Category: MTB

Kate Courtney’s cheerful pursuit of greatness

Kate Courtney could have been doing her homework or helping her mother with the evening chores. It was a rainy, cold evening in 2012 and Courtney was, instead, on her bicycle, completing an interval workout before the sun went down. Courtney was 16 at the time, a freshman at Branson collegiate prep high school in Marin County, California.

Courtney’s father, Tom Courtney, was worried for his daughter’s safety and decided to drive out into the storm to find her. He assumed she’d climb into his car and out of the damp weather. When Tom found Kate, a scenario of a completely different nature played out. Kate was not finished with her workout. She was not coming in from the rain — not yet, anyway.

So, father followed daughter through the twilight to light her way with the car’s headlights until the ride was done.

“I was just doing my job,” Courtney says. “I’m very much known by my family and coaches for always finishing workouts.”

The story of a teenager completing her intervals in the rain is just part of the growing legend surrounding Kate Courtney, perhaps the most talented young American cyclist racing today. Spend time on Courtney’s social media feeds and you will see videos of her performing strength workouts that defy logic. Follow her results and you will see things that point to otherworldly talent. Oh, and Courtney graduated last year from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in human biology, a major that’s heavy on both math and science.

Courtney’s current trajectory in cross-country mountain bike racing points toward world championship stripes and, just maybe, Olympic medals. She is just 22 and she owns the 2018 USA national cross-country mountain biking title and is currently ranked No. 13 in the UCI world rankings. She often defeats women a decade or so her senior — an impressive feat within a sport that typically favors riders with experience. And Courtney has been winning at mountain bike racing since she was a child, an oddity for a sport that often recruits riders in their mid-20s.

Courtney’s head start could give her an edge at the highest level.

Courtney shrugs off talk about Olympic medals and greatness. She simply wants to challenge herself, and if victories come of it, so be it.

“I think being competitive is an interesting thing,” she says. “I’m really competitive against myself in a lot of ways, and that’s what has driven that aspect of competition for me. I always want to be at my best.”

Ask anyone within Courtney’s orbit about the roots of her talent, and you hear a similar story. It’s her toughness and her relentless pursuit of perfection. She battles back from crashes and mechanical calamities. She shakes off losses and tries to learn from her mistakes. When others come in, Kate Courtney stays out in the rain.

“She’s hardwired that way,” says her mother, Maggie Courtney. “She was like that as a kid, just energetic, always needing to be busy, curious. Competitive. She’s competitive in a sense that she wants to master something.”

Kate Courtney
At only 22 years old, Kate Courtney has established herself as America’s top mountain bike racer. Photo: Michal Cerveny | Courtesy Specialized

COURTNEY COMES FROM A background unlike previous generations of American mountain bike racers. Her first racing experience was with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) as a high school student. She discovered NICA racing during her freshman year of high school after a standout fall season as a cross-country runner. She was just 15.

Maggie Courtney brought Kate to a race at Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. Kate had been riding with her father and sought a spring sport to complement her cross-country running.

Kate accelerated from the gun, dropped her opponents, and won.

“I think she came across the finish line and she just stopped in front of me and said, ‘That was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m never running again,’” says Maggie Courtney.

Kate joined a regional development team, called Specialized-Whole Athlete, and participated in regional and national events. She applied her focused, energetic mindset to the training and quickly improved, traveling to NICA races during the school year and other cross-country events in the summer, often with mom in tow.

Maggie Courtney says her daughter soaked up the analytical side of cycling — power numbers and training metrics appealed to her mathematical mind.

“I always joke that Kate was the first kid on the block to have a power meter,” Maggie says. By contrast, Courtney’s predecessors often discovered mountain bike racing later in life. Alison Dunlap famously took up racing her sophomore year of college after she failed to make the college soccer team. Georgia Gould took up racing in her early 20s. Even Lea Davison picked up the sport in her later teenage years to complement her ski racing. All three got into the sport long before high school mountain biking leagues came into existence. Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling’s national mountain bike team director, says that Courtney and the coming generation of pro riders will benefit from having early starts with NICA.

“I give a ton of credit to the NICA program,” Gullickson says. “I don’t specifically think that type of event is the best prep for World Cup events, but mountain bike events with young riders is a massive improvement over what it was 10 or 20 years ago.”

Courtney’s early start has historic implications for American cross-country mountain bike racing. The country that invented mountain biking has struggled on the international circuit over the past 20 years. American women have scored far better results than their male counterparts; Lea Davison, Willow Koerber, and Georgia Gould all won medals at the world championships. Alison Dunlap’s world title from 2001 still marks the country’s top result from the last two decades.

At the Olympics, American women won two medals: Gould and Susan DeMattei both won bronze.

Courtney is the newest hope to bring the U.S a top result. She steps into a lineage of American female cross-country greats dating back to the sport’s halcyon days. Juli Furtado won a world championship in 1990, followed by Ruthie Matthes in 1991.

Courtney owns an advantage that those women never had — she’s been racing since she was a teenager.

“If Kate does continue to improve and does land on the Olympic team, it’s really hard to say — a couple years is a long way away, but based on her track record and trajectory, I’d like to think she’d be a contender for a medal,” Gullickson says.

Kate Courtney
Courtney has worked on her technical skills over the years to be more competitive at the World Cup level. Photo: Paris Gore | Red Bull Content Pool

GULLICKSON HAS SPENT THE last decade scrutinizing the country’s best up-and-coming mountain bike racers, hoping to find an athlete capable of winning an Olympic medal.

Gullickson finds young riders and sends them to race in Europe, where the sport’s pinnacle series, the World Cup, holds most of its rounds.

Often, legs and lungs have little to do with an athlete’s success on the World Cup, even in the junior and under-23 ranks. Riders must pedal up impossibly steep hills, and then navigate treacherous descents. The constant focus means an athlete’s confidence and attitude can outweigh skill.

“It’s kind of daunting to go over there,” Gullickson says. “It’s pretty cutthroat — all the juniors are sort of posturing, there’s not a lot of camaraderie among the countries, in the juniors especially.”

Kate Courtney caught Gullickson’s attention when she joined the U.S. national junior team in 2012. Courtney was unquestionably talented, and she also soaked up the pressure. Courtney shrugged off the attitudes on the start line. Her first result, 10th at a World Cup in the Czech Republic, was far above expectations.

Tom and Maggie Courtney were also caught by surprise and traveled to Europe to see their daughter race the next World Cup, held in La Bresse, France, a week later.

The race went terribly. While fighting for position at the back of the pack, Courtney was punched by another racer. She then crashed in a rock garden. Her parents watched the carnage from the sidelines.

After the race, Maggie Courtney assured Kate it was okay if she wanted to quit after the disastrous outing.

“I said, ‘Kate, you do not have to do this.’ And part of me wanted to say, ‘Why would you do this?’” Maggie Courtney says. “And she just looked at me and said, ‘Nope, I know some of the things I need to do, and I’m doing this.’”

