Sean Ungvarsky describes what he does matter-of-factly as if it is perfectly normal to speed down a mountain hillside.
“It’s no different than any other sport,” he said.
Maybe so to those who are involved, but for those on the outside, reaching speeds of 40 mph as downhill mountain bike riders race down ski slopes in a time-trial format, evading obstacles and flying off jumps, is a little more than that.
Maybe even a little reckless.
“People think mountain bikers are out of control, but to be honest, they’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” said Ungvarsky, an Ahwatukee resident. “It’s just a big family of racers all out to have fun.”
Ungvarsky is just getting into his second year of competition, and he says already other downhill racers have offered to have him over around the races. He’s also seen a great deal of success early in his career.
“My first race, I went to Bootleg Canyon in Nevada. I came in first place and my buddy came in second,” Ungvarsky said.
This year at the USA Cycling Gravity championships last weekend in New Mexico, he placed fourth in downhill competition in the 19-24 age group for Category 2.
Since starting his career, Ungvarsky has reached the podium more than a dozen times.
“I’ve been riding on South Mountain since I was a kid,” Ungvarsky said. “As I got more comfortable, I started building jumps. Then I said, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’ ”
In his time in competition, the young racer says there is one thing that he always looks forward to: the scenery.
“My favorite part is going to the mountains and trying to see it all,” said Ungvarsky, who went to the East Valley Institute of Technology. “I see the trails we race, but there are so many more. I want to get a feel for all of the terrain.”
However, picturesque views aren’t the only thing he’s seen. At the rate of speed he travels, crashes happen, and the racer has had his fair share.
“Fortunately I’ve never crashed in a race, but going off of jumps practicing, I’ll crash,” he said. “I’ve shattered both wrists and have pins in them now. And I’ve had more concussions than I can count.”
“My parents are good about it,” Ungvarsky added. “They know injuries are going to happen. Especially my dad, who races too.”
Sean and his father, BJ, were two of six Ahwatukee residents to go to the national championships.
His father placed fifth in dual slalom in the 40 and older group for Category 2-3. The other racers who went all finished in the top 20 for their respective categories.
In downhill, Desert Vista graduates Tyler Heuertz and Tristan Hunter placed 15th and 17th, respectively, in the Category 1 age 19-23 group, Marshall Hunter placed 10th in the men’s 50-54 group, and Samantha Chaloupka won bronze in the women’s 30-39 for Category 1.
This year was the first time competing in nationals for the Hunters. For the Ungvarskys, Heuertz, and Chaloupka, this was their second.
“It’d be great to see this community grow here,” said the younger Ungvarsky. “There aren’t any races in Arizona, and I think where we are is perfect for them.”
Heuertz had a different start to his career than Sean Ungvarsky. He used to ride motocross and transitioned to downhill racing, but says there’s a similar feel to the sport.
“My favorite part is the adrenaline rush; it’s just like motocross. It’s wide open and high speed. I just have to get my flow down and have my style,” Heuertz said.
He said he hikes up South Mountain’s Telegraph Pass with the bike on his back to ride it all the way back down.
“It’s funny passing hikers who don’t believe you’re going to make it down, and then when you fly past them at 20 mph, they’re impressed,” the 19-year-old said.
Like his friend, Heuertz has had his fair share of injuries, his worst being a ruptured spleen that hospitalized him for 11 days.
“The fun outweighs the danger by so much that I won’t stop,” Heuertz said.
• Will Argeros is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is interning this semester for the AFN.