Fat Tires, Fast Times, Monster Bumps

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Fat Tires, Fast Times, Monster Bumps

When Brett Bowie got married, his wedding invitations read, "Bring your bikes."

Many of his friends flew to the wedding in Indonesia, mountain bicycles in tow. Before and after the wedding, 10 of the guests left their dress suits at the hotel to blaze down the side of Gunung Batur, a nearby volcano, on their bikes. "It was paradise," said Steve Danyo, one of Mr. Bowie's friends and a fellow mountain biker living in Korea.

For Mr. Bowie and Mr. Danyo, mountain biking is a way of life. If they're not thinking about flying downhill past the trees, the scenery streaking by like scenes out of "Star Wars," they're talking about it, or planning a weekend away from the city to do it.

They unleashed their passion on Korea in 1999 by joining Unitel, an Internet service provider, to organize the nation's first mountain biking festival. Now they are in the midst of organizing a downhill race on June 24, the first downhill race in the Seoul vicinity. With the help of Jung Han-seok, a Korean rider, they are about to give Korea another wake-up call with the Filthy Downhill Race Series.

While mountain biking has been in Korea for 15 years, it has only picked up recently. The upside is that the many mountains of Korea are unmapped territory for bikers. The downside is that there is still a way to go before mountain biking in Korea reaches a par with the international scene.

After racing professionally in Korea for two years, Mr. Bowie, who has lived in Korea for more than four years, and Mr. Danyo, here for more than six years, had had enough. "We were getting frustrated with the same easy downhill courses, when the nation is full of incredible, challenging descents," said Mr. Danyo, who could be found hanging out with Mr. Bowie and John Thomssen, another biker and a newcomer to Korea, at a small bar serving dongdongju (fermented rice liquor) near Daehak-ro; there were no bicycles in sight.

The international standard for racing terrain keeps becoming more difficult, and the Korean courses have not kept up. Another problem is that even with the mountains of Korea beckoning, most bikers keep training on the same trail, which is a dangerous option. As the course becomes familiar, riders forget to expect the unexpected. Mr. Jung also says that, "If a biker keeps riding the same course, you cannot get better."

The organizers made sure that the Filthy Downhill Race Series course fell in the "sick" category, mountain biking slang for crazy and difficult. "I want to see Korean bikers challenged. I want to see them improve," Mr. Jung said.

The race will take place on Mount Acha, which says enough right there. Among the mountain biking community, Mount Acha, near Sheraton Walker Hill hotel in eastern Seoul, is a rite of passage, and a difficult one to overcome. When the Filthy Three, a core group of expatriate riders, get e-mail from other riders, they take them to Mount Acha. "We never see 80 percent of them again," Mr. Danyo said.

"You learn how to ride it, or you don't ride as much as you used to," Mr. Bowie quickly added.

On race day, there will be two single-track courses and plenty of openings for volunteers. One course is for advanced downhill racers, the other for novices. Organizers expect 50 racers - males and females of all nationalities. The deadline to register is Wednesday. For more information, visit www.angelfire.com/ga/achamtb/filthyrace.html.

There is no cash prize, but the winner claims bragging rights. There will be a barbecue party at the end of the race for participants and volunteers.



DID YOU KNOW?

It takes a rider about THREE YEARS of biking to become good enough to enter a professional race. The average downhill course is THREE MINUTES long.

On a danger scale of one to 10, downhill riding rates 15. Downhill racing is an extreme sport and there have been deaths due to crashes.

But some bikers consider another discipline, road biking, even more dangerous. All it takes is one bus to sideswipe a biker and that's the end.

Bikes used by mountain bikers go through major repairs at least twice a year. And flat tires? They happen as often as they ride.


The Filthy Downhill Race Series is the the first "homegrown" race in Korea. It is an unofficial race organized entirely by riders. The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition talked to the three organizers about their first race, worst crashes and what keeps them biking.


Brett Bowie, 33, New Zealand, supervisor at Konkuk University Foreign Language Institute

Mr. Bowie was going stir crazy in New Zealand, so he left for Korea with a new Visa card, a bike and a backpack. His worst wipe out while biking was in Korea.

"I turned up three hours late for a run down Mount Acha with my friends. One guy told me, 'It's rocky, but you can go as fast as you want.' So I did.

"I got over this hill, looked down while in midair and was shocked. I had to throw my bike away to avoid hitting a tree. I landed on my left shoulder and lost a huge patch of skin."



Jung Han-seok, 36, Korea, owner of X-Bike

Mr. Jung began biking 10 years ago. Before biking, he was a hiker, but found it difficult to balance a career and pursue advanced hiking.

He began biking to train for hiking. But he eventually threw away his career and hiking to concentrate on biking. If he wasn't biking, he was fixing bikes for others.

Two months ago, he opened up a bike shop by Jayang-dong.

"When I'm biking, I feel alive. My focus is on biking, and only biking, and I forget everything else. When I'm working, I cannot forget mountain biking."



Steve Danyo, 34, United States, editor and writer at the Korean Ministry of Environment

Mr. Danyo traveled to Berlin for his first race, the Cycle Messenger World Championships. It was 1993, and he was a bicycle messenger who had ridden in San Francisco and Atlanta.

How was it?

"I had to race through town carrying an egg. They set jumps and stages with people pretending to be clients out of a nightmare. You had to lock your bike before entering the stage, deal with your clients, and change flats if you got any. It was a freak show; they even had a band made up of bicycle messengers."


by Joe Yong-hee

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