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What: Haiti Ascent Mountain Bike Stage Race

When: Jan.30-Feb.2

Where: Haiti

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O n Monday, Boulder-based professional mountain bike racer Sonya Looney could barely see on her ride as she pushed through huge, falling snowflakes and temperatures in the 20s.

On Wednesday, she'll get off a plane in sunny Haiti to ride her bike, where temperatures are expected to hang in the 90s.

Looney says she's guessing the weather won't be the only difference between her two rides. She's racing in the first-ever cycling event in Haiti -- the Haiti Ascent Mountain Bike Stage Race, Wednesday through Saturday --created by the group MTB Ayiti to promote adventure tourism and help bolster the Haitian economy.

"I can't wait to go and show it's an amazing place and they fell on some hard times, and just like everybody else they're going to rise up," Looney said. "It's cool as a mountain biker to go and do something that's going to make the world a better place."

The race will help develop a mountain bike ecosystem throughout Haiti as a means of growing the local economy, said Steve Zdawczynski, a Denver-based photographer, mountain biker and one of the event's organizers.


Zdawczynski said MTB Ayiti wants to establish Haiti as an adventure tourism destination -- anything from mountain biking to surfing and diving.

The four-day race should itself contribute more than $200,000 to the local economy, Zdawczynski said. After the January 2010 earthquake destroyed much of country, Zdawczynski said, Haiti could really use it.

"Haiti is in a place where they need people to invest in Haiti," Zdawczynski said. "To rise out of its impoverished third-world status, the economy needs to be bolstered."

On Wednesday, 35 cyclists, including 15 Haitians, will begin the four-day stage race starting with two days of community building. Participants will help install more than 100 miles of permanent course markers to create a lasting trail system in Haiti for when the MTB Ayiti crew leaves.

The team will also train Haitian citizens how to repair bicycles, and leave behind two donated mobile bike repair stations.

"The goal of the whole project is to plant the seed to establish adventure tourism in Haiti with mountain bikes being the start," Zdawczynski said. "We're trying to train them. The end goal will be for someday Haitians to take over this race themselves."

Zdawczynski said the race will mark the first international sporting event of any kind in Haiti. He added that most of the Haitian stage race participants have never ridden a bicycle before.

After the first two days of community building, the race starts in downtown Port au Prince, at the site of the National Palace -- which was damaged by the earthquake in January 2010 and torn down in late 2012.

The course will take cyclists on a dirt road hill climb, about 2,700 vertical feet. They'll travel through La Visite National Park (about 10,000 vertical feet) before descending toward Marigot, a beachfront town on the southern side of the peninsula, just in time for Haitian Carnival, Zdawczynski says.

Looney will be joined "celebrity ex-pros" Hans Rey and Marla Streb, Zdawczynski said, who might challenge her for the win. On her personal Facebook page, Streb wrote that she's excited to learn about an "incredible" culture.

For Looney, the race isn't really about beating ex-pros or winning in another country, she said.

"It's about supporting a different country that needs it the most," she said.

--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.