Bell takes VAHS MTB series’ first race

It was a start.

And a heck of a start at that.

The Virginia High School Mountain Bike Race Series, believed to be the first series of its kind in the state and possibly the East Coast, started Tuesday afternoon at the Miller School to rave reviews from veteran high school-aged mountain bikers who’ve been hoping for a competition like this for some time.

“This is really the first of its kind,” said Murray High School student Whit Zirkle. “It’s awesome to see this stuff finally get into play.”

Zirkle checked in at third in the race behind winner Connor Bell, an accomplished young cyclist from Harrisonburg representing Rocktown racing club, and another local product, Chris Keeling, a St. Anne’s-Belfield student racing as part of the Charlottesville Bike Camp team. It was everyone in the field’s first chance to ride in a high school only race and represent their school or club, a fact that wasn’t lost on Keeling.

“It’s really cool to be out here with all these high school kids racing,” Keeling said. “When you think of high school sports, you think of the big sports like football and basketball, but to be out here with all these riders and be able to support your school is a great experience.”

Blue Ridge School, home to an extensive, long-running outdoors program, had an excellent representation, with six riders in the top 25 of the 33-competitor race. Dillon Long was the highest-finishing member of the Blue Ridge contingent checking in at seventh in the race. All 33 riders had the added benefit of a practice lap with professional rider Jeremiah Bishop, a 12-time member of the USA Cycling National Team.

“I’ve always followed (Bishop) on the internet and looked at his Facebook page,” Long said. “To actually see him in real life is pretty cool and he actually gave us a couple of really cool pointers and he’s a nice guy too.”

Eastern Virginia Mountain Biking Association’s Emily Croft, out of the Tidewater area, grabbed the girls title just in front of Miller School’s Ursula Nelson. The two finished 16th and 17th respectively in the total race.

Bell will take the leader’s jersey, presented to he and Croft as the boys and girls’ current series leader, on to the second race, scheduled for March 31 at Hillandale Park in Harrisonburg.

“Overall it was a complete success,” said Miller School Endurance team coach and race director Peter Hufnagel. “The kids had a great team and they raced hard. This was part of the strategic plan, to create a high school mountain bike series, but it came together quick — in about a month.”

The series is scheduled for six total races, culminating with the May 21 Virginia State Championship at Walnut Creek Park in North Garden.

Top 10 finishers in 2011 VAHS MTB Race at Miller School

1. Connor Bell, Rocktown

2. Chris Keeling, Charlottesville Bike Camp

3. Whit Zirkle, Blue Ridge Cyclery

4. Clair Wailzer, Eastern Virginia Mountain Biking Association

5. Adam Croft, Eastern Virginia Mountain Biking Association

6. Will Chambers, Miller School

7. Dillon Long, Blue Ridge School

8. Cameron Ritcher, Rocktown

9. Hayden Castle, Blue Ridge School

10. Kyle Ottoway, Miller School

2011 VAHS MTB Race One team finish order at Miller School

1. Rocktown- 20

2. Eastern Virgnia Mountain Biking Association- 28

3. Blue Ridge School- 28

4. Miller School- 31

5. Charlottesville Bike Camp Composite Team- 35

6. Tandem Friends School- 78