by ARNO HOLSCHUH
VIC ARMIJO (photo at left) HAS A PASSION FOR BIKES. SITTING IN HIS OFFICE at Arcata's HealthSPORT, he will list all the advantages of cycling: It's a great workout; it's a cheap way to get around; it's good for you and the Earth. He started riding as a way to get from one end of a motocross track to the other; now he does it for fun and fitness every day. But what really gets Armijo isn't the practical side of biking.
"The bike," he said, leaning forward in his chair, "has the WHEE! factor" -- the feeling of exhilaration you get from leaning into a curve, from feeling fresh air and sunshine on your face, from seeing the trees, cows and rivers rush by.
Armijo has been busy spreading his enthusiasm around. A marketing director by day, he uses his spare time to help organize and market bicycling and bike racing in Humboldt County.
Although Humboldt County's cycling community has always had a core of enthusiasts, lately its members are beginning to flex their muscles. The last year has seen one new off-road course built, two new races held and the formation of a new bike club. And there are even more new races in the planning stages and the construction of yet another mountain bike trail planned for this summer.
Armijo came to Humboldt County in 1999 from Big Bear Lake, where he became acquainted with bicycle racing culture.
"Living there, you can race 30 times a year without ever leaving the area," he said.
When he arrived on the North Coast, he immediately looked for cyclists.
"I went to the local bike shops and asked who rides and when they did it." He found that several people rode -- and they did it often. "There were regular rides three or four times a week."
But when he asked about organized local races, he found out there were very few. Most competitive cyclists, he said, were travelling out of the area to race.
"Everyone was willing to travel to events when there was this great riding area here," he said. "With the strong cycling population here I saw there was a need" for more local racing opportunities. So he began to organize and found a group of cyclists willing to put in time and energy.
If you want a race done right
The Annie and Mary Rail to Trail Mountain Bike Race Series -- starting this weekend, April 2, and continuing in May and June -- is a great example of how bicycle racing in Humboldt is booming. A benefit for the effort to build a new trail along the Annie and Mary rail line, the race will be run along trails cut and designed by mountain bikers on land owned by a racer.
Eric Almquist bought the 14-acre plot on the Mad River off of Giuntoli Lane as a new location for his lumber company. "We were fortunate enough to acquire this kind of property for our business" that lends itself to trail building, Almquist said.
It doesn't look like a nature preserve from the road -- the former mill site consists of a large gravel parking lot and some metal storage buildings. Nails, staples and thin bands of steel left behind by former tenants litter the lot.
But step back behind the buildings and past the piles of scrap metal Almquist has cleaned off the property and you'll find a lush green forest. Purple wildflowers dot the green carpet of ferns along the forest floor as maples and alders sway in the wind. Giant gnarled cottonwoods tower over parts of the the trail; other sections take bikers down to the Mad River.
Almquist is in every sense a dedicated bicycling booster: Not only did he buy this land with biking in mind, he personally helped lay the 1.1-mile track.
Building trail is hard work. Using mostly hand tools, Almquist and a few other dedicated cyclists dug, chopped and cleared their way through Himalaya berries, trash and scrap metal left by the previous owner.
"It's like a stairmaster, except you're carrying shovels and a pick," said Justin Brown, co-owner of Revolution Bicycle Repair in Arcata and part of the trail-building team.
But the result has been worth the effort -- it's a great trail. It has sections wide enough to pass but most is narrow single-track, requiring a great deal of agility. The dirt path weaves between saplings, dives through the woods, climbs stairs and drops to the river bank. It's difficult -- or "technical," in mountain bike jargon -- but has been designed to be as safe as possible.
"We make every effort to take legitimate hazards out of it," Almquist said.
"It's tough to find a course that's interesting, safe, accessible and not environmentally sensitive," Armijo said.
And the track's importance cannot be underestimated. "A mountain bike race is only as good as its course. If people like the course and it is an epic ride, people will come back for it. If it's just a competition, people are less interested," Brown said.