Courtney continued to race World Cups. In June she lined up for the only American round of the series against Canadian rider Frederique Trudel, one of the strongest young riders in the bunch. Courtney dropped Trudel on the first climb and never looked back. Her victory marked the first victory by an American junior woman on the World Cup circuit.

Rather than bask in her glory, Courtney focused on her weaknesses from that debut season on the junior World Cup. In the off-season she got back on her bicycle and trained the areas where she struggled.

“I needed to work on my technical skills; I don’t do steep enough climbs,” Courtney says. “There’s this whole new level of racing that I want to get to eventually.”

Courtney was just 16 for that debut season on the World Cup. That early taste of European racing should give Courtney a huge leg up in her pro career, says Lea Davison.

“I wasn’t racing internationally until I was 25,” Davison says. “Already the international race experience she has was so much more — seasons upon seasons — compared to where I was in my career [at her age].”

Kate Courtney
Setbacks do little to deter Courtney from her pursuit of perfection. Photo: Bartek Wolinski | Red Bull Content Pool

WHAT AMERICAN TEENAGER SPENDS her free time training in the rain, and rewards her success by scrutinizing her weaknesses? Kate Courtney is obviously atypical from her peers. Those who know her best reference her tireless appetite for self-improvement.

Courtney acknowledges her competitive nature. Prior to mountain biking she was a promising high-school runner. During her freshman year she was named “Runner of the Year” by the Marin County Athletic League.

There are nuances to her competitive streak. It isn’t a simple win-or-lose situation. Courtney’s desire for competition is decidedly academic, a pursuit of her true potential.

“The more I race the more I realize that what matters is putting in an effort I can be proud of, and doing my best no matter what the challenges are on that given day,” Courtney says.

The academic approach may spring from Courtney’s success in the classroom. Courtney earned top marks in high school and gained admission to Stanford University in 2014.

Rather than pursue a professional racing career, Courtney made academia her primary focus. She studied human biology with a concentration of her own design: global public health and technology innovation.

The academic detour begs the question: What would Kate Courtney do with her life without cycling? Her competitive nature angles her toward law or business. Her dogged work ethic and academic outlook are skills that benefit any profession.

Courtney says she would likely work outside of cycling.

“It might be health technology, or VC [venture capital] was kind of what I was going for in college,” she says. “Health tech investing was what I was studying.”

Courtney continued to race through college, however she scheduled her racing around school. She often missed early World Cup rounds in the spring. Did those skipped rounds slow her development? Perhaps. Courtney says her decision to step back has benefitted her career in the long-run.

“I think in a lot of ways it was the perfect thing for the start of my mountain bike career, to hold me back a little bit, and also keep me grounded, make sure I had balance, and make me really want it at the end of the day,” she says. “Because I had to strike a balance with studies, and that was really difficult, so it reminded me every day that I really want to do this, I’m choosing to do this, I’m committed to doing this.”

Part of Courtney’s commitment to cycling has been to seek out mentors in her sport. During her time at Stanford, Courtney created friendships and mentorships with more established professional riders on the circuit.

Courtney joined the Specialized factory racing team in 2013, where she rode alongside Davison. The two became close friends and training partners. Courtney even gifted Davison a mini Bluetooth speaker for her birthday so they could have dance parties in European hotel rooms.

Davison taught Courtney how to navigate the team’s chain of command.

“‘If you need something, you should communicate with the mechanic,’” Davison told her. “I remember she was just getting the hang of the basics.”

More recently, Courtney has surrounded herself with a crew of talented women in the Bay Area — UnitedHealthcare’s Katie Hall and Leah Thomas, as well as ex-pro Katheryn Curi.

“That little crew has taken me under their wing a little bit, and we train hard together. It gets pretty gnarly on some climbs, but then we’re all friends afterwards, and we have dinners,” Courtney says.

Kate Courtney
Courtney is known for her rigorous gym routines that are often documented cheerfully on her Instagram feed. Photo: Lucas Gilman | Red Bull Content Pool

COURTNEY’S SUCCESSES HAVE ALSO sprung from her various failures. Like any professional cyclist, she has endured moments of struggle. During the 2016 UCI world championships, Courtney was a favorite to win the U23 prize. It was held on her favorite course in the Czech Republic. She had taken time off from classes at Stanford to prepare. She was motivated and fit.

And then the rain poured down the night before the race, transforming the track into a slippery, muddy quagmire.

She crashed early in the race and never recovered, ending the race a distant 18th, more than eight minutes behind winner Jenny Rissveds. Courtney took that poor race result as an opportunity to chase improvement, not dwell on negativity.

“Kate was devastated,” her mother says. “That was a tough, tough issue to confront.”

The following day Courtney called a sports psychologist to discuss the disappointment. The next weekend she finished second at the World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, just 42 seconds behind the winner.

The incident speaks volumes about her resilience.

“In part with my racing, as I’ve risen in the levels of mountain biking and faced new pressures, opportunities, and challenges, it’s become a more deliberate approach,” she says. “I spend a lot more time thinking about the mental side, and finding ways to be a more resilient and strong racer.”

In early 2018 Courtney welcomed a new challenge that carried with it the potential for failure. She teamed with Annika Langvad to compete in South Africa’s Absa Cape Epic. The eight-day race pushes riders beyond their physical limits with long, punishing stages in the hot African sun. World Cup riders often use it to prepare for the coming season. More than a few racers, however, have pushed themselves too far at the race and suffered from fatigue in the early season.

No American had ever won the race.

The event was well outside of Courtney’s comfort zone. Prior to the event, her racing experience was limited to short, punchy cross-country races.

“The only marathon race that I’d ever done before that was Whiskey 50,” Courtney says. “Most of the days at the epic were 4.5 to 5.5 hours. I’ve never raced that distance before, let alone done a stage race.”

To prepare for the race Courtney enlisted her coach, Jim Miller, to craft a brutal stage-race simulation. She called the training block the “Kate Epic.”

“I was the underdog,” Courtney says. “Before this race, people were truly like ‘Well, we hope you survive.’”
Not only did Courtney and Langvad win, they dominated, beating the duo of three-time Olympic medalist Sabine Spitz and Robyn De Groot by more than 45 minutes.

“For me personally to be able to take on something that was challenging, or that maybe other people thought wasn’t such a good idea for me, was really empowering to be able to prepare for that and trust my team and trust myself.”

Like any professional athlete, Courtney thrives in the competitive pressure cooker of major events like Cape Epic or World Cups. What may set her apart, though, is the internal gratification she gets from the training and racing, striving to be her best, approaching challenges with cheerfulness.

“She’s super joyful about her life and her pursuits,” says Maggie Courtney. “It’s about her mastering her craft, and she doesn’t have to detract from someone else to continue on her path of achieving her goals.”

And that’s why Courtney stands a chance at becoming the next American world champion or Olympic medalist. Fun, grit, focus, and curiosity are all part of her approach to being a pro racer. If that means intervals in the rain, bring it on.

Read the full article at Kate Courtney’s cheerful pursuit of greatness on VeloNews.com.

