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Dirt Demons 

Big Shark Bicycle Company wheels out a big welcome for some of the nation's best mountain-bikers

Consider spending part of this weekend at a type of sports competition you've probably never attended, where you can get really close to the action and admission is free.

The third annual American Mountain Bike Challenge Big Shark Challenge race draws about 600 competitors to Castlewood State Park for three races Saturday and Sunday. Those races include time trials, in which mountain-bikers start at intervals and the best elapsed time wins. The second type of event, a "dirt criterium," is "like a NASCAR race on bikes," says Big Shark Bicycle Company owner Mike Weiss. A pack of riders start at the same time, though the narrow track is pretty much wide enough only for a single bike. "You have to be very aggressive," says Weiss. "It's 20, 30 minutes of racing at full bore -- it's full-contact bike racing." The main race is Sunday's five- to seven-lap cross-country event, which taxes the competitors' stamina most heavily.

The Big Shark Challenge is the premier mountain-bicycling race in the Midwest, says Weiss. Generous cash prizes draw athletes from the competitive St. Louis scene and well beyond to Castlewood. This year, U.S. Olympic team member Tinker Juarez (accompanied by his pro-support team) is among the big names converging on Ballwin.

The Castlewood biking course is "extremely challenging," says Weiss, featuring short, difficult climbs. Spectators, he says, "can find a spot along the course and just camp out to watch the fastest part of a descent, the top of a hill, someplace where there's a big obstacle." When the pros get going through the woods, it's a frenzy of neck-and-neck racing. At various points on the hilly course, the brightly clothed bikers catch air and drop down, skidding through the next turn.

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