The finish line hummed with excitement at the U.S. Cup mountain bike races last June, as a crowd gathered around hometown winner Russell Finsterwald.
The young Colorado Springs rider had ripped the legs off the pro field in the weekend's final race. It was an emotional victory for local cyclists and for Andy Bohlmann, a bear of a man who has produced mountain bike races in the Pikes Peak region for 19 of the last 25 years.
"Way to go, Russell," Bohlmann said. He hugged the young rider and his eyes grew watery. Everyone there realized the moment's weight.
Bohlmann's wife, Kathleen, had passed away seven months before. They had met in a bike shop dressing room in Ames, Iowa, and were married for 34 years. Kathleen loved bike racing, and in 1990 she started Sand Creek Sports, an organization that provides riders — young and old — the opportunity to race weekly in the summertime. Finsterwald, now a professional on the SRAM/Troy Lee Designs Racing Team, is one of many who learned his skills at the Bohlmanns' races.
"Russell is like one of our own boys," Andy says. "He goes way back with us. He can't race with us as often now because of his schedule, but it was really cool to see that [U.S. Cup win]."
Bohlmann had thought about giving up his bike races after Kathleen passed away. His sons, Matthew and Philip, convinced him to continue. Some family traditions are worth maintaining.
Bohlmann, 64, has produced more than 100 bike races in the Pikes Peak region. A few others have hosted races, but nobody else really wants the job. Sponsorships cover some of the cost, and there is a little money left over each year for groceries and beer. But Bohlmann knows local cycling events will never be about the money. He could raise his race entry fees, but chooses to keep it all affordable: $15 for juniors, $20 for everyone else, per race.
Now he's gearing up for the 2015 Ascent Cycling Series (sandcreeksports.com), five races that begin June 3 in Palmer Park. The Ascent Cycling bike shop is the title sponsor. Riders of all abilities are welcome, and it's common to see beginners and national champions racing on the same course. Everyone involved, riders, staff and race fans, embrace the funky and friendly vibe that resonates on the trail.
The race courses at Palmer Park, Cheyenne Mountain State Park and Bear Creek Regional Park can be challenging, but they're doable by any reasonably fit cyclist. All but one of the races are held on Wednesday afternoons.
"It has really become a family party," Bohlmann says. "We've had reunions at our bike races. Stuff like that happens all the time. It's not so much a bike race. It's more like an outdoor event in the woods. That's what we do. You can see it in the riders. Everybody helps everybody. That's the cool part."
Bohlmann now hosts second-generation riders — the sons and daughters of old friends — who are finding their legs on the trails their parents once pedaled. On the other end of the spectrum are Cameron Chambers and Tracy Thelen, national champions who rarely miss an Ascent Cycling Series race.
"Andy's races are a common rallying point for the mountain biking community," Chambers says. "The races draw the community together and give us an identity."
Thelen appreciates the chance to include some hard racing in the weekly schedule.
"Andy and his races rock," she says. "It's a mid-week ass-kicking regardless of who shows up, and I know there will always be fast people to race against ... even if it's the guys. The 2008 Sand Creek races were my first, so it's been really important for me to come back every year and support the local races."
After last year's races, Bohlmann sat alone at his dining room table for the first time in 35 years. Kathleen had insisted that he take a vacation; Mexico was his destination. He returned with new energy and made plans for the 20th year of Sand Creek Sports events.
"I skidded by last year," he says. "I'm doing pretty good now, and looking forward to the races."