Q&A: Thomas Frischknecht on the future of mountain bike racing

Perhaps no man has had a greater impact on cross-country mountain bike racing than Thomas Frischknecht. The man known simply as “Frischi” raced for nearly two decades at the World Cup level, earning silver at the inaugural world championships in 1990, before winning gold six years later. Now 48, Frischknecht helped transform his home country of Switzerland into mountain biking’s strongest nation by spearheading a national racing series and personally developing its brightest athletes.

What can American mountain bike racing learn from Frischi? VeloNews caught up with him to find out.

VeloNews: What’s your assessment of the overall strength of World Cup cross-country racing?

Thomas Frischknecht: I would say the level is probably the highest ever, in terms of how many guys are now going for the win. It’s been Nino [Schurter] against [Jaroslav] Kulhavy and Julien [Absalon] at the very highest level for a few years, but now there is a wider spread in cross-country racing, with more talents coming up. You can certainly see the change from the younger generation to Nino and the guys from his generation. Also, in the women’s field, there is no consistent leader that is winning everything. So, every weekend you could have a different winner. That makes the racing more interesting to follow.

VN: What has been the biggest shift on the World Cup to improve its overall strength?

TF: Having Red Bull enter the scene has helped a lot because they broadcast downhill and cross-country racing at a very high level. They came in and brought it to the next level. So today you see a lot of spectator attendance at the races. And a few national broadcast organizations have started to use the Red Bull production for their own live coverage. This is a huge step forward from where we came from even 10 years ago. So, this helps everything. We now have a title sponsor for the World Cup [Mercedes-Benz]; it is bringing in new blood.

VN: What is the biggest threat to this growth?

TF: I am a little bit worried about the bad state of the bike industry in general. Sales, in general, are hurting, and there is a shift in Europe from regular mountain bikes to electric mountain bikes. It is quite large and intense, and the companies are trying to make budgets. So that could be a threat. Participation is also up and down. In Switzerland, the marathon races are facing smaller numbers and the smaller races are hurting, too. Traditional cross-country is not yet weaker, not at all.

VN: In the United States we have seen growth in mountain biking because of the NICA high school leagues. How does development work in Switzerland?

TF: In Switzerland, we do things a bit different. We have a standard program — not a program like high school. We do more of a traditional racing program. We benefit from having had a very strong national racing series that is very well organized. We also have a geographic advantage over the United States in Switzerland. It makes it possible that you can go to all of the races within the national series within a two-hour drive. This means the expense is much lower on families, and parents can just drive their kids to the races. They can then watch the elite races with Nino and Julien and see a high level. Parents and kids then get inspired.

I think that having a strong national racing series is most likely to be the reason for the prominence of mountain biking [in Switzerland].

I think that having a strong national racing series is most likely to be the reason for the prominence of mountain biking [in Switzerland].

VN: At what age do kids typically first pick up mountain biking in Switzerland?

TF: Already at the age of five or six, I believe that they have the first race. Kids are competing on mountain bike obstacle courses. They are racing not for time, but for points, which you get because you cannot put your foot down. This teaches them technical skills. Then they have quite a short five-minute cross-country race, which is just one lap, where they kind of do a little bit of endurance, too. Those races are focused more on technical skills. I think that is an important thing that the young kids learn early—how to handle a bike. It’s not about pushing them too much on the endurance side.

VN: Switzerland has also had mountain bike heroes, like Nino and yourself. What impact does that have on participation?

TF: It has a huge impact. The young kids want to have stars of the sport to follow. Once this is missing, there is nobody to look up to, nobody to admire, and this has a big impact. I’m certain that if the United States would have had someone like Nino the past 15 years you would see more success. There was a time when the U.S. was dominating mountain bike with Ned [Overend] and [John] Tomac and Tinker [Juarez], and it had a huge impact on the followers. Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t had a lot to show over the last 15 years, and there is nobody to look up to. That is a huge part of why U.S. mountain biking wasn’t successful. The only hope is that soon you will have more riders like Kate Courtney that will inspire the younger kids and attract people to the races. The spiral either goes upward or downward. I’m sure the turnaround has already started for the U.S. The low point was reached a few years ago. Now it is about being patient to see riders on the podium at World Cup races.

VN: Yes, but there is also a phenomenon in U.S. mountain bike racing to shun traditional cross-country racing in favor of non-traditional formats, like single-speed and ultra-endurance races. Do you see that phenomenon in Switzerland?

TF: No, I think that is quite an unusual thing that happens in the U.S. There will always be people who want to be different. I saw this in the early 1990s when cyclocross was popular in Europe and as soon as mountain biking was popular some of the guys walked away to do it. So I was not surprised to see some guys walk away from cyclocross and mountain bike to do single-speed or enduro, and now it is 100-mile and marathon racing. There is always this shift. As soon as something gets too mainstream people are walking away for it. And I see this as a typical American thing. It is not that way in Europe.

VN: Is there still a fear that cross-country may be eliminated as an Olympic event?

TF: Before the [2016 Olympics] there had been discussion and some rumors that mountain bike could potentially not be in the Olympics anymore. The talk was about the cost of the production and how much a cross-country course costs to build. You have to build it from scratch, and when compared to the number of riders who use it, and the high price, it was a question. After the success of the race at the Rio Olympics, I think that discussion is over. In Switzerland it was the second highest viewed event behind the 100-meter track [race]. There is no question it belongs. There are 100 other sports that would have to leave the Olympics before mountain biking, in my opinion. It is essential for the sport to remain in the Olympics. I’m not afraid at all that it will become a problem.

Read the full article at Q&A: Thomas Frischknecht on the future of mountain bike racing on VeloNews.com.

High school MTB leagues rebuild U.S. cycling’s base

Sean Bennett still replays scenes from his first bicycle race.

It was 2010 and Bennett sat aboard his hardtail mountain bike with 26-inch wheels on the dusty starting line at Ford Ord, near Monterey, California. Just 14 years old, Bennett had recently abandoned baggy shorts for the awkward embrace of snug Lycra racewear. He wore a pair of cycling shoes that were two sizes too big, purchased by his parents who assured him he would someday grow into the footwear. Bennet sat at the back of the group, unsure of what to expect.

When the gun went off, Bennett sprinted to the top of the first hill, turned around, and saw an enormous gap to the other riders. He sped away down the trail and did not look back.

“It’s still a really special memory to me — I mean, how many people win their first bike race,” Bennett says. “I remember pretty much loving cycling from that moment on.”

Bennett is now 22 years old and one of the stars of the Hagens Berman Axeon pro cycling team. In May he finished a close second to Toms Skujins during stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California. Several weeks later Bennett won a stage of the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, the so-called “Baby Giro” race for the world’s top espoir riders. It’s not a question of whether Bennett will graduate to pro cycling’s upper echelon, but when.

Bennett traces his trajectory back to that starting line in Fort Ord. The race Bennett won was organized by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, and Bennett wore the colors of his high school, El Cerito High. In the ensuing years, Bennett became an integral member of El Cerito’s NICA team, winning races at the junior varsity and varsity level. He battled against future cycling star Neilson Powless and raced his bicycle across Northern California.

