Herndon, now a general contractor, has been working the past year to design and build the downhill and dual slalom courses on the steep mountainous terrain of the Beech Mountain Ski Area, which will host the top mountain bikers in the United States this weekend.
The event, being held for the first time in the Southeast, has Herndon honored — and slightly anxious. “The top 50 pros in the country are my peers,” Herndon said. “They will be expecting a lot.” Talia Freeman, marketing director for Beech Mountain Resort, believes they will get it.
“Saying we’re lucky to have Chris Herndon as our course designer is an understatement,” Freeman said. “He’s the U.S. National Team coach and coaches a junior development team. Having Chris and this race is a pretty big deal for us.”
The event will have four divisions, for both male and female riders: Pro/elite, Category 1, Category 2 and Category 3 — for entry-level riders. In the downhill event, riders will go off in 30-second intervals, and 1-minute intervals for pro riders. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. The fastest riders will be tearing downhill about 45 mph, finishing in just over 2 minutes, Herndon said.
“It’s mainly in the woods, with some open sections,” he said. “There are some pretty good-sized jumps of up to 35 feet.”
The more spectator-friendly event is the dual slalom. Two riders will race side by side on a 25-second course.
“They go into brackets, elimination-style, whittling down to the last two men or women left,” Herndon said. “It’s definitely a spectator-friendly event. The track has lots of berms, jumps, lots of turns, you’re always doing something on the bike."
The finals take place Saturday night amid the live music and festive atmosphere of Beech Mountain’s inaugural Brews ’N’ Views beer-tasting festival.
Up to 1,000 riders are expected, including the World Cup Champion downhill racer, Aaron Gwin, of California. But many Western North Carolina riders will be looking to make their hometown crowd proud.
Top riders in for a surprise
For Herndon, the national championship is the culmination of a life’s work. He grew up in Brevard, “building things” and riding bikes. He attended Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky on a cycling scholarship, where he said the team was in charge of building its own track. In 2000, he turned pro.
Some of Herndon’s career highlights include winning the dual slalom national title in 2007, finishing third in the ’07 National Downhill Championships, competing on the U.S. elite national team and racing in the World Championships in ’06 and ’07 in New Zealand and Scotland.
“For the last 10 years I’ve broken a bone every year,” he said.
But in 2009 he had one of his worst accidents, tearing both of his ACL tendons while riding a motorcycle. It ended his racing career but opened the door for a new one in coaching and course building.
“I’d been questioning racing for a long time,” he said. “The time off the bike was the time I needed to think about what I wanted. I decided to start a junior development team to give back to the sport that has given me so much.”
He started the Specialized/GROM Racing team for 11- to 18-year-olds in 2010 to promote youth involvement in downhill and dual slalom racing through awareness, education, competition and training. He also became the U.S. National Team coach this year, traveling around the world to attend races.
Although downhill mountain biking is not yet an Olympic sport, this weekend will take on that level of stress for American riders.
“It’s the biggest race in the U.S.,” Herndon said. “Everyone is chasing that title. You will wear the Stars and Stripes for the year.”
'It's very challenging'
Johanne Tuttle, a 2010 Brevard College graduate and member of the 2009 national collegiate champion mountain bike team, will compete in the women’s pro division this weekend.
“I haven’t competed this past year, but I decided since nationals are being held right here I might as well go for it,” said Tuttle, 23, a two-time individual omnium national champion and 2008 dual slalom national champion.
Tuttle earned a spot at the Gravity National Championships at a regional qualifying event on the new course in July.
“I think it’s a very beautifully done course. Chris has done a great job. It’s like a work of art,” Tuttle said.
“It’s very challenging, but I think you can make it what you want it to be,” she said. “It’s very technical, rocky and rooty, all of what Western North Carolina has to offer. People are flying from all over and driving from crazy places to get here. I think everybody is going to be really impressed. I’m impressed.”
Freeman said the goal for the mountain bike park is to be fully open to the public by 2013, to provide a world-class course for WNC cyclists, with amenities including mountain bike trays that can hold four bikes at a time and get racers to the top of the mountain more quickly.
“The closest downhill mountain biking park is in Snowshoe, W.Va.,” Freeman said. “For the mountain biking community, having this at Beech Mountain is pretty exciting. They won’t have to travel now. This is huge for the Southeast.”