Sometimes, a whim is the starting line for great things.
“We were running a cross-country series during winter, but it was really bad on the trail,” explains Neal Boyd, creator of the Winter Short Track Series and race director with Start to Finish. “So instead of running the full course, we created a makeshift short course. It was really fun—people loved it.”
Since those early days 13 years ago, a lot of people have loved racing the three-quarter mile loops at the Short Track Series events. The five race series, running each Sunday beginning on Jan 24, brings upwards of 350 riders to the outdoor party at Renaissance Park. The schedule for each event, which includes rides for the absolute beginner to racing veterans, is posted on the Series’ website.
The timing of the series, smack in the middle of the traditional off-season for many cycling disciplines, provides the perfect reason to stay off the couch and active in the winter, says Boyd. Racers range from those normally found gliding Carolina country roads to the red-clay-caked singletrack junkie.
Much to the benefit of participants, the series offers a chance for Boyd and the team at Charlotte Sports Timing to test the newest technologies in the business. This year will feature live results via smartphone app. “You can sit at home and watch the race and results as the riders come off the finish line on every lap,” Boyd says. Three large screens will show the feed in real time at the event. Links will be available on the Winter Short Track Series website.
Technology aside, the unique version of short track created by Boyd and the omnipresent Tarheel Trailblazers is what brings so many to the park each week. Custom designed for the series and using multiple surfaces, the course includes table-top obstacles, built-up berms, and swift elevation changes. It’s the range of environments, including wide-open blacktop, gravel road, and sweeping singletrack that help the series stand out versus other races of similar distance.
“It’s a more exciting course than what they use at the national level,” Boyd says. “They typically race in a field. It’s pretty much just about, ‘Who’s the fastest rider?’ At our level you still gotta have some skill on the mountain bike.”
Each year the short track is impeccably maintained and a top layer is added to the single-track. Since the wet trails are protected from the destructive effects of knobby tires, the series runs in all sorts of weather. And even on the least hospitable days, races bring a couple hundred hearty riders, Boyd says.
Designed to be a family-friendly event, each race-day lineup includes multiple junior level events and even a free race for kids under 8. Since a typical lap only takes a few minutes, the shorter race makes for a great introduction to the sport for both the kids and those that might worry about them.
“Parents feel good that they’re not sending their kids 3, 4, 5 miles out into the woods wondering if they’re going to make their way back,” says Boyd. “We get a huge number of kids come here to try mountain-bike racing.”
Some of what makes these events exciting for the riders is also why many people come out to watch each Sunday. The short form race means riders pass the start/finish line often, gaining energy from cheering spectators. Series sponsors, there are 16 bike store and multiple other sponsors, set up tents, adding to the festival atmosphere. Music provided for the series adds a backbeat to the party and Frank’s East Blvd Bar and Grill serves up hot soups to challenge winter’s chill.
Along with the Trailblazers, the Dirt Divas—Charlotte’s all female mountain bike club—lend their time and talent to the series. Their charitable effort, Project Angel, is represented on the new Winter Short Track Series website. Funds collected help the Divas provide bikes and ancillaries to needy children around the Queen City.
For the first-time racer, speeding through 15+ laps on the course can be challenging. Managing the variety of surfaces, and choosing the right strategy and technology to succeed, is part of the fun. But according to Boyd, it’s well worth effort.
“That first race is going to be incredibly hard. That first time your heart rate is up, you think it’s the end of the world. But as soon as it’s done, you’re thinking—so, when’s the next race?”
You can check out the course any time Renaissance park is open. On non-race days, the Trailblazers request waiting 24 hours after rainfall before riding to protect the trail—as you should on any singletrack. According to Boyd, new metal signage is in the works to more clearly delineate the short- track course amongst other trails in the Renaissance system.