Bennett says he stuck with NICA racing more for social reasons than performance-based goals. Winning was fun, however, spending time with his friends kept him coming back to the bicycle every day. He developed a community of friends to ride with, and after a few years, cycling simply became part of his everyday life. Nobody else from his school became a professional cyclist, but Bennett says most of his friends from NICA still ride.

“Everyone who went through the program — it had a huge impact on their life,” Bennett says. “NICA is the reason I got into the sport, no doubt in my mind.”

Sean Bennett’s budding professional career represents one small chapter in the story of NICA’s success. Since its inception in 2009, NICA has introduced tens of thousands of American teenagers to the sport. The program famously sprouted from the Berkeley High School mountain biking club in the mid-2000s into a nationwide program with staggering numbers. For 2017 NICA counted 14,381 total racers — up nearly 35 percent from its 2016 participation numbers. The program boasted 6,453 coaches and 777 teams operating across 22 different statewide chapters. Since 2009 its participation has grown at a steady clip of between 30 to 40 percent each year.

“We are growing insanely fast,” says Austin McInerny, NICA’s executive director. “At no other time in American history has youth cycling been so poised to explode.”

NICA’s growth has begun to have a broader impact on the overall landscape of American cycling. Bicycle manufacturers now design low-cost racing bikes to cater to the growing number of NICA riders. Junior and U23 racing categories in some regions now swell with NICA riders and its alumni. The program has graduated thousands of riders into the collegiate and amateur racing ranks, and dozens into the cycling industry.

A handful of NICA athletes, Bennett included, are even headed toward the professional ranks.

“People are getting access to these skills which makes you a better rider,” says Haley Batten, a 2017 NICA graduate and member of the Clif Bar racing team. “It makes it so much easier to continue the journey into the professional ranks.”

How is NICA reshaping the landscape of American cycling? VeloNews reached out to riders, coaches, league directors, and others to gather several snapshots of the NICA effect.

Sean Bennett
Sean Bennett began racing in a NICA league, and now lines up at races like the Tour of California. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The return to racing

Growth in junior mountain biking participation is not guaranteed when a NICA chapter begins. Don Edberg, director for Wisconsin’s off-road series, says participation numbers in the junior 15-18 age group has been flat since Wisconsin’s NICA league started in 2012.

Some national events have seen growth. In the mid-2000s, California’s Sea Otter Classic attracted anywhere from 100 to 150 junior riders for its cross-country race each year. By 2015 that number had grown to 209. In 2017 Sea Otter boasted 213 total junior racers.

Participation at USA Cycling’s national mountain bike championships, by contrast, has fluctuated. Since 2010 the national championships attracted the most juniors in 2012, the fewest in 2013.

NICA’s biggest participatory success story comes from Utah. A decade ago Utah’s Intermountain Cup mountain bike racing series was in decline, due to shrinking numbers in the cross-country fields. The seven-race series was established in 1990, and holds races on iconic trails across the state, from St. George to Snowbird.

In 2012 Utah launched a chapter of NICA with 325 athletes and 28 teams. The league saw immediate growth, and the following year more than 650 kids participated. The growth has continued. Last season total participation surpassed 3,000 total racers, and the league had split into three different regional leagues to accommodate the swelling ranks.

Team Clif Bar rider Haley Batten started in the Utah league in 2013 and saw a huge surge in popularity amongst her peers. The growth brought the overall awareness of mountain biking to those kids who didn’t race, she says.

“You saw the number of people who wanted to go outdoors and get on trail systems grow,” Batten says. “It’s not just growing competition, it’s growing the whole community.”

NICA’s success in Utah has breathed new life into the Intermountain Cup, says the league’s managing partner, Joel Rackham. The league that was once on life-support is now thriving.

“Our racing series is growing again, and the primary growth is coming in the junior divisions,” Rackham says. “It was a series that was almost dead and last year we were the top racing series in the West.”

For the 2015 season Rackham said the Intermountain Cup races averaged 160 total participants; for 2017 that number was 450. And today, 42 percent of the Intermountain Cup’s total participation is in the junior 15-18 age group level, he says.

Utah’s round of USA Cycling’s Pro cross-country tour, the Soldier Hollow Pro XCT, has also seen a dramatic increase in junior participation. MJ Turner, the race director and president of Summit Bike Club, says over 70 percent of the total participation in 2018 was in the junior division.

“The growth is there and it’s absolutely in the junior division,” Turner says.

The expansion in junior participation has led to the creation of development programs to help riders improve. Rouleur Devo was launched in 2015 in Sandy, Utah; Maybird-Reyespsych.com Cycling is a donation-based team in Salt Lake City. Rackham launched his own program, called Impact Devo, to also work with young riders.

“NICA is like high school soccer and these teams are more like the club-team model,” Rackham says. “You’re seeing these programs grow and I think it is the result of NICA introducing them to the sport.”

Haley Batten
Haley Batten got her start in Utah’s NICA league. She now rides on the Clif Bar Pro Team. Photo courtesy Malcolm Fearon/Clif Bar Pro Team

Bikes made for teens

Across the U.S. mountain biking industry, manufacturers have begun to design and market racing bikes specifically for NICA athletes. The bikes are often hard-tail race machines at a lower price point, usually in the $500 to $1,000 range. The bikes are designed to help kids begin racing without a major investment by their families.

An early partner of NICA, Trek unveiled its latest NICA-inspired bicycle in July 2018. The new Trek Marlin hardtail is made from aluminum and features entry-level Shimano components and a RockShox fork. It is priced at between $450 to $750.

“We often refer to bikes as ‘good NICA bikes,’ and that means delivering a lot of performance and value,” says Travis Ott, mountain bike brand manager at Trek. “No laid-back, comfy geometry. It’s a race-able hardtail that is fast.”

Manufacturers also partner with NICA league chapters to offer discounts to riders. For example, San Diego-based Haro Bicycles gives between 25-30 percent discount to registered NICA riders. Utah’s NICA riders receive a 40 percent discount on Diamondback bicycles, and Pivot Cycles offers another sizable discount to riders from the Utah and Arizona leagues.

Learning to love trails

Virginia launched its own independent high school mountain bike league in 2010 and joined NICA four years later. Perhaps no high school is as dedicated to cycling as the Miller School of Albermarle, a collegiate preparatory boarding school located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The school supports a thriving endurance community and has both a NICA team and a USA Cycling road development program.

The school sits on 1,600 acres of wooded hills near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the terrain makes the region perfect for mountain biking. The school now supports a trail building class where students learn how to create and manage off-road trails for riding. The goal of the trail building is to create new training grounds for the cycling team and to teach students the value of open space and proper trail construction and maintenance.

Thus far, Miller School students have built 15 miles of trails, with another 15 proposed for the future. The school even imported rocks to build technical features onto the trails.

“Every trail was built by a student,” says Andrea Dvorak, the cycling team’s head coach. “We’re seeing trails pop up everywhere in the region for kids.”

