By Dillon Tabish, 4-13-12
||Caption: Whitefish native Willie Hobbs competes in a professional downhill mountain biking competition in Spokane, Wash., in late March. - David Hobbs photo/courtesy Great Northern Cycles Downhill Team
Craig Prather remembers being introduced to downhill mountain biking. He was 18 years old with a less than healthy lifestyle. When someone urged him to take a seat and ride, he scoffed at the idea. But eventually, he skeptically agreed.
Today he’s still riding and owns a cycling shop in Whitefish, Great Northern Cycling at 328 Central Ave.
Seeing how the sport diverted his life down a healthier, happier path, Prather is trying to offer the same opportunity to others. Like Willie Hobbs, a 20-year-old Whitefish native and avid mountain biker.
Prather and Hobbs have organized a new professional downhill mountain biking team. The group, called the Great Northern Cycles Downhill Team, currently consists of five sponsored local members with Hobbs as the de facto captain. Competitions are slated throughout the spring and summer around the Pacific Northwest, including an event at Whitefish Mountain Resort, the team’s premier sponsor, in August.
“Cycling has really done a lot for me over the years,” Prather said. “But today (competitive racing) is kind of a dying sport from when I started in the heyday, for various reasons. There’s video games and kids have a lot of other interests. But racing and competition is good and healthy, and I just really want to foster that.”
Hobbs and Prather began planning the race team over the last year. Hobbs, who attends Montana State University and works at Great Northern in the summers, had been racing downhill since he was in high school, but on his own and without an organized local effort. Teaming up with Prather, he gathered sponsors and developed safe trails throughout the valley that would be the upstart team’s training grounds.
“The valley has a huge cycling community with a bunch of avid cyclists,” Hobbs said. “There’s a rogue club and cross country clubs and some competitive cross country teams. But there weren’t any competition downhill teams.”
Hobbs recently competed in his first pro competition in Spokane. In two separate races in a field of over 180 competitors, Hobbs placed ninth and 12th.
The team will compete in the Gravity Series, which features races throughout the region over the next few months. In downhill mountain bike racing, riders are battling time as they maneuver down single-track trails featuring a variety of obstacles. The competitions are for all ages and skill levels. Hobbs is the only member on the local team currently competing in the pro category, a distinction he earned by qualifying through USA Cycling.
Hobbs, like Prather, picked up the sport on a whim and after that couldn’t stop riding.
“I got instantly hooked and started riding bikes every day after school, rain or shine,” Hobbs said. “It takes you anywhere. Runners say they get their runner’s high from running a lot. I get that biking high after a good ride with my buddies. Nothing beats that.”
The more he rode, the more Hobbs wanted something substantial to aim for. A goal that he and others could achieve. That’s when he met Prather and found someone with a similar dream.
“We’re trying to do our part by getting behind these kids and giving them the tools,” Prather said. “Willie has turned out to be extremely talented and most importantly he’s a really well-grounded kid. We like to support kids who are giving back to the community.”
Along with the pro team, Hobbs is working on creating a youth development program, too. The goal will be teaching kids safe fundamentals, he said.
“This is hopefully the start of something bigger,” Hobbs said. “We’re really excited to try and bring something like this to the community.”
Even though Prather is “too old to race,” he still rides. It’s been a lifelong passion ever since he first gave it a try as an 18-year-old needing a new direction.
“Most of us, we live in the mountains for a reason, to play outdoors,” he said. “But also you’ve got to support these kids or they get burned out and they just go back to hanging out in the streets. We should be mentors. That’s kind of what the team is about.”
For more information about the Great Northern Cycles Downhill Team, call 862-5321 or 253-8823.
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