Pedal power

Spectators at this year's Showdown at Sugar Mountain will be treated to a blast of dirt, sun, and high-flying mountain bikes.

As one of the perennially popular "adventure sports," off-road bike racing is a great opportunity to catch a handful of elite athletes handling some tricky terrain, all from the comfort of your own beach chair. Just don't forget to bring along a few spare towels – dust clouds from passing bikes has ruined many an afternoon picnic.

At this year's Showdown at Sugar Mountain in Banner Elk, N.C., a host of pro men and women will compete for prize purses in four separate categories. The event, which runs from July 26-29, is split into four disciplines, each requiring a different skill set. Cross-country is the most like traditional road cycling. Courses are long, and a premium is placed on endurance. Short-track racing, a relative of cross-country, uses a short, banked course. Racers run fast laps in tight proximity over berms and bends; if you can get a front-row seat, it's one of the most exciting events to watch. Events are generally free to attend, and spectators can wander the length of each course to take in all of the action.

Most spectators, however, get the biggest kick out of the Downhill and Dual Slalom events. In the former, racers barrel down the mountain on tricked out rides that resemble – in their weight and suspension – motorcycles. The winners are determined by speed, and competitors must steer their bike over all manner of obstacles, including logs, ruts, and jumps. In Dual Slalom, four racers go head to head over a short, downhill course, flying through smooth double-track curves.

At the Showdown at Sugar Mountain, the Downhill event of choice is the Super D, which is generally more horizontal than a typical downhill course. But the organizers of the event have seen fit to allow fans to ride a chair lift to the top of the mountain ($22 for an all-day ticket, or $8 for a one-time ride). From there, the course is wide open – you can catch every bump and lump, and see the riders fly by on the rutted road to the finish line.

More than enough excitement – and mud – for one day.

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