kim McMilin – 52:03.