One thousand, ninety-nine days.
When racers gather at Killington on September 15 to kick off the 2022 Fox US Open of Mountain Biking, that’s how long it will have been since the event was last held, most recently at California’s Big Bear Mountain Resort. First the pandemic canceled the 2020 edition of the weekend that brings together pro and amateur athletes racing downhill, enduro and other events. Then a particularly volatile West Coast fire season thwarted the race.
Now, after three years, the US Open is back. And, after four years, it’s back at Killington. Clay Harper is brimming with excitement.
“The way we fell on the calendar and where we were location-wise, we got hit extra hard,” says Harper, who cofounded the event in 2003 at Mountain Creek, New Jersey. “But the spirit of the US Open never wavered. Everyone is so excited. The East Coast vibe to have us back is strong. We have people traveling from all over the world to Killington in September, so the stage is set for another really fun event, and the Killington community that’s hosting is going to be amazing.”
The US Open of Mountain Biking (USO) stands out from other gravity-focused races for several reasons. Foremost among them is the open format that the event was founded upon, which allows amateur and professional athletes to compete together on the same tracks. This puts up-and-coming 15-year-olds alongside recent USO regulars, like Neko Mulally or Vaea Verbeek, who won the USO downhill at Killington in 2018.
This welcoming format creates a party-like energy that ripples across the entire event, from spectators to competitors, and across all race disciplines, including enduro, downhill, youth racing, dual slalom and whip off competitions, the latter two of which will be hosted Friday and Saturday evenings, respectively, in prime, spectator-friendly locations, highly visible from the main venue. Enduro made its USO debut in 2018 and accounted for nearly half of the entire weekend’s total racers. A youth race, called Next Gen Novice, has categories for downhillers ages five to 14, who will race on Rabbit Hole at Snowshed. (The youth Expert class will race on the main USO downhill track.) Vermont Adaptive is partnered with the USO to host an adaptive downhill race. And the weekend will include Killington’s first USO dual slalom, which was reintroduced in 2019 at Big Bear to huge fanfare.
The prize purse is also massive—$80,000, with equal payouts between male and female competitors.
“It’s part of the ethos of the US Open,” says Harper of the open-class format, equal pay and large purse.
Also part of the USO ethos is the spectator-centric vibe, which Harper says perfectly matches the energy of the East Coast riding community that turned out in droves in 2018. Unlike at some other venues or events, Killington’s bike park remains open, which allows spectators the chance to both ride and watch the races, which are free to spectate. “You might end up on the chairlift with a pro you’ve always watched from California or wherever,” Harper says. “We just want everybody to come out and cheer. We need those crazy East Coast fans, the people with face paint and costumes. They’ll show up—I have no doubt about that.”
Killington’s trail crew has also shown up in a major way, albeit with backhoes and shovels rather than face paint and costumes. They’ve been hard at work building a massive jump for the Best Whip contest as well as some new features on the downhill track, which will descend Ramshead this September and is a re-envisioning of the popular track used for the Pro GRT races that were held at Killington in 2016 and ’17.
Harper was involved in developing the track when it was first used for the Pro GRT, and one moment in particular stands out in his mind from the 2016 race.
After the event, one pro athlete’s grandmother approached Harper and told him how amazing the race was—but not for the speed with which the racers descended or the precision with which they stuck their lines. It was the first time she’d ever been able to get onto a mountain and into the woods to see her grandson race, she said, and the experience had floored her.
“To have a racer’s grandmother thank me for building a track was way cool,” Harper says. “This track is going to be among the most spectator friendly in the business.”
From a rider’s perspective, however, this ain’t your grandma’s bike trail. Harper calls the track multidimensional, with plentiful line choices that will change and evolve over the weekend, making the game of descending fastest equal parts mental and physical.
“The track being used for this year’s US Open is very challenging,” says George Ryan, the only person to have competed in every single USO downhill race. “While it does have some difficult and puzzling sections, there are other parts that are wide-open fast and have massive jumps that the spectators are going to love. The track is going to produce some crazy exciting racing.”
Racers had a chance to preview the track in early August during a stop of the Eastern States Cup (ESC), and positive reviews poured in.
“From what I saw and heard, everyone loved the track at the ESC race,” says Ryan, who’s the manager of Mountain Creek Bike Park’s Trail Crüe and has consulted with Harper on the development of numerous DH tracks. “After the race, Clay and I ran through the track one more time so he could show me the changes they were planning. I’m pumped to see what they come up with!”
“When Killington builds a terrain park in winter, they hit it hard,” Harper adds. “And they’re doing that with the US Open build. We’ll go out and say, ‘Hey, can we put a little jump in here?’ And I come back two weeks later, and the jump is 10 times as impressive as what I asked for.”
Features that are 10 times more impressive than expected might just be the new normal at Killington. And for an event that’s been on hold for 1,099 days, larger than life will be just right.
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