Early on Saturday afternoon, “Gangsta’s Paradise” echoes through the base of Marshall Mountain. Eighteen elite cross-country riders are about to begin a junior men’s Union Cycliste International World Series cross-country bike race at the annual Missoula XC competition. These riders, all between 17 and 18 years old, have come from across the country and from abroad to compete for world-ranking points. Among the pack is Jose Gerardo Ulloa, a 17-year-old from Mexico.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of the kids in the Olympics,” says Ben Horan, a race official watching from the deck of the former ski hill’s lodge, along with a small group of spectators.
When the starting bell sounds and the riders push off, spectators fan out in search of the best vantage. Horan points out a spot high up on the mountain where the course briefly splits and riders are allowed either to make a harrowing jump—the A-Line—or take a safer, slower tack on the B-Line.
Observers hike up, paralleling and occasionally crossing the 5-kilometer course. Signs on trees indicate the names of ski runs—Ambush, for example—that are now overgrown with young pines.
At the A-Line, there’s a small crowd of volunteers, spectators and riders’ parents waiting for racers to pass. The first to arrive is wearing a green and red Mexico jersey. It’s Ulloa, and he makes the 5-foot A-Line jump look easy. Landen Beckner, the sole Montanan competing in his category, comes next.
After the riders pass for the last time, spectators scramble back down the mountain just in time to watch Ulloa cross the finish line in first. Speaking through his coach and translator, Ziranda Madrigal, Ulloa is excited and gracious. He came all the way from Guadalajara to spend one hour, eight minutes and twenty-four seconds riding Marshall Mountain. He seems to think it was worth it. As the winner, he receives an elk mount. Ulloa holds it up proudly, but Madrigal has some reservations.
“It’s going to be difficult to get in the plane,” he says.