Miller School
At the Miller School, high school mountain bikers get their hands dirty and build trails on school property. Photo courtesy Miller School

Grooming future stars

Could NICA help the United States develop more Olympic cyclists? Perhaps. An integral part of USA Cycling’s Olympic development process involves identifying young talent and then exposing them to the rigors of European racing. Every year the program supports between eight and 12 talented junior and U23 development riders and sends them to Canada and Europe to race the top riders on the World Cup.

Of those development riders, maybe one or two graduate to the professional ranks.

Marc Gullickson, director of USA Cycling’s mountain bike development program, scans results from the U.S. national championships and other national-level events for young, strong athletes to invite into the program. Gullickson says he also peruses NICA state championship results for top performers.

“Chances are if they’re that good I already know about them,” he says. “A lot of my leads are coming from word-of-mouth.”

It’s no secret that cross-country mountain biking requires equal parts skill and strength, and rewards those riders who dedicate themselves to the sport for years. Navigating a rocky, technical slope on a race bike requires years of practice and intense focus. The riders who rise to the Olympic level are often those with talent and years spent racing.

NICA’s ability to start riders young is beginning to pay off. America’s top elite female rider, Kate Courtney, raced for a NICA program in Marin County, California. Four of the strongest U23 women in the country are also NICA graduates: Haley Batten, Hannah Finchamp, Gwendalyn Gibson, and Kelsey Urban. Finchamp, who grew up racing in Southern California’s league, says she sees a swelling group of strong female riders coming through the California, Utah, and Colorado leagues.

“I think the next generation of stars is definitely going to come through [NICA],” Finchamp says. “There are a lot of girls racing, and they’re not stopping racing after school — they want to continue past college and onto the national scene.”

Gullickson says he’s seen a shift in the sheer number of talented cyclists coming across his radar. A decade ago USA Cycling might have two or three junior riders on its radar — now that is up to eight or nine.

“NICA has widened the net,” Gullickson says. “The strongest NICA riders tend to win their high school races and then they’re looking for other opportunities, and they end up racing USAC events and they get in touch with me. That’s how they get sucked into the program.”

Read the full article at High school MTB leagues rebuild U.S. cycling’s base on VeloNews.com.

The Dirt: Neff and Schurter win MTB World Cup

Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.

The mountain bike World Cup’s two dominant players came out on top as the seven-race XC series wrapped up in La Bresse, France. Nino Schurter (Scott-SRAM), a five-time World Cup overall winner took home the title in the men’s cross-country series, and Jolanda Neff (Kross) bested the women’s field for her third career World Cup jersey.

Neff won the final round by only five seconds after a pitched battle with Emily Batty (Trek) in the cross-country. It was an impressive win, considering she had two flat tires early in the race.

Schurter, the Olympic and world champion won the men’s XC race by 12 seconds.

The American women continued their run of fine results at the international level in La Bresse. Erin Huck (Construction Zone) was the top finisher in Friday’s short track at sixth behind winner Annika Langvad (Specialized). Chloe Woodruff (Pivot-Stan’s No Tubes) also made the top-10 in eighth. In the Sunday cross-country event, Kate Courtney (Specialized) rode to seventh.

Apart from an off-day at the Stellenbosch World Cup in March, Courtney has always finished in the top-10 in her debut World Cup season in the elite division. With those results, she ended the year ninth overall.

In the elite women’s division, the U.S. was second in the 2018 World Cup nations’ standings, which bodes well for the country’s chances to secure more start spots at the Tokyo Olympics in two years’ time.

Also of note, Howard Grotts (Specialized) was ninth in the elite men’s short track, and Haley Batten (Clif Bar) was fifth in the U23 women’s XC.

Inaugural Oz Trails Off-Road dedicated to advocate Tim Scott

The final round of the four-race Epic Rides series is coming up, October 5-7 in Bentonville, Arkansas. As is the case with each of these races, organizers will dedicate the event to an important figure in mountain biking to educate riders about the sport’s heritage. For this first-time event, Epic Rides went local to dedicate the race to Tim Scott, a 38-year veteran of Arkansas State Parks and one of the state’s first mountain bike advocates.

Scott is assistant superintendent at Devil’s Den State Park, which is about 50 miles south of Bentonville. Devil’s Den was the first of 52 Arkansas state parks to build trails specifically for mountain bikes.

“In 1986 we started seeing mountain bikes popping up in our park, and my boss at the time thought the hilly, rocky topography of Devil’s Den would be perfect for mountain biking, so he put me in charge of doing research,” said Scott.

Thinking of checking out this inaugural event? Registration is still open for the Oz Trails Off-Road >>

Blowin’ up my feed: Vermont Overland

Most of the gravel races that get headlines seem to be in the Midwest, or perhaps California, but there is a growing gravel scene in New England, and Vermont Overland is one of the key events. It was held a new venue this year in Reading, Vermont — literally in the yard of race promoter Peter Vollers. Fortunately, it was a big yard to accommodate the 600 riders that turned out to take on the steep hills and rugged class 4 roads.

… Yes they use a sweet off-road-ready Range Rover as a pace car.

Vermont Overland gets underway this morning.

Posted by Charlie Kimbell on Sunday, August 26, 2018

(Sigh) Monday’s post @vermontoverland doldrums have set in. The best events start with a good dose of ass kicking among some of your best friends both old and new, and end with a beer to the face and a fully dressed soak in the stream. Riding with legends of the sport like @tinker.juarez, seeing my wife @lauracameronking have an amazing race, having the full suite of vehicles all up for the challenge — 2 wheeler, 4 wheeled, 6 wheeled — showing off the terrain that Vermont has around every bend, and winning the custom, “broken in” plaid threads by Peter Vollers himself. Hey folks, I think this gravel thing is really taking off! Thanks #theOverland for a great 800 person house party, tip of the hat to @ridecannondale for my lean and mean machine plus stacking 5 out of 6 podium spots, men and women, and everyone who’s making our move back east such an incredible one. // Mighty fine 📷 work by @sia_nordic 👏

A post shared by Ted King (@iamtedking) on

Got some news you’d like to share in The Dirt? I’d love to hear from you. Please email me your news and updates on all things gravel and mountain biking.

Read the full article at The Dirt: Neff and Schurter win MTB World Cup on VeloNews.com.

The talented Mr. Blevins

Christopher Blevins’s bicycle acrobatics are on full display.

Blevins is in his hometown of Durango, Colorado, trying out a new set of wheels on a full-suspension mountain bike.

The hillsides overlooking this picturesque Colorado mountain town are crisscrossed by trails that have long served as the playground for America’s mountain biking royalty. Unfortunately for Blevins, those trails are closed due to wildfires sweeping across southwestern Colorado.

Blevins, however, has another ride in mind. He collects his bike from his favorite bike shop and rides to Durango’s BMX track.

By design, it’s hard to pump a mountain bike the way you would a BMX bike; the suspension absorbs much of the energy you put into the pump motion. That doesn’t stop Blevins from powering his mountain bike down the ramps and soaring off of the jumps. He catches several feet of air with ease whenever he decides to go big.

