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Mountain bikers share their love of dirt

Team competitors, organizers aim to recruit more to sport

Many of the cyclists you see on Portland streets are more than just casual enthusiasts. They live to ride, and they ride to race their mountain bikes.

The Oregon Bicycle Racing Association will put on a dozen or so cross country races this year on 10- to 30-mile courses, as well as shorter downhill races. Men and women from their early teens to their 60s participate in the events, which take place all over the state.

The Race at Reehers, west of Portland in the community of Timber, drew about 170 competitors last year. Jon Meyers and Erik Tonkin and their Team S&M (Sellwood and Moreland) organized the event. This year's race is May 12.

Meyers, an engineer, has been one of the best, most consistent mountain bike racers in Portland for 10 years. Tonkin, co-owner and manager of Sellwood Cycle Repair Ñ home base for Team S&M ÑÊis the only Portland racer with a professional mountain bike racing license.

'Jonathan and I race in Oregon, California and Washington,' Tonkin says. 'But we both feel a responsibility to show up at the Oregon races and support the local scene. We go to the same races in Oregon year after year. I do quite a bit of traveling to national-caliber events, but we go to great lengths to be back for the local events.

'The big national races are fun for the competition, but this is where we really go for fun.'

In Oregon, bikers can compete in three categories: beginner, which typically attracts first-time racers to an approximately 12-mile course; sport, the intermediate class in which the majority of racers compete on a roughly 18-mile course; and pro/expert, in which the course is about 25 to 30 miles.

Meyers, 34, and Tonkin, 27, regularly race in the pro/expert class. In fact, half the top 10 finishers in any given race come from Team S&M. And they're not in it for the money.

'I've had a professional mountain bike racing license for two years now, and I've never won any money at a pro-only race,' Tonkin says. 'It's really a labor of love.

'A lot of people who race mountain bikes in Oregon, especially those fairly new to the scene, would assume that riders like myself and Jonathan have a lot of outside support,' he says. 'But the truth is, I live a fairly austere lifestyle, and most of my money and free time go into bike racing in general and mountain biking in particular.'

Meyers has the same motivation. He and Tonkin are out to lure people back to a sport that peaked in the mid-1990s and has seen its national participation levels dip drastically over the last several years Ñ although Oregon's numbers have remained a bit higher than most of the country's.

'For someone like me, who's not going to do the professional national racing circuit, you could race on eight to 10 hours a week of training, including the three-hour weekend race,' Meyers says.

Mountain bike racing is primarily an individual sport.

'You're out there racing against other people, but you're also just trying to defeat the course,' Tonkin says. 'It's a battle against yourself.'

According to Meyers, more than 100 loyalists show up at every race. A good turnout on a holiday weekend is 300. Most teams are based out of bike shops, such as Team S&M.

Tonkin, who spends more than 40 hours a week in his shop, saw a natural starting ground for building his team.

While the team doesn't necessarily ride an entire race together, it offers camaraderie and the opportunity 'to be associated with winning,' Tonkin says.

'But almost as important as being a good rider is being a good person,' he says. 'If you're lapping a beginner, do you really need to tell them to get the hell out of your way? Say, 'Good job, keep it up.' Maybe that person will keep coming back.'