Chuska Challenge offers a unique race on Navajo Nation – The Journal

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The Top of the World view on the Chuska Challenge mountain bike course is breathtaking. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

27 years of tradition as part of a growing trend of mountain biking by reservation

The distant blue dome of the Chuska Mountains rises from the horizon south of Cortez with a mysterious and alluring attraction.

In the heart of Navajo country, northeastern Arizona’s secluded mountain range rises to 9,800 feet above sea level and is covered in thick forests that open up to stellar views of the colorful southwestern desert.

But access to the Chuska hinterland for members of the non-Navajo tribe is limited without a permit or special permission.

The annual Chuska Challenge mountain bike race is the exception.

The 20 mile community run and tour is open to the general public. They provide a unique opportunity to enjoy the remote mountain range that is normally not accessible, said organizer Tom Riggenbach, executive director of NavajoYes, a youth organization that focuses on healthy living.

Runners compete on a steep hill in the Chuska Challenge on the Navajo Reservation on Saturday. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

“This is our 27th year. The Chuska Challenge is one of our main racing events, ”he said. “Put simply, it’s a fun, family-friendly event with a certain competitive spirit. The main thing is to get everyone out on their bikes! ”

The race and others are organized in cooperation with the Navajo Nation Parks Department, Navajo President Jonathan Nez, the Navajo Tribal Council, locals and NavajoYes.

NavajoYes promotes outdoor recreation and hosts a series of foot and bike races in Navajo County, including the legendary Tour de Rez.

COVID-19 precautions were in place for the Chuska Challenge on September 18, including the wearing of masks at the start and finish lines, staggered departures to prevent regrouping of people and fewer events.

Tufftan BIa and Tevon Thompson took part in the Chuska Challenge on September 18th. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

About 80 people attended under blue skies and mild temperatures in the 1970s. A DJ played rock music and traditional Native American songs.

The course climbed up to Buffalo Pass on the causeway, then veered over rugged dirt roads that cut through the heart of the Chuskas. Bikers travel through ponderosa forests, up and out of valleys, through open grasslands, and through Navajo communities and sheep ranching camps.

Tom Riggenbach, organizer and founder of the Chusaka Challenge race, explains the route to the runners. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

“Bikers show respect for the land, the people and one another. This good attitude is appreciated by residents and breeders along the course and makes the race a success, ”said Riggenbach.

“Sheepdogs are serious,” he advised the runners at the start. “Give them some space. They are doing their job. “

Cyclists are ridden by herds of sheep guarded by dogs during the Chuska Challenge. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

The loop route passes through the Dine ‘Bikeyah Oil Field, which is Arizona’s largest oil field. The aid stations provide support throughout the route. The sandy sections slowed people down and added a difficult element.

The highlight of the race was the enjoyable round trip ascent to the top of the world.

The runners stopped dead to take in the breathtaking views of the canyons, desert spiers and red cliffs of the mesa. The Carrizo Mountains draw in the distance, as do Monument Valley and Bears Ears. Nestled in the valley below is the idyllic Navajo community of Cove.

Access via a ranch to the Top of the World viewpoint is restricted to the general public during the race. A Navajo Nation Ranger stands on an ATV while people sit in groups or alone to take in the view.

Shoni Curley Jr. takes a break on Top of the World during the Chuska Challenge mountain bike race in Arizona on September 18. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

Navajo Shoni Curley Jr. was in awe of the sight of his homeland and entered the race for the first time, inspired by his younger sister.

He recently started mountain biking for a lifestyle change after a heart attack that required surgery.

“I changed my diet, I started cycling. I feel good, blessed, ”he said. “It’s the longest I’ve ever cycled, and it also makes me want to explore other cycling areas. Part of my story is that I’ve always been told I have high cholesterol, but I never did anything. Don’t go like I did. Live a healthy lifestyle now, your family and children depend on you.

The riders came from Navajo County, the Four Corners States and beyond.

“It’s cool to be here. We’re so excited. Everyone’s having fun,” said Trevor Salt, 30, a member of the Navajo tribe who traveled from Bingham, Utah. bicycle is becoming more and more popular for Navajo people. It also has economic benefits. We have donated bicycles so that they can be reused and reused by young people.

The Navajo Nation Rangers monitored the Chuska Challenge mountain bike race and helped the riders stay on the course. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

Race results

Former professional mountain biker and US Olympian Travis Brown of Durango took first place in the men’s race with a time of 1 hour 29 minutes.

Tom Preller of Page, Ariz., Was second with a time of 1 hour and 50 minutes and Jamie Whitehorse was third with a time of 2 hours and 56 minutes.

In the women’s competition, Alana Bencivengo of Fort Defiance, Ariz., Took first place with a time of 2 hours and 2 minutes. Terry Kellewood of Binado, Ariz., Was second at 2 hours, 26 minutes, and Gerald Kady, of Bloomfield, New Mexico, was in at 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Dine Bike Project mechanic and trainer Manny Chavarria (center left) poses with Chuska Challenge winner Travis Brown (center right) with two local riders. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

“It’s an old fashioned race on two track roads, with good climbs and descents,” Brown said after the race.

Preller took the lead with a brisk pace early on, he said, and Brown caught up with a run. The two rode amicably together, changing the thread.

“Whoever was in front would take the wrong line in the sand, and the second would see it and take a better line and pass. It was funny, ”Brown said.

Brown said he had a gap on the climb to Top of the World and started out ahead until the finish. This is his third victory for the Chuska Challenge in as many years.

The location of the race on the Navajo Nation makes it special, said Brown, whose employer Trek donated bikes to Navajo youth.

“The consensus and cooperation of Navajo communities and governments to open up access and organize these events is what makes it possible. The terrain is top notch and has made this race legendary, ”he said. “Getting young people involved is a big part of the mission. “

Cycling doesn’t require a lot of training or specialized programs once you’ve learned the basics.

“Just ride; the more you do, the strength, skill and endurance will come naturally, ”Brown said. He said bike development programs avoid intense training regimes for young riders and just encourage them to have fun.

A runner from the Chuska Challenge climbs to a pass. (Jim Mimiaga / The Journal)

Jim Mimiaga / The Journal

The idea for the Chuska Challenge was started by Riggenbach and his students in 1995 when he was a teacher at the Navajo School in Shonto, Arizona.

He and his students regularly mountain biked in the Chuskas and wanted to share the experience.

“We were having fun one day and we said, ‘let’s invite other people to enjoy it,’ and the rest is history,” Riggenbach said.

In 1995, he organized the first Chuska Challenge, and it took off.

“He had many variations. Next year the plan is to have a similar route and hopefully bring back live music. “

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