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A competitor walks his bike down a treacherous part of the course during Saturday’s race after rain made the trail slippery.

A competitor walks his bike down a treacherous part of the course during Saturday’s race after rain made the trail slippery. (Photos courtesy of Scott Champion)

A competitor walks his bike down a treacherous part of the course during Saturday’s race after rain made the trail slippery.

A competitor walks his bike down a treacherous part of the course during Saturday’s race after rain made the trail slippery. (Photos courtesy of Scott Champion)

Joseph Chesnut, left, and Wesley Fritz, both of Camp Zama, show off their mud-soaked gear after battling in the Rookie Division of Saturday’s Tour de Tama XVIII Mountain Bike Race at Tama Hills Recreation Center, Japan.

Joseph Chesnut, left, and Wesley Fritz, both of Camp Zama, show off their mud-soaked gear after battling in the Rookie Division of Saturday’s Tour de Tama XVIII Mountain Bike Race at Tama Hills Recreation Center, Japan. ()

TAMA HILLS RECREATION CENTER, Japan — As if the trek wasn’t already tricky enough.

A cold, steady rain turned this rugged 5K course into a quagmire Saturday and made for treacherous climbs and descents in the 18th installment of the biannual Tour de Tama Mountain Bike Race. Still, 83 riders came out to brave the elements in five divisions: Expert, Men’s Open, Men’s Over 35, Women’s Open and Rookie.

Drama unfolded in the Men’s Open battle, where the top three finishers — Staff Sgt. Eric Fitzpatrick of Yokota Air Base’s 730th Air Mobility Squadron and Japanese entries Mitsuo Okutsu and Satoshi Murata — were separated by just three seconds.

Elsewhere, more than a few spills, mud-soaked gear all around, and some scraped knees, elbows and shins were racked up during the grueling race.

“It was a little bit scary,” said Jessica Ecker, who competed in the Rookie Division with her husband, Staff Sgt. Randy Ecker of the 730th Air Mobility Squadron. “We made the mistake of trying it before the race (in the morning practice run). That was good in a way because we got to see what was coming but we wore ourselves down.”

Added Randy Ecker, “The practice lap was OK but after it started raining, things got pretty muddy and slippery … It can’t get much worse. It was really fun but probably the hardest it’ll ever be.”

Expert riders normally lap the course four times, but sloppy conditions reduced their run to 15K on Saturday. All others circled it twice.

The layout essentially remained the same from November’s Tour de Tama, said course designer Rick McCoy, adding that environmental regulations make establishing new trails difficult. The course’s two main features: A steep incline nicknamed “Water Tower Hill” at roughly the furthest point from the start line and a double dip toward the end that produces many crashes.

“A lot of people slide. It’s just an entertaining section,” McCoy said.

Several spots had to be negotiated by foot, as wheels simply were not an option after the track became increasingly loose from all the rain.

Tech. Sgt. Matt Arant, who works for U.S. Forces Japan at Yokota, was appearing in his eighth Tour de Tama. He ran into a tree stump during the Men’s Over 35 race and went tumbling over his handlebars.

“About four people passed me,” he said. “They were screaming, hooting and hollering. I had to walk the double dip.”

His girlfriend, Shelley Fraser, won the Women’s Division despite having to overcome a wipeout of her own on that same harrowing stretch near the finish. The Australian woman took up mountain biking about 14 months ago, and Saturday’s race was only her second.

“It was so muddy in some places, it was like an ice skating rink,” said Fraser, her left leg sporting a lengthy memento afterward. “You were just sliding, the tires so full of mud they couldn’t grip anything. It was fun, though.”

The Tour de Tama began in 1997 and is staged in both the spring and fall. A $25 entry fee included a T-shirt, door prizes and steak lunch provided by Tama Hills Lodge.

But as far as laundering all the mud-caked riding clothes, competitors were on their own.

Tour de Tama XVIII Mountain Bike RaceA look at the top finishers in Saturday’s Tour de Tama XVIII Mountain Bike Race, held at Tama Hills Recreation Center, Japan:

Rookie Division (10K)

1. Masuhiro Shinozaki, 54 minutes, 50 seconds.

2. Tech. Sgt. Felipe Vasquez, 59:06.

3. Jerry Hickey, 1:00:32.

Women’s Division (10K)

1. Shelley Fraser, 1:01:19.

2. Mitsuwa Sunaga, 1:10:32.

3. Antoaneta Fitzpatrick, 1:12:04.

Men’s Over 35 (10K):

1. Shinobu Takasugi, 42:19.

2. Makoto Yanagisawa, 44:58.

3. Yasutaro Doi, 45:55.

Top U.S. finisher

Spence Palmer, Stars and Stripes, 46:54.

Men’s Open (10K)

1. Staff Sgt. Eric Fitzpatrick, 45:45.

2. Mitsuo Okutsu, 45:46.

3. Satoshi Murata, 45:47.

Expert Division (15K)

1. Kazuyuki Suzuki, 1:00:40.

2. Yuuki Takahashi, 1:01:27.

3. Seiichi Mizumura, 1:01:54.

Top U.S. entry

Tech. Sgt. Eric Whiteside, did not finish.

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