Jeremiah Bishop's first mountain bike was hot.

That's not to say it was cool. It was actually stolen.

"I didn't have much money," he said. "I'd wrecked my bike, and my friends said, 'I know how we can get you a bike."'

Their plan was to steal him a new bike, and he went along with it. He even raced on it once. Then he got caught.

"I got in a lot of trouble for it," he said. "I did return it and I apologized. ... It was a real turnaround for me. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Years later, the family he'd borrowed the bike from saw him racing. They had a nice conversation, and all was forgiven.

"They actually watch me race now," he said with a smile. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this."

Bishop was in Park City to race in the Kenda Cross Country event held at Deer Valley as part of the 2008 National Mountain Bike Series. He finished second in Saturday's race, but for him and many like him, the competitions are about more than winning or losing. Technically, they are non-traditional athletes, but most of them say their passion for mountain biking mirrors what most people gain from more traditional sports.

Melissa Buhl, a 26-year-old dual slalom racer, started riding BMX bikes in an effort to keep up with her older brother and his friends.

"I was that annoying little sister," she said. "My dad refused to let me do it. He put me in cheerleading, baton, dance, you name it. I was relentless and he finally gave in. He's my biggest fan now."

Buhl, who switched to mountain bike racing at age 16, won the women's pro dual slalom event Saturday and said her goal is to do for other women what someone once did for her.

"The most difficult aspect for women is (finding) support and just getting into it," she said. "There aren't school teams or rec programs. We were sort of the outcast sport, but now we have more developmental programs. I really want to sponsor an all-female team ... There aren't that many of us (women) out here, and a lot of that is support. It takes massive commitment."

A female professional racer once offered her sponsorship, which included equipment, clothing and entry fees, and she would like to do that herself once she finishes school and slows down her own racing career. She wants other women to find what she's discovered about herself on a dirt track.

"There are a million and one things I love about it," she said. "Most of all, I love being challenged."

Bishop fell in love with mountain biking when some friends in his neighborhood started riding. He converted a road bike, putting bigger tires on it and some extra pieces of metal on the frame, but it didn't last long on those dirt trails.

"I pretty much destroyed it," he said. Which is when he learned what happens when you help yourself to someone else's property. Finally, he got a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant and "worked my butt off. I borrowed the last $500 and bought myself a real mountain bike."

He began racing and was good at it. That allowed him to find sponsors, travel and opened his eyes to what the world has to offer.

His success has also allowed him the opportunity to help others who may not have the means to buy that bicycle. He works with World Bicycle Relief, an organization that uses bikes to empower people living in poverty. Not only do they help people get that first bicycle, they train people in how to make bikes, how to repair bikes, and they create situations where professionals can use bicycles as transportation in underdeveloped areas or communities damaged by natural disasters.

"It has been an eye-opening experience," Bishop said. "They came to me at a race and I had always been pretty community-minded working with kids. It's an amazing organization."

And when he's sucking wind, pedaling up a mountain path, eating someone else's dust in the sweltering heat, he knows his greatest victory won't be against those other guys on those other bikes.

"Everything is up to me," Bishop said. "I love the individuality of the sport. There are a lot of unique challenges, and much of them mirror life. It requires steadfastness and determination. You have to take opportunities when you have them and be grateful for the little things."

And above all else, enjoy the ride.

"Just have a good time," he said, smiling.


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com