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Today's SF Chronicle sports section had the entire back page dedicated to the Cougar Mountain Classic race...

"When the U.S. Mountain Bike National Championships were switched from Mammoth Mountain to southern Sonoma County, Mary McConneloug was a bit bummed.

She had won her second national cross-country title at Mammoth last year on a course well-suited to her climbing talents, and she was enthralled with the landscape of the eastern Sierra resort.

"It's so beautiful out there, and the mountain biking is so incredible," McConneloug said Wednesday. "It's amazing."

But too much snow this winter threw a wrench into Mammoth's ability to put on the event, originally scheduled for the July 21-23 weekend (the ski area's lifts closed for the season July 4 and there's still snow on the slopes). So USA Cycling looked for a replacement, and found a suitable site in Infineon Raceway, the Sonoma County facility that for the past two years has been host to a road/mountain bike fest (the Cougar Mountain Classic) at this time of year.

And now McConneloug, who grew up in Fairfax in Marin County, finds herself defending her title practically in her erstwhile backyard.

Which, she figures, isn't all that bad.

"It's gonna be really great to have family and friends out there," she said. "It's definitely very motivating to have a cheering section. ... You pick up great vibes and the energy is contagious. It makes you want to try harder."

A large, personal rooting section isn't something McConneloug enjoys very often. For the past few years, McConneloug and her "other half," fellow x-c racer Mike Broderick, have been leading the vagabond life, traveling to events in North America and Europe in rental RV units 10 months of the year with no permanent address. And when the pair isn't competing -- the two also race on the late autumn/winter cyclocross circuit -- McConneloug and Broderick are spending time with his (in Massachusetts) or her (in Marin) family and friends.

This peripatetic lifestyle completely suits McConneloug, who has eschewed the route taken by other top-flight riders, who generally join a trade team, and is competing essentially as a solo rider.

"We've taken more of a natural, organic approach to this," she said. "We went into (mountain-bike racing) for the lifestyle, and we want to keep it simple. ... We have complete freedom in where we're going to race and what we're going to do. ... Our sponsors don't question our decisions, and I love that."

Despite the lack of man and/or womanpower, Team Kenda/Seven Cycles, the banner under which McConneloug and Broderick compete ("He's the wrench, I'm the cook," she said with a laugh. "We're the power of two."), is having a respectable season. McConneloug is ninth -- and the highest-placed American -- in the world rankings, after a couple of fifth-place finishes in World Cup events in Europe. Although she is No. 32 on the domestic circuit, that ranking is deceiving: She has competed in only one of four National Mountain Bike Series events contested so far, and she won that one in Mount Snow, Vt., the site of her first national title in 2003.

"I think our program has been going pretty well," McConneloug said. "I've been on the podium many times, so we must be doing something right."

The next "right" thing McConneloug has to do is defend her cross-country title, and she figures it's going to be a tough task. Shonny Vanlandingham of Durango, Colo., has won the three NMBS races in which McConneloug didn't compete and has the support of the strong Luna team (the Berkeley-based squad has four women in the U.S. ranking's top 10). Other racers who concern McConneloug are Subaru-Gary Fisher teammates Heather Irminger of Boulder, Colo., and Willow Koerber of Vancouver, British Columbia, who are 2-3 in the domestic rankings.

"There are a lot of strong women in the top 10," McConneloug said. "Now that we're in the heat of the season and everyone's fit ... anything can happen. Races are crazy; you can't plan for everything.

"It's going to be a fun race out there."

Up to a point, that is.

"It's going to be hot, I'm going to hurt, and I'm going to be suffering," she said. "I've got to be calm and concentrate on my cadence, my heart rate, my posture on the bike, my pedal stroke. ... I've just got to be centered and focused on winning."

But no matter what transpires Friday, when the women's pro cross-country event takes place at Infineon, McConneloug will be able to take something good from it.

"Every time I go out, I feel like I'm learning so much," she said. "(Mountain-bike racing) is challenging, frustrating, satisfying. You have to have so much focus and dedication to keep you on the path, and not let bad results get to you."

McConneloug, who turned 35 in late June, hopes to continue her education by qualifying for her second Olympic team in 2008 -- she placed ninth in the women's x-c race in the 2004 Athens Games -- and "whatever happens after that we'll have to evaluate," she said.

Cougar Mountain Classic
What: 2006 USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships is featured at annual road/mountain bike festival.

When: Today through Sunday

Where: Infineon Raceway, Highways 37 and 121, near Sonoma

Mountain Bike Championship schedule: Marathon, 7 a.m. today; Cross Country, 2 p.m. (men) and 4:15 p.m. (women) Friday; Super-D, noon Saturday; Mountain Cross, 6 p.m. Saturday; Short Track, 1:45 (men) and 2:30 p.m. Sunday; Downhill, 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Other events: Road criterium, 3 p.m. (women) and 4:15 p.m. (men) Friday; Road circuit race, 11:30 a.m. (women) and 2:15 p.m. (men) Saturday; Road endurance race, 11:30 a.m. (men) and 2:15 p.m. (women) Sunday.

Tour de France lounge: The race will be shown on six TVs beginning at 6:30 a.m. each day. The lounge will be in the main paddock and it features couches, chairs, spin-bikes and a massage area. Coffee and energy drinks, smoothies, muffins, pastries, fruit and energy bars will be available.

Also: Events for families and recreational riders include the Slow Ride around the 2.52-mile Infineon Raceway at 1 p.m. Saturday and the Kids Bike Rodeo from 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday. There also will be youth races and a vintage concourse with historic bicycles from Masi, Benotto, Cinelli, Ritchey, Specialized, Breeze, Cunningham and Fisher.

Tickets: $10 per vehicle per day.

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