The effortless jumps, hops, and carves are the result of countless hours of riding. Blevins has been soaring on a bicycle since he was a child. Long before he was the most promising mountain biker in the U.S., Blevins was a BMX champion.

“As a kid, there’s a bunch of pictures from every single race I have where I have this mean, menacing snarl on my face,” Blevins says.

BMX coach Richie Anderson called it the “grrr” mindset. Looking back, Blevins laughs at the racing attitude. These days, dirt makes Blevins smile.

Christopher Blevins at home, surrounded by mementos of his many accomplishments as a youngster. Photo: Dane Cash | VeloNews

Considering his background, his talents, and his already long list of achievements, this fact should not come as a surprise.

Blevins is the reigning under-23 national champion in cyclocross and the elite short-track mountain bike champion. At just 20 years old, he has a contract with Specialized — and support from USA Cycling — which takes him far afield to race his mountain bike at European World Cup events.

Blevins is also one of the country’s best up-and-coming road racers. He races for road cycling’s premier development team, the Hagens Berman Axeon squad. Team manager Axel Merckx sees him as a potential contender for the Ardennes classics.

That diversity of cycling talents puts Blevins among the most skilled young racers on the face of the planet. And yet, Blevins has talents and interests of a completely different variety.

Christopher Blevins is a scholar: he currently studies business at the California Polytechnic State University, one of the country’s premier schools for math and science. Blevins is a poet: in high school he discovered spoken word poetry and rap, and last year recorded a rap album. Blevins wants to make a difference in the world: he teaches creative writing at a local juvenile hall in the San Luis Obispo area.

Blevins has options in cycling, but he also has options in life.

“If I went to the WorldTour, part of me would want to also be able to continue my interests in other ways,” Blevins says. “I don’t want to just be a bike racer my whole life. I just see myself as a person who races bikes.”

Blevins is an outlier in a sport that has grown increasingly obsessed with specialization. That whole package, combined with a healthy dose of charisma, could make him a potential star for a sport in need of fresh young personalities.

Blevins says he gets asked a lot about which discipline he’ll ultimately settle on. He knows that there may come a day when he must narrow his focus, and pour his efforts into just one of his many talents. But for now, his wide array of skills is exactly what makes him one of the most promising prospects American cycling has seen in decades.

BLEVINS FIRST RACED A BMX bike at age five; he quickly became a fixture on the national BMX scene, winning seven national age group titles by his 12th birthday.

At age nine, Blevins began to ride a mountain bike. It was only natural: Mountain biking is just what kids in Durango do.

From Ned Overend to Juli Furtado and John Tomac, top American pros have moved to Durango. There, off-road racing reigns; in part that’s due to the presence of recognizable stars, and also because of the legacy of the town hosting the inaugural mountain biking world championships in 1990.

And then there are the trails. Durango has an endless web of singletrack to test a rider’s skill.

Durango’s status as a mountain biking mecca opens clear pathways for young racers looking to progress beyond riding trails with their friends. Blevins saw this as he entered his teens.

“If you have a local short track race on Wednesday and everyone is in town, it’s almost as competitive as national championships,” Blevins says. “Everyone comes, maybe someone is visiting, it’s just the perfect atmosphere to develop as a cyclist, especially as a mountain biker.”

Perhaps most importantly, Durango’s love affair with mountain biking normalizes participation in the sport for kids. It is then passed down from one generation to the next. Todd Wells moved to Durango to attend Fort Lewis College, and was mentored by Overend. Subsequent generations of racers looked to Wells for advice.

“As a kid growing up, you’re surrounded by all these athletes that are pro mountain bikers, so it’s just a normal job,” Wells says. “Like if you grow up in New York City and you want to play baseball and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, the Yankees. I could play baseball, that’s a real job.’”

When Blevins branched out from BMX and discovered Durango’s trails, he immediately found success on the mountain bike. He won his first age-group national championship in 2008. A crash on the BMX bike derailed his 2009 ambitions, but he returned to claim age-group cross-country titles from 2010 all the way through 2017.

Blevins trained with the Durango Devo program, which focuses on getting young kids in and around Durango on mountain bikes and teaching them the skills necessary to progress in the sport.

“I don’t want to be too dramatic about it,” Blevins says, “but I think without Devo I could have easily burned out, racing BMX so seriously.”

The country’s top male cross-country star, Howard Grotts, is also a product of the Devo program. So too is Sepp Kuss, currently racing on the road with the LottoNL-Jumbo WorldTour team. Participants in the program’s riding sessions and camps number in the hundreds every year.

Christopher Blevins racing in the time trial at the U.S. national championships. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

“The philosophy of Devo was just have fun, explore Durango, and become good bike racers in the midst of it,” Blevins says. “We never did intervals or that kind of training.”

That’s by design. Devo co-founder Chad Cheeney knows how much of a danger a hyper-focus on racing can pose. Accordingly, the program’s motto is “Never forget the fun.”

Cheeney says he was initially concerned that Blevins might burn out with his early racing success. However, Cheeney saw that Blevins simply loved to ride.

“He liked coming to practice, even sticking around some days, doing wheelies, trials,” Cheeney says. “It was a good break from what he was doing.”

THE DURANGO MOUNTAIN BIKE scene may have been a catalyst for Blevins’s broadening horizons, but he did not settle for junior mountain bike dominance. He also began racing road and cyclocross. Unsurprisingly, he excelled in both disciplines as a teenager.

At age 16, he raced his final BMX season, winning BMX grand nationals. Then, USA Cycling took him to Europe to race kermesses on the road. That summer he joined USA Cycling’s junior team and raced the Peace Race, a stage race in the Czech Republic for promising young road cyclists. Past winners include Fabian Cancellara, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Roman Kreuziger.

Blevins won the race, 24 seconds ahead of Russian rider Evgeny Kazanov. The result opened the world’s eyes to Blevins’s potential on the road. That’s when he got the offer to join the Axeon program.

“When I was considering what I was going to do as a U23, I honestly thought I’d maybe just end up racing mountain bikes and going to school. It’s been phenomenal that Axel has allowed me to race both.”

– Axel Merckx

Christopher’s father Field Blevins remembers the moment his son got the call on an otherwise unassuming afternoon.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh it’s another girl or something,’” Field says. “He was talking and he looks at me and he goes, ‘It’s Axel Merckx!’”

Most aspiring road racers would accept a spot on Merckx’s team, no questions asked. Blevins had questions. Could he still race mountain bikes?

Merckx agreed.

“When I was considering what I was going to do as a U23, I honestly thought I’d maybe just end up racing mountain bikes and going to school,” Blevins says. “It’s been phenomenal that Axel has allowed me to race both.”

Now in his second year with the team, Blevins has blossomed on the road. In April he won stage 2 of the Tour of the Gila from a breakaway, attacking veteran Daniel Jaramillo in the final kilometer.

“He could be a world champion on the road or the mountain bike, too,” Merckx says. With Blevins’s specific skillset, Merckx sees him as a potential contender for races like the Ardennes classics.

Pair that kind of skill with Blevins’s charisma, his highly entertaining riding style, and his diversity of interests, and American cycling may have an emerging star on its hands.

