Racers at the start of the 2012 Idyllwild Spring Challenge. File photo

The Hill’s homegrown mountain bike race, the Idyllwild Spring Challenge, is gearing up for its ninth year. The Idyllwild Cycling event is held each year in May on the May Valley trail system from the race’s starting point in the Hurkey Creek campground.

The 2013 competition kicks off at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 4, with races continuing, based on category, through early afternoon and concluding with a 2 p.m. kids’ race. Final awards for Pro Open, Categories 1 and 2 are presented at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. On Sunday, May 5, the club hosts a noncompetition ride for participants still in town.

And as it has each year, the Spring Challenge continues to gain ground among race enthusiasts and national media. Cycling Illustrated labeled the Spring Challenge one of the top five races in Southern California, placing this homespun event in a league with more established and major sponsor-laden mountain bike races. The shout-out to the Spring Challenge was particularly noteworthy because of the last line of the magazine’s race endorsement, “If you only do one race in So Cal make it this one.”

As it has since its debut in 2005, the Spring Challenge has steadily gained stature as a major mountain bike event. After one year, in 2006, it made the cut as one of four new venues added by the American Mountain Bike Challenge (AMBC) to its collection of 40 well-regarded U.S. venues. In 2007, the Spring Challenge was listed on the National Mountain Bike and Cross Country Calendar and also became an International Cycling Union (UCI) event. The UCI designation allowed race participants to accumulate points to advance to Olympic trials. In 2009, the race added a Junior Olympics event for riders under 18, giving strong finishers opportunities to attend specialized training camps. In 2013, AMBC added greater junior development opportunities to all its races, including the Spring Challenge.

The Idyllwild Spring Challenge offers something for every racer from 14 and under to 50 and older, for both pros and amateurs, from unicyclists to tandem riders, and for riders using single to multiple-geared bikes.

This year’s race is held in anticipation of the May Valley racecourse becoming part of a designated trail system. If approved by the U.S. Forest Service and contiguous landowners, the course would be a shared mountain bike and equestrian system. Idyllwild Cycling and the International Mountain Bicycling Association are working with the Forest Service on the trail designation project.

Race Director Katie Hedrich cautions there are hurdles to clear before trail system designation is achieved, but, if approved, it could add cachet to races on the course. As the IMBA noted, “Trails as community assets can improve quality of life and livability in a community for both the biking and nonbiking members, and can attract significant tourism dollars in addition to increasing overall quality of life.” Hedrich and Idyllwild Cycling hope the designation could be in place for the 2014 race.

As they do each year, Idyllwild Cycling race organizers held a Saturday morning preride to give race participants an opportunity to gain familiarity with the course. This year it took place on April 13. And since racers and Idyllwild in general are dog-friendly, for the second year the Spring Challenge hosts the Woof Lounge where, for a small donation, racers can check their dogs into a tented and staffed dog hostel.

These touches, in addition to a highly rated racecourse, are part of what preserves the small town friendliness of the Spring Challenge, according to Hedrich. For her, it is how participants feel about the race that is important — not just how great the course is (Cycling Illustrated calls the May Valley course “a sublimely flowing singletrack”) but how well racers and volunteers are treated.

“It’s really important for race volunteers to enjoy themselves because that comes through to the veteran riders,” Hedrich said. “The spirit of this race comes from the volunteers and race participants. What I’m proudest of is that our race is ‘old school’ — not the same big 18-wheelers and vendors you see at large corporate events. We have many volunteers about whom we get so many compliments from race participants each year.”

Professional rider Manuel Prado had this to say about his experience with the Spring Challenge: “The Idyllwild Spring Challenge definitely stands out as one of the most epic cross-country races. … We were very happy with how well the course was marked and with the amount of volunteers that they had out on the course, which appeared to be over 50.

“In the end, we were all happy to have had an awesome time and done such great riding at this fun event. … Thanks to the race organizers for putting such a great event together.”

The Idyllwild Spring Challenge is a not-for-profit race, which Idyllwild Cycling, the local trail advocacy club, organizes and produces. A small percentage of the proceeds support next year’s race, while a majority helps to fund Idyllwild Cycling’s club activities, including working with local land managers to create a multi-use designated trail system in the Idyllwild area. The race also donates to Living Free Animal Sanctuary in Mountain Center and World Bicycle Relief. For more information, visit www.idyllwildcycling.com.