Without Almquist's efforts to make a trail available, "these events would not have happened," Armijo said.
The track has already seen two successful races -- last November's Stomach Churn and March 17's St. Patty's Day Massacre.
If the events' names sound brutal, it's because the track makes the events grueling. They were cyclocross races, in which participants attempt to make as many laps around the track as possible in a limited amount of time. Parts of the course include hurdles or are intentionally so technical that riders must dismount and carry their bikes.
"It's such an aerobic event," Almquist said. "It's short but you're going full-on the entire time."
Another Humboldt cycling fanatic, John Dostel, has taken self-made racing to the extreme: He has built a 3/4 mile course behind his house -- all by himself. The track will be used June 23 for the appropriately named John's Backyard Mountain Bike Short Track Cross-Country Race. The event is a benefit for the Kneeland Volunteer Fire Department.
The Bigfoot Mountain Bike race series, starting July 28, includes two other kinds of off-road racing, downhill and cross-country. In cross-country, the most traditional form of mountain bike racing, riders cover moderately technical terrain along long loops. Downhill racing is the ultimate thrill-seeker's game, as riders speed down the trail and over jumps, dropoffs and other obstacles.
The Bigfoot races have been around since 1996, but without constant or dedicated staff behind them, they remained minor events. Now Armijo has taken over, and he has bigger plans.
"The Bigfoot has always been a small event," Armijo said, but he saw potential. "I approached the management of HealthSPORT and asked if they would like to help put it on as a benefit for Humboldt County Search and Rescue and the Campfire Boys and Girls." HealthSPORT agreed, and the other sponsors started to roll in -- bicycle shops, KAEF-TV, KHUM, Yakima and others.
Most importantly, Pacific Lumber agreed to let a course be built on its land. The tracks, located near the Campfire Boys' and Girls' PAL Camp in Freshwater, are mostly made up of old logging roads that have had singletrack trail cut into them.
"It's a tough course but the most beautiful I have ever seen," Armijo said.
The word about the new track has gotten out. Armijo said he's seen the race mentioned on several popular cycling sites and has been getting e-mails from around the state from people wanting information. He's even managed to get a celebrity from the world of mountain biking to agree to come -- two-time Olympian and three-time national champion Tinker Juarez will be racing.
A step into the future
The number of truly dedicated cyclists in Humboldt County is increasing, Brown said. "I think the rider base is growing -- our business is, I know that."
To help keep the momentum going, Brown, Armijo and others have joined to form the Bigfoot Bicycle Club. The group can help plan races and serve as a clearinghouse for bicycling efforts and ideas. It will also allow member mountain bike riders to purchase liability insurance through the International Mountain Biking Association.
That's vital when you're trying to gain access to private land, Brown said. When timber company officials see bikers are insured against liability, they are more apt to let them use their land. It could open the doors to the vast amount of private timberland in Humboldt County -- that's a lot of trail potential.
Even without new land, Armijo has a couple more plans up his sleeve. Look for time trials (for road bikes) this summer on the Avenue of the Giants and a cyclocross series this winter. Details will be available through www.teambigfoot.com.
And Humboldt has the people to push cycling to the next level.
"There are two types of surges" in biking activity, Almquist said. The first type of surge happens when bikes become a fad, as mountain bikes did in the early '90s. But as people found other fads, the interest waned and the events disappeared.
This time, he said, it is different. This time "a core of people whose history goes back through those other days have decided they can do more. These are people who have decided they really like bikes and like fitness.
"It's a step up from what it has been," he said.
Riders who want to take an advance look at the Bigfoot downhill course can take a peek June 24 at the Bigfoot Downhill Warmup. Cross-country riders can see their Bigfoot course, too -- if they put in some time helping to build the route. Call Armijo at 825-7665 for more information.
Mountain bikers are not
the only human-powered