WINTERBERG, Germany -- Atop Winterberg awaits a day better than Christmas for a group of Soldiers revved up to do something that has become more of a passion -- or an obsession -- than a hobby.

At 5:30 a.m. the group is already preparing for the road trip from Heidelberg to this mountaintop near Kassel. What could possibly be worth getting up so early on a Saturday' There's no training exercise; no parade; not even a mother-in-law or cousin to pick up at the airport. Just your average Joes embracing a sport they affectionately call extreme mountain biking.

The Soldiers, assigned to the V Corps headquarters and other units in the Heidelberg area, gulp coffee as they gather on Patrick Henry Village for the journey north. They cram bikes into every available inch of the bed of a truck and load a sport utility vehicle with what appears to be enough wheels, tires, tools and gadgets to build a bicycle built for 200. Coolers loaded with sports drinks and homemade goodies are stuffed in the few remaining locations, including passengers' laps. It almost looks more like a deployment than a Saturday outing.

The sacred gear leads the way as the small convoy hits the autobahn. At a "pit stop" on the highway the group waits for a second contingent of bikers. Spc. Craig A. Nance from the V Corps information management directorate brings out a hacky sack to fill the time.

When the remainder of the convoy arrives, old friends say hello and chatter excitedly about the day ahead on the trails of "Bike Arena Sauerland," a recently opened venue that promises to be a rabid biker's dream: 30-plus woodland trails stretching across more than 1,100 total kilometers of rocky mountainside. A static charge of anticipation of the day's riding begins to rise in the air.

"This is what it's all about," says Staff Sgt. Randy L. Merrill of the 43rd Signal Battalion. Merrill admits that a great deal of his time and money has gone into riding since he began his Army career nearly a decade ago.

A couple of hours later the group is checking in at the base of the hill, getting the equivalent of ski passes and lift tickets for the use of the mountain trails.

This isn't ordinary mountain biking, the riders like to remind anyone who will listen -- this is extreme. This is hardcore, grip-the-bars-or-fly-off riding.

A combination of vertical skateboarding and rough-terrain mountain biking, Merrill claims that extreme mountain biking is like riding a bicycle in a motocross race and beating the guys with the engines to the finish.

Before the riders prepare to make their first test runs down some of the less treacherous slopes, they check their gear one more time to ensure that they will be as safe as possible.

"I am so glad that everyone in our group has this plated body armor stuff. Combined with the helmet, it prevents some really bad injuries when you take a spill up there," says Merrill as he envelopes himself in shin, torso, and arm guards.

"We usually take a few trips down some of the easier trails, learning how our bikes and bodies are going to respond, before we really cut loose," explains Nance. "It's really easy to get into some bad wipeouts if you aren't ready for how the terrain is going to react."

Merrill is first to the lift that will carry him nearly a kilometer to the top of Winterberg, and first to begin down the twisting, turning track littered with rocks, ruts, vertical jumps, and man-made obstacles. One by one the others hit the trail behind him.

"Some of this they will have to save until later, when they are really confident in what they can do," says Nance, eyeing a bridge that will be a prime target for a big jump once the group feels ready.

After the riders negotiate speed and dexterity obstacles, all arrive safely at the bottom of the mountain. A few more practice runs, and it's time to let go and get some real speed, says Merrill.

The good stuff doesn't really begin until the riders get some "big air" and "wicked speeds," says Nance, the designated "home video guy" for this trip, as he records the action on his camcorder. As the day progresses the riders begin to get more daring, taking hairpin turns at 35 miles per hour and landing jumps of 15 feet or more.

"It's all in a day's fun," says Merrill.

(Spc. Sean C. Finch is a member of the V Corps Public Affairs Office)