May 08, 2003 11:00 pm

By Mark Furman

For The Observer

Corey Jonas tried to explain that the worst part of the ride is normally the best part.

It's "the first bobsled" — or "gully," or "ditch" — a desert wash at Virtue Flat OHV area that invites mountain bikers to make high-speed banked turns as the ditch snakes its way downslope.

But not today.

Correction: Race day.

"You can't even ride the gullies — you have to walk," Jonas said Saturday after the Baker City man finished fourth in his division in his first-ever mountain bike race.

Participants in the first Oregon Trail Classic mountain bike race since 1997 dropped into the "bobsled" a few minutes into their race. But instead of smooth, high-speed riding, racers landed in a six-inch-deep river of mud and started going nowhere fast.

"It's like a big mud hole, and you try pushing but you wind up carrying the bike — and it weighs 50 pounds" with the added mud, explained Michael Bading from Boise in between picking grit from his teeth after the race.

"I've promoted 100 races, over 15 years," commented Wild Rockies race organizer Ron Dillon, "and this is the third muddiest. "Ever."

Wild Rockies last promoted a race at Virtue Flat in 1997, drawing 304 competitors.

Dillon and his title sponsor Motion Potion resumed the race this year, but the weather kept the crowd away. The field of runners, walkers and mountain bikers, mostly from Boise, numbered only 78. Dillon blamed the weather for keeping people home; a race three weeks earlier attracted 252 participants.

"I wanted another early season desert race," Dillon said of the decision to resume the Virtue Flat race. What he got was rain, mud, grit — and smiles from participants.

"The chances are excellent that we'll be back next year," he said.

The mud and misery at Virtue Falt didn't dampen spirits Saturday. Done with their race, mountain bikers in the first heat congratulated each other and shared stories about believing their bike was broken — only to realize the gears and wheels had been jammed with dense, chunky mud.

At one point, "a piece of sagebrush mudded to the fork," Kim Mahaffey of Baker City recalled. "It sounded like a baseball card, when you were a kid and put them in your spokes."

Jonas almost missed the race entirely.

There was some confusion about whether the race times were Mountain or Pacific time. Jonas showed up at Virtue Flat just as his classification was about to begin, but Dillon held the race for one of the "hometown heroes."

"I showed up late and threw my money down, ran to the car, put my bike together and then this guy says my chain is off," Jonas recalled of his late entry.

Jonas had almost missed the race. And, like many racers from Idaho who skipped the race, he could have stayed home and avoided the mud he'll be cleaning off his bike for months to come.

Mel Ilka of Caldwell disagreed with that reasoning, however.

"If you stayed home," he said, splattered from head to toe with mud, and grinning ear to ear, "you wouldn't be having any fun."

Conditions for last Saturday's Oregon Trail Classic continued a streak of bad meteorological mojo for cycling events in Baker County.

Last year's inaugural Elkhorn Classic stage race pitted 300 racers against each other and the elements, culminating in a late spring snowstorm atop Dooley Mountain.

Organizer Nathan Hobson received many compliments, however, on the course. Riders considered the scenery and conditions to be "epic," and the snowstorm story has helped circulate word of the race in Portland and Boise cycling circles. The second annual classic opens June 20 this year.

Almost three years earlier, Cycle Oregon participants awoke Sept. 13, 1999, to 19-degree weather in Ukiah. The 2,000-rider group got a late start for Haines that day after waiting for the day to warm up. Many riders got caught at the Anthony Lakes Recreation area hours and miles later as darkness — and the air temperature — fell.

The ensuing chaos left some Haines organizers with a sour taste in their mouth as late and weary riders all but missed the town's hospitality that evening.

However, Cycle Oregon is returning to Baker County this fall, beginning and ending the week-long tour in Baker City.