At face value, Blevins has the qualities that American cycling craves. Video footage of Blevins bunny-hopping a set of stairs at 2018 ’cross nationals in Reno dominated the cycling Twitterverse for a few days in January. Fans can also find his music on Spotify and music videos online.

Wells says he sees similarities between Blevins and the versatile Tomac, who won mountain bike world titles and also raced the Giro and pro BMX events. “Tomac, he had style and was a flashy rider,” Wells says. “You would watch him, and you’d get pumped to go try this jump or do whatever.”

Wells believes Blevins could have a similar impact on the next generation of riders.

“Watching him at cyclocross nationals this year, he’s jumping those stairs, I’m sure that he inspired just about every junior kid out there to go jumping up stairs, breaking their wheels,” Wells says. “It’s exciting.”

Christopher Blevins on the hardtail. Photo: Michael Cerveny/Courtesy Specialized

HOW FAR CAN Christopher Blevins go in cycling’s professional ranks? His success may depend on which discipline he decides to pursue. Nobody can make Blevins choose road over mountain biking. As Merckx says, “He’s going to have to follow his heart.”

Right now, Blevins’s heart is pointing him toward the mountain bike.

Racing off road at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo is his central sporting focus for the next two years.

“I want to do all I can to make that team,” he says.

The flow of mountain bike talent to the road is a reality of modern cycling. Twenty years ago, it was Cadel Evans and Michael Rasmussen. Today, it’s Jakob Fuglsang, Peter Sagan, and closer to home, Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless. Road cycling offers bigger salaries and a more stable job market — it’s just the reality of the marketplace. Blevins’s dedication to the mountain bike, despite his road results, is an oddity. Blevins knows it. He credits his choice to growing up in the mountain bike hotbed that is Durango — and also a good sign for American mountain biking.

Blevins’s Olympic dream means tilting his focus towards World Cup racing to hunt Olympic points. With Grotts and Keegan Swenson also in the mix for a trip to Japan, the U.S. will likely need the maximum two spots for Blevins to attend. The coveted race for those UCI points begins now.

That World Cup focus is another oddity in and of itself. An American man has not won a cross-country World Cup in more than two decades, even though American riders invented the discipline. In focusing on that style and that tier of mountain bike racing, Blevins is swimming against the current.

With Blevins looking to help the U.S. earn two Olympic spots and then prove himself worthy of one of them, road and cyclocross may take a back seat to mountain biking as Tokyo gets closer.

In fact, Blevins says he’s so laser-focused on his Olympic aspirations — and college and poetry too, of course — that he would turn down a WorldTour offer if one came his way right now.

“I can say that without hesitation,” he says. “It’s not just Tokyo, it’s also finishing college. I definitely don’t see myself as someone who could go to the WorldTour before I’m done with my under-23 years.”

Blevins’s current emphasis on mountain biking at the Olympics, however, should not be taken as an indisputable sign that he’ll one day decide to race his mountain bike exclusively. Once the summer of 2020 comes and goes, things could change. Perhaps he will choose a different discipline or pursue a completely different career arc. He says there are multiple variables that will inform the decision, and that includes factoring in where he is with school and what opportunities he has outside of bike racing, too.

“I think we can count out BMX, but I love cyclocross and there’s a chance I’m doing a full cyclocross season,” Blevins says. “There’s a chance I’m battling it out with the elites in the [mountain bike] World Cups. There’s a chance I maybe want to give it a shot and go full-in on the WorldTour.”

AT 10 O’CLOCK ON a Wednesday night, the Blevins family living room has been converted into a makeshift studio. While Field Blevins sits in the kitchen, Christopher clips a soundproofing panel onto his microphone stand.

He wants to lay down a verse on a new track.

As talented as the multi-discipline national champion is, he is a bit shy about recording with an audience. Poetry and rap are mostly personal, he says. Nonetheless, he presses play on the beat.

The verse starts off calm but builds to a crescendo after a few bars, with Blevins putting his impressive flow on full display for the last few lines. He recites every word from memory.

Christopher Blevins in the music video he produced for his song “Battlefield.”

To witness his recording process from a chair in his living room is a fine introduction into Blevins’s twin love of both spoken word poetry and hip-hop. For the spoken word experience, watch him rap to a beat only he can hear in his headphones. Put on the headphones for the full experience: an aspiring songwriter and musical artist delivering bars on top of an undeniably catchy sample.

As with everything Blevins has set his mind to, writing lyrics is another area in which he has clear talent. His collection of poems and raps encompass themes both personal and global. His optimism seeps into many of his tracks. On others, he is not afraid to explore more serious emotional themes. His wordplay can be clever, but he doesn’t overdo it.

Blevins says his passion for spoken word poetry and rap music is “equivalent to that of cycling” for him. Perhaps one day, his career path will require him to make tough decisions about pouring his energy into just one of his many passions.

His song “Battlefield,” for which he also recorded a music video, sets his thoughtful, optimistic outlook on life to a beat.

We wear our tattered hearts like battle scars from everything that we go through

But I shoot my heart out like a cannonball; I know it lands right where it’s supposed to

And I will be standing taller than the ceilings that we haven’t broken through

I will never put a barricade around everything that I hold true.

Read the full article at The talented Mr. Blevins on VeloNews.com.

The Dirt: Jeremiah Bishop on the evolution of endurance MTB

Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.

This week, we’ve got a Q&A with Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak) who just won the 10th edition of the Breck Epic mountain bike stage race. I caught up with Bishop back in May at the Grand Junction Off-Road, the second race in the Epic Rides Series, to talk to him about how endurance mountain bike racing has evolved over the years.

VeloNews: What’s the craziest adventure you’ve ever done?

Jeremiah Bishop: Probably training for the Munga, the million-dollar race across South Africa. They had a bank bond, they had a lot of stuff that looked like this thing was definitely on, Carl Platt, five-time winner of Cape Epic, was registered. But they had a big-time sponsor pull out.

Incidentally, the training I did for that was some of the coolest shit I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve won some cool races, but they were in the possible realm of things people were trying to do.

But trying to do a 20-hour solo mission in the dark, by myself, on this bikepacking route called Stokesville-Douthat-Stokesville, that was really scary. It’s really neat stuff. That was one of four big training missions I did. I’m very methodical in my preparations.

Even though I’d never done anything like the Munga before, 1,000 miles across the desert, I knew I had to have a sequential build for it. You chip off pieces, you build up to tougher, nastier stuff.

I raced Hampshire 100 completely self-supported that fall, no outside assistance. I started with 10 pounds of stuff, I ran out of water with an hour and a half to go. They had an aid station about 12 miles to go, they had Coke and Skittles. I just tried not to look — I was cracked.

VN: That’s some discipline!

JB: Dude, for $750,000 [at the Munga] you can have some discipline!

VN: What are your main racing goals these days?

