"Track is clear, let 'em rip!"
"Racers ready, 1-2-3-GO!"
"Well today we're at Lost Valley here and we have a downhill mountain bike race in the snow, believe it or not," said D.J. York. "We go up on the lift and slide down the hill, but it's fun. It gets us out, gives us a reason to ride our bike and we don't have to walk up the hill to do it."
York is one of the competitors in what's known as "Winterbike." He lives in Gray and he is considered a veteran of this emerging sport, where bicycle riders actually carry their bikes on the chairlift to the top of the hill in order to race back down.
"This will be my third year going to the Winterbike series," he said.
Winterbike is the name of the downhill bike race circuit, which began seven years ago, when Ernie's Cycle Shop of Westbrook organized what was a hodge-podge of informal gatherings of winter downhill bike enthusiasts first staged by a bike shop that has since gone out of business.
"Winterbike was born in 2005," said Sylvia Wallingford, co-owner of Ernie's. "We got the idea from Interbike -- it's a big bike show in Vegas -- so we did a play on words. Lost Valley was one of the mountains that originally got started because of the Winterfest."
Winterfest is a weeklong celebration of winter put on by the city of Auburn's Parks and Recreation Department, which offers families 10 days of outdoor activities, including the Winterbike competition at Lost Valley.
Most of the 60-plus Winterfest events take place on the slopes of the privately-owned Lost Valley, and recreational partnerships like the one with the city of Auburn helps bring people to the ski area. Linc Hayes is the president of the ski area where the less-than-normal natural snowfall has not been good for business.
"If you don't have snow in your backyard at home you don't think we have snow at the ski areas, but we do," Hayes said. "It is man-made, which in some cases is better than natural, because you can roll it and groom it better."
Diversification seems like a smart business move, especially in an industry dependent on the weather. But some ideas are more radical than others.
"I used to think [snow boarders] going down through the terrain and flying through the air and doing all their stunts -- I thought they were crazy," Hayes said. "But really, when I saw these bikers with the spikes sticking out of their tires coming down a hill, I've just got somebody else that I think is a little bit crazier you know? It's kind of a neat concept."
On top of the hill, racers are getting instruction on how the Winterbike race works from Bruce Wallingford, co-owner of Ernie's Cycle Shop. "The way it works is you do three runs and the top two people of those runs advance, and it's single elimination until the end," he said.
The racers take this time to ask any last minute questions they might have about the course.
"From the start line to the finish line you can take any route you want on that slope."
"Through the woods?"
"Well if that's faster...[laughs]"
"Question and concern: Which side of that tree are we going on?"
"Whatever you think is faster."
"Sweet I like that."
"The start Command will be racers ready 1-2-3-go."
More than 30 riders queue up to the start in waves of three or four abreast in a contest to see who can get down the hill the fastest in one piece.
"Racers ready! 1-2-3-GO!"
"That kid is so fast"
That "kid" is #14, Cade Patten, from Appleton. He is only 16 years old and attends Camden Hills High School. "It's a bit scary--you just pick a line and go for it," he said. "Just poke and hope. Hope that you make it to the bottom."
Riders do everything they can to ensure a safe trip down the slopes. Helmets are required and body armor is prevalent. The bikes themselves are modified for the winter terrain.
"You want to have, like, the knobbiest tires you can find and some sort of chain tensioning device," said Chris Steiner of Thomaston. "Otherwise, the chain will just fly right off."
While most of the riders are based in Maine there are a few who traveled a good distance to compete, like Larry Sereduck who made the trek to Lost Valley from his home in Rhode Island. He wiped out on his last run but remained in good spirits.
"I never really got a good start and just kind of, like, rode in the back and did what I could and crashed on the last one," Sereduck said. "And, you know, still, you know, big smile at the end you know?"
The race at Lost Valley is the first of three events in the Winterbike Race Series. The next race is Sunday, February 26 at the Snow Bowl in Camden. The final race in the series is at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire on Sunday, March 24.
Video: February 5, 2012 Lost Valley
Video by D.J. York