Wilder Ranch Opens Trails to XTERRA Off-Road Triathlon
By Julie Jag - http://www.santacruzsentinel.com
SANTA CRUZ -- When he lived in Santa Cruz, professional mountain biker Barry Wicks called the extensive trails at Wilder Ranch State Park some of his favorite places to train. Now that he lives 2,000 miles away in Chicago, Wicks may be able to finally gain more than leg muscles from his intimate knowledge of the park.
For the first time since 1993, State Parks will open Wilder up to mountain bike racers like Wicks, who are expected to flock to Santa Cruz from around the country to compete in the Xterra Pacific Championship triathlon on May 15.
"When I saw Santa Cruz on the schedule, I said I have to do it,'" said Wicks, who moved to Illinois in 2009 so his wife could complete her post-doctorate studies in chemistry at Northwestern University. "I always thought it would be fun to race at Wilder, so to get the chance is really great."
Trail-running races are planned at Wilder on May 14 in addition to sport and championship off-road triathlons on May 15. This will be the first Xterra triathlon to be held in Northern California since Half Moon Bay hosted the Pacific Championships in 2002.
Xterra race director Dave Nicholas said he has been eyeing Santa Cruz as a site for the Pacific Championships for a couple years. The atmosphere, athletes and scenery all fit his race plans perfectly. The town even boasts a crowd of former age-group world champions, including Laura Home, Kathy Frank, Tim and Birgit Johnston and former pro champ Ned Overend. The only holdup, Nicholas said, was a state parks policy prohibiting any race in which competitors would be going faster than 15 mph.
"We've looked at every beach from San Diego to Half Moon Bay. We can do the swim, we can do the run, but we just can't do the mountain biking," he said, noting that biking is the mainstay of the Xterra races.
In stepped Kirk Lingenfelter, superintendent of the Pajaro Coast sector of State Parks. According to Nicholas, after Lingenfelter did his due diligence on the Xterra races, which began in Hawaii in 1996 and have spread across the world, he requested that Xterra be given a permit to race at Wilder as a way to bring additional money into the pinched parks system.
"They'll make a little money, people will have a great place to race and people will come in and spend money on hotels and food. That's how we got here," said Nicholas, who added he expects Xterra to become a Santa Cruz staple if all goes well next week.
The championship triathlon will begin at Cowell Beach with a 1.5-kilometer ocean swim, followed by a 30k mountain bike ride that will include a paved stretch out to Wilder Ranch as well as a large dirt loop within the park. The 10k trail run that follows the coastal Ohlone Bluff Trail will begin and end at the Wilder Ranch parking lot. The sport course will follow a similar route with shorter distances.
Frank, who aided Nicholas in bringing the race to Santa Cruz, said the hills will be the biggest obstacle to her goal of qualifying for another Xterra World Championships in Maui in October. She won the 60-plus world title in 2008.
"There are some really steep hills to go up, and they're kind of unrelenting," Frank said. "It's also discouraging that when you're really high up in Wilder, you have to go all the way down and then go back up again. That is really challenging mentally."
Wicks is among a crowd of racers familiar with the park who are salivating at the chance to race up and down its trails. Wicks, 29, an experienced World Cup [cross country], cyclocross and now endurance racer, rode the trails for the better part of four years before moving to Chicago. He will bring with him some swimming talent and a little Xterra experience. He entered his first off-road triathlons last year, winning on his second try at the Xterra Last Stand in Michigan.
This will be Wicks' first time racing in the pro division, however, and he'll get a taste of the series' best racers right away. Conrad Stoltz -- a four-time pro world champion -- and Josiah Middaugh are tied for the series' No. 1 rank and both are expected to attend the Santa Cruz race.
"I'm going to try to win, but I will probably get smoked by these pro triathlon guys," Wicks admitted. "I need to get enough advantage on the bike so they can't catch me on the run."
Wicks also may not be the only pro with local knowledge. Soquel pro triathlete Tommy Zaferes decided he couldn't give up the chance to dabble in off-road triathlons and picked up mountain biking in March just so he could compete in the Xterra race.
Zaferes seems prone to bad luck when it comes to first-race attempts, however, and this time is no different. He passed out while descending one of those Wilder Ranch trails during a training ride Wednesday and injured his right shoulder and knee.
"I woke up and didn't remember where I was or how I got there," Zaferes said. "I was like, OK, I was biking, because there is a bike on top of me.' I was super dazed."
Zaferes said he hopes the injuries are a minor setback and that he will be back on Wilder's trails in no time. If local knowledge really is key to winning, he might even get a chance to hoist his bike over him again -- while he celebrates on top of the podium.
Regardless of who actually claims that top spot, mountain bikers and off-road triathletes who can now race at Wilder will be the real winners.
"This run, this mountain bike is as world class as it gets, period," Nicholas said. "It doesn't get any better."
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