The southern states aren't the first place you'd think of when someone mentioned downhill race venues in the USA. In fact, they probably aren't the second or third place you would think of either, but after this weekend's Pro GRT in Windrock, Tennessee, that perception just might change a bit. Windrock has a long history amongst the locals as being rough and rowdy, but until recently the word had just never really gotten out to the rest of the country. That is until World Cup racer Neko Mullally, and his close friend Sean Leader, teamed up to turn the rough cut trails into a proper bike park consisting of not only modern and trendy flow trails but also of world-class DH runs. It's rare these days to find dedicated fall line racetracks outside of the World Cup circuit, and often times the domestic race scene pales in comparison in terms of what is needed to train and prepare for top-level racing abroad, and that is the void that Neko and Sean have been striving to fill.
This year marks the second in a row that Neko Mulally has brought the opening round of the Pro Gravity Tour to Windrock and it's inspiring to see a successful World Cup pro dedicate their time and energy towards giving something back to the racing community. Every single top rider out there is where they are today because of the hard work of promoters around the world, who put their reputations and money on the line to put on downhill races. If there were no more races that would be the end of the line so promoters really are the lifeblood of the sport. Neko is making sure the next generation gets the opportunity to be inspired the same way he and his fellow competitors were, and in his own small way ensure that the growth of grassroots racing stays alive and well here in the USA.
If holding a Pro GRT wasn't enough to validate the quality of the terrain here, take a moment to think about the fact that both Rockshox and Fox have held their team test camps here over the past month, as they prep all the custom race goods with the fastest riders on the planet. It seems that all of a sudden this little town in Eastern Tennessee has become the hub of all things DH related in the United States, and a who's who of the world's best riders are using it to launch into the World Cup season. Yes, the riding really is that good.
For many of the racers on hand, the Pro GRT is a stepping stone to get into World Cup competition and a chance to mix it up with some of the best riders on the planet. So talented was the field this year that you could almost say it felt like a mini World Cup. The entire Santa Cruz Syndicate was in attendance with Greg Minnaar, Luca Shaw and Loris Vergier, as was the Madison Saracen team of Danny Hart, Alex Marin, and Junior DH World Champ, Matt Walker. Closer to home were the likes of Neko obviously, as well as Dakotah Norton and Charlie Harrison who have all spent time inside the top ten on the World Stage. Add to that privateers like Max Morgan, Magnus Manson, Caroline Washam and Rachel Pageau and you have a recipe for one of the best weekends of racing you'll see anywhere this early in the season.
In keeping with this theme and in true World Cup fashion the rains came just in time for the final runs of weekend, throwing another spanner in the works for racers who had enjoyed dry and perfect conditions on the training days prior. Not only was the terrain an ideal test, so was the weather.
A little American flair in the Santa Cruz pits in Tennessee.
Engineers from Saracen were on site to help Danny Hart and the team get their bikes prepped for the World Cup season.
Massive trucks and trailers did the heavy lifting to get riders to the top of this hill this weekend.
Greg Minnaar and the Syndicate team have been here for a week testing with Fox and Maxxis as were up to speed straight away.
Nikolas Nesteroff would finish 16th in one of his first races in the Elite ranks.
Maxine Bergeron through the big rock garden up top.
Off cambers and slick rocks caused headaches for more than a few rides this weekend.
Loris Vergier had a few mistakes on his final run to finish 8th.
Greg Minnaar lays it flat over the big step up.
Luca Shaw brought all the style this weekend and finished 3rd.
Emily Gacad charging through the whoops.
Walker Shaw was having fun riding between the tape once again.
Junior winner Ben Wallace put in a time that would have been 12th in the Pro class.
3rd place in Junior was Matthew Sterling.
Big jumps and drops at the bottom of the track were a hit with both riders and spectators.
Danny Hart getting about as inside as you can go on the final corner.
Whenever the rain let up the mud turned to paste almost instantly.
Rachel Pageau came here looking for the win but a big crash in her race run pushed her back to 3rd.
The mud on Rachel Pageau's arm tells the tale of her race run.
Swedish rider Josefine Bjorkman would end the weekend in 2nd.
With more than a 30-second lead, no one was anywhere close to Caroline Washam this weekend.
Pro Women's podium.
Light rain fell on and off through the day making the track slick and saturated for the final runs.
Charlie Harrison was looking to be a bit higher than 7th this weekend, but with times super tight at the top he was still high in the mix.
Henry Fitzgerald squashes the final drop into the finish line aboard his Norco 29er.
Max Morgan came 10th as the first true privateer on the results sheet, just four seconds back in some very fast company.
19-year-old Matt Walker finished 6th, just two seconds back.
Race organizer Neko Mulally styling it up in the mud to take 4th.
Dakotah Norton was right up there at the pointy end this weekend, showing he's ready to mix it up on the WC scene this year.
Competitors on track and friends off.
Danny Hart fully pinned and squashing the big step down at the bottom of the track.
First race and first win for Danny Hart on the Madison Saracen team.
The top five men at Windrock.
Put your hands together for Neko Mulally who put on a top-level event this weekend, and gave the next generation US riders something to aspire to.