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Riding high

More cyclists could visit Ashland after Bicycling magazine featured the annual Mt. Ashland Hill Climb Bike Race as one of five "painfully steep but hugely rewarding" races in America.

The January issue of the magazine said that the race got its start 30 years ago when a few road bicyclists challenged some mountain bikers to see who could get from Lithia Park to the top of Mount Ashland the fastest.

The road cyclists took Highway 99, while the mountain bikers went up dirt roads. They met for the last two miles before finishing at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, the magazine reported.

"No one remembers who won, but the question of superiority is revisited every September," said Bicycle magazine.

Mountain bikers travel 18 miles on dirt, while road cyclists pump there way up 24 miles of paved road, the magazine said.

The elevation gain is 4,600 feet — far more than the 2,284 to 3,226 feet of elevation gain for the other four hill climb races featured in the magazine. The Ashland hill climb also covers the most miles.

This year, the 31st annual Mt. Ashland Hill Climb Bike Race is planned for Sept. 16. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association, which plans, builds and maintains trails in and around Ashland.

Scott Krupa, manager of Cycle Sport bike shop in Ashland, said the mention of the race in Bicycling magazine shows that Ashland is already on the map when it comes to biking destinations, but the publicity will likely draw even more enthusiasts.

"Being in Bicycling magazine will help. We're seeing tons of bicycle tourists," Krupa said. "Everyone thinks Ashland is just Shakespeare, but it's not."

Krupa said the town provides the best of both worlds for visitors. They can enjoy outdoor activities while also taking in cultural events such as plays.

Krupa said he would like to see more government involvement when it comes to developing biking amenities. He pointed to U.S. Cellular Community Park — the city of Medford's five-field baseball and softball complex — as a facility that draws sports-oriented visitors to the area.

"Bicycling is a huge industry for this area, but it's almost all self-created," Krupa said. "We're not getting a lot of help. We're already a destination place for bicyclists, but we're under the radar."

Government agencies, individuals and groups have teamed up to develop and maintain some bike amenities in the area, such as the paved Bear Creek Greenway and dirt roads and trails in the forested mountains above Ashland.

Krupa estimated that Mt. Ashland Hill Climb Bike Race participants are about half local. Two other annual bike races in Ashland are bigger and attract a higher percentage of out-of-town cyclists, he said.

Those are the Spring Thaw Mountain Bike Festival, which will take place on May 19 and 20, and the Ashland Mountain Challenge Super D downhill race, planned for June 23.

Local cyclist and bike safety instructor Bill Heimann said he has seen awareness of bicycling in and around Ashland growing, especially in the past four years or so.

He said events like the Spring Thaw Mountain Bike Festival have increased awareness of mountain biking here, while the nationally known Adventure Cycling Association mapped out a Sierra Cascades route from the Canadian border down to Mexico.

That mountainous route for road cyclists passes through Crater Lake National Park and Ashland, according to an Adventure Cycling Association map on that group's website.

As for the annual Mt. Ashland Hill Climb Bike Race, road cyclists and mountain bikers continue to vie for supremacy.

In recent years, Krupa said a few mountain bikers have finished at the top first, but are soon followed by a pack of road cyclists.

Mountain bikers tend to race individually, while cyclists gain advantage by working as a team, he said.

For men, the mountain biking hill climb record is held by Evan Plews, whose 2008 time of one hour, 26 minutes and 12 seconds edges out Shepherd Davis' 2009 road cycling record by just 27 seconds.

For women, road cyclist Jenny Slawta reigns supreme with her 2009 time of one hour, 35 minutes and 40 seconds. Mountain biker Kristi Green set a women's mountain bike course record of one hour, 56 minutes and three seconds in 2008, according to www.mtashlandbike.com/.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.