Putting the Riders First
Fontana’s “spring training” mountain bike league turns 25
Cross-country racing: Southern California in the winter. While the rest of the country is dealing with snow, Fontana racers typically enjoy daytime temperatures in the 60s, 70s or even 80s in the coldest months of the year.
Donny Jackson, now 54, raced professional motocross in Southern California in the 1970s. “I was a double-digit guy,” he says. He was never a top-10 rider. At his best, he got up to 18th place in the local pro ranks.
In those days, Jackson often practiced his skills at the base of the big hills that modern-day mountain bikers now know as Fontana, part of the Inland Empire of Southern California, the vast sprawl of affordable housing located about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles. Jackson grew up about five miles away, in Riverside, where he still lives today.
When Jackson couldn’t make enough money racing motocross, he took up racing speedway motorcycles on a flat dirt track and got sponsored by Yamaha. That was when he turned to riding mountain bikes.
“I started riding back in ’85,” says Donny, “cross-training for speedway.”
It wasn’t long after that when he took the steps that led to promoting mountain bike races. “It was just a fluke thing,” he says, “because I’d been riding these mountains my whole life, since I was a kid, riding motorcycles and hiking and whatnot. We opened a bike shop here in 1990— Southridge Cycling—and we invited every- body to come out and ride our backyard. Over time, people were like, ‘You should hold a race. You’ve gotta put on a race!’” Where did he get the name? “Southridge was the name of the housing development there,” Jackson says, “so we started the first-ever mountain bike race here in Fontana called the Southridge Challenge. Our first one was in 1991; 2016 marks our 25th anniversary. I didn’t plan on promoting races. I was wanting to race, and I thought, well, there aren’t enough races. Maybe we’ll develop races for the early stages of mountain biking.”
Multiple disciplines: While downhill practice was taking place on one part of the mountain this day, riders like Ethan Jolly were competing on the Super D course nearby.
How did he know he could put on races? “I didn’t. I just went for it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We got maybe 30 riders, tops. Don’t ask me what we charged. It was probably 15 or 20 dollars at the time.”
Hotbed of talent: Some of the fastest pros in the sport have learned to race at Fontana. Tyler Viggers (here) is one of the fastest young experts on the course these days.
Not long after that first race was held, the folks at PowerBar approached Jackson. They wanted him to put on a winter race series to help promote mountain biking and offered to sponsor it. With their backing, Donny created the first Southridge Winter Series. Riders could keep racing during the off-season, and PowerBar could get more of the promotional exposure it needed to grow its business. The races proved to be a success in their first year, and Donny continued holding the series every winter afterwards, even after PowerBar turned elsewhere to promote its products. Donny’s winter series grew so much that it drew riders from all over the country and, to some extent, from the rest of the world. South African downhill star Greg Minnaar came to race it a number of years ago, as did British stars Steve Peat, Brendan Fairclough and Gee Atherton. Shaun Palmer and Cam Zink raced downhill at Fontana too. “The list goes on,” says Jackson. “There’s probably not a rider in the industry who has not participated in our events at one time or another.”
Dressed to kill it: Super D racer Chris Pitcher powers down the mountain at the last Fontana race of 2015, the Southridge Challenge. Racing was scheduled to resume again in January, with the Southridge Winter Series.
Jackson now puts on about 12 races a year at Fontana. The Winter Series consists of five races, held from January through March. After that comes the Fontana City National, a USA Cycling event that draws nearly all the top riders in the country in both cross-country and downhill. It has been going for 10 years now and is held at the end of March or early April. The Kenda Series is next, with four races in all, held in April, May, June and October. Then there is the Predator Night Race, held in late October. It’s an unusual downhill event where riders compete in the dark with lights on their bikes and helmets. There are also lights set up on towers to illuminate the course. The last race of the year is the annual Southridge Challenge, held the weekend before Thanksgiving, the event that launched Donny’s business back in 1991. These days, the race draws some- where between 500 and 1000 people. It’s obvious that Donny Jackson must be doing something right.
“When I was racing pro motocross, I used to practice out here at the base of the hills with ‘Rocket’ Rex Staten back in the ’70s. I raced speedway from ’83 to ’89. My best ranking as a pro was number 18 in CNC.” I was a double-digit guy.”
Variety rules: Fontana has so many different trails com- ing down from the top of the hills that downhill racers like Andrew Haney will find that the racecourses vary from one race to the next, adding to the excitement of racing here.
What’s the secret of his success? “We’re taking care of the riders first,” he says, “and with that, we know that the riders want to come out and support what we’re doing. We’re not claiming to be the best about it, but we definitely want to make sure that the riders are taken care of, first and foremost.”
Celebrity sighting: Freestyle motocross legend Ronnie Renner (right) poses for a selfie with World Cup downhill star Anneke Beerten. Both were practicing on the downhill course this day. Beerten regularly trains at Fontana in the winter to prepare for the upcoming World Cup series.
Afternoon sun: A downhill racer roosts through a corner in a Saturday afternoon practice session with the city of Fontana spread out below him.
“Promoting is a crapshoot. You never know if anyone is going to show up at the end of the day. My hope is that we have run enough events and that people who enjoy them will show up and be a part of them.”
Skills development: Racers who want to get better at downhill can get all the practice they need in a winter at Fontana. World Cup champions Greg Minnaar, Steve Peat and Gee Atherton are just a few of the overseas stars who have ridden Fontana in the winter months.
On the rise: Downhill racers at Fontana can enter the Beginner, Sport, Expert or Pro class at Fontana. Beginner-and Sport-class racers compete on an easier course than the pros, but they still face some challenging sections. Beginner Austin Dooley, shown here, looks like a future star. His time this day would have placed him fifth in the Sport Men 18 & Under class.
Hotbed of talent: It’s likely that some of the fastest pros of the future will be racing at Fontana this winter. Downhill champion Aaron Gwin entered his first downhill race here nearly 10 years ago. He’s since won six national titles in the U.S. and three World Cup titles.
Photographers too: Dean Bradley was the very first editor of Mountain Bike Action back in 1986. He was at Fontana this day shooting photos of his girlfriend, former pro downhiller (and Mountain Bike Action test rider) Jill Hamilton, the founder of Petal Power.
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