I’ve been with Canyon-Topeak for several years now, and I’m a team rider for the races, oftentimes I’m a backup team rider for Cape Epic, TransAlp, Andalucia bike race …

Last year I did Margie-Gessick 100 in Michigan — they were calling it the hardest 100-miler in America. And I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s in Michigan. Let’s see. Yeah, I almost died! It was just so bad. … That race is so hard. A lot of granite domes, it’s in the old mining belt of Michigan. So it’s these small mountains in the Upper Peninsula. Really good trailbuilding community.

I like to do different races, try different things. That one just caught my attention because they said it was so miserable. No aid stations, no course marking. I was ready for it though.

The lowlight of the race was filling up my hydration pack underneath a Home Depot, there was a creek — it was a Lowes, excuse me — we were racing for hours and hours, no aid stations, and I was definitely out of water. I had an inline water filter. I saw this creek. I could go to a gas station, lose the group and have to come back to the course. Or I could use my in-line filter. I’m not sure what was in that water. And it worked like a champ. Somebody got a picture of this. It was hilarious.

Just putting myself out there in uncomfortable places, it’s fun.

And then big races like Transalp, I’m doing hardcore domestique work like Ben King. Riding at the front like crazy to help Alban or Kristian back after a flat, giving them a wheel, the stuff that doesn’t seem glamorous, but I’m good at it.

Last year I even had a chance to lead the team at Transalp. Last year we were third, and I became the first American rider in the 30-year history of the event land on the podium.

VN: Talk to me about the difference between the mountain bike marathon scene in Europe versus the U.S.

JB: It’s very performance-oriented there, even among amateurs. You have guys out there on trainers. It’s a pretty hardcore level.

You don’t do Transalp if you’re looking for beer time. It’s fun but it’s a little more serious environment.

The U.S. races are cool because now we’re getting a high-performance level but also the backdrop is fun for the majority of the crew. It’s a win-win. That would be one thing I’d say for the biggest races in Europe. They have the amateur finish mentality. Tens of thousands of people do the Birkebeiner in Norway, the Riva bike festival, just thousands of people out there having a great time riding bikes.

VN: How many different mountain bike races have you done over the course of your career?

JB: Total race starts, probably 1,400 or 1,500.

I’ve probably done at least 1,000 unique events. Everything from six-pack downhill events, which is pre-enduro, Tour de Burg — I cut my teeth on all these underground races they’re a lot like the stage races I now do.

Tried BMX racing a little tiny bit, did some NRC road races here and there, did a couple ‘cross nationals. I won a couple UCI ‘cross races, just the right conditions, right place, right time. Just trying different rides and different races is part of what I think makes a well-rounded rider. And that’s what I’ve always strived for, to be a well-rounded rider, to win a fat-tire crit, a cross-country, or a short-track national championships.

VN: Talk about the level of specialization in mountain bike racing — how do pro racers strike a balance between World Cups and endurance events?

At some point, you have to figure out what makes you happy.

In my career, there were sort of these tugs of war. When I was with Trek-Volkswagen, they needed me to be at the World Cup when the team was at its biggest. And then there were other times when the team was more U.S.-focused. … That drive to do the entire World Cup circuit takes a lot of mental energy, a lot of commitment.

Being an early adopter of the endurance races in North America came at a risk. I was getting a lot of flack from Sho-Air about sneaking off and trying to make the schedule so I could do Breck Epic, sneak into Transylvania Epic, or Pisgah stage race. I’d squeeze those in and come back feeling kind of hammered for the Wisconsin XC race.

But all those races are just awesome. I did Transalp, what was it? Damn near 20 years ago. For me, that was a big eye-opener of how awesome stage races are. It just made me tick. I just love being in the hurt locker, digging day after day.

VN: Do you feel there’s been a shift in sponsor interest toward longer races like Epic Rides?

JB: Absolutely, it’s the bikes people want to buy for their activity, go out with their friends to go explore cool places.

Of course what we’re seeing here [in Grand Junction] is a more professional version of that with the Epic Rides races. We have a lot of great races, hundreds of races all over the country. On the endurance side, quite strong. Thirteen races in the NUE last year, and about 10 this year, with a bunch of provisional events.

There are all kinds of different varieties of events. But having a professional platform is different. I can go to some small races, and sponsors are cool with that, but they need us at Cape Epic, they need us at races where there’s good media, good crowds, higher profile.

VN: Would it be a good thing to have a marathon mountain bike race in the Olympics?

There’s been a lot of talk about that. It’s become quite a different sport. Having not too long ago raced some of the Red Bull edition World Cups. I love it but it’s very hard.

It’s evident that marathon riders like Kristian Hynek are proficient at World Cup XC, but he’s not Nino proficient.

It would absolutely be hugely beneficial to have it in the Olympics though. I did the first marathon world championships, it was for training before XC worlds. I was like well, why not.

It started to become a big thing, but yeah absolutely it would be huge. It’s very difficult to think that the Olympics would add another cycling sport. You look at BMX’s inclusion. As soon as you add another they usually take an event out.

Worlds was a huge step, and then you started to see big salaries for specialist athletes. You look at Christophe Sauser’s late career, focusing on Cape Epic, marathon worlds.

Now you’re definitely seeing a separation with big teams that are focused on marathon. Our team is squarely focused on marathon. They don’t care about me doing World Cups. They want to have us leverage races that capture the imagination of the customers — crazy places, exotic travel, amazing trails you only get to dream about.

VN: And also people who are doing it at the same race, they can relate to professionals.

JB: One hundred percent, yeah. At Leadville, people compare their times to our times, and jaws drop. And they’re just like, “OK I get it. That’s amazing.” It’s very much like the Boston marathon experience. You’re in there, in the mix.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Grotts and Connors repeat at Leadville Trail 100 MTB

Howard Grotts
Howard Grotts won his second Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike race on Saturday. Photo: Glen Delman Photography

The 25th edition of the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race celebrated two familiar faces atop the podium Saturday as Howard Grotts (Specialized) and Larissa Connors (Sho-Air-Felt) successfully defended their titles.

Grotts finished in downtown Leadville, Colorado after just 6:18:08 of racing over 104 miles. Kristian Hynek (Canyon-Topeak) was second, and Payson McElveen (Orange Seal) was third.

Larissa Connors
Larissa Connors celebrated her Leadville win. Photo courtesy Leadville Trail Race Series

Connors won by a convincing margin, finishing in 7:40:13, nearly half an hour ahead of second place Julie Dibbens. Chase Edwards was third. It was also a remarkable win for the Californian because it was her fifth marathon mountain bike race victory in just six weeks. Connors won the Tatanka 100, Breck 100, High Cascades 100, Pierre’s Hole 100. Combined with her win at the True Grit 100 in March, Connors won four National Ultra Endurance (NUE) events, earning her the series overall.

“Leadville is more about the people and achieving something super difficult than it is about being pro and serious,” Connors said. “The highlight every year is cheering for everyone climbing Columbine as I descend, and thinking about how they will all tackle maybe the hardest race of their life on that day. It was crazy humbling and inspiring to hear them cheer for me by name when they too were in the middle of accomplishing something so incredible!”

Courtney and Blevins shine at Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup

Americans Kate Courtney and Christopher Blevins (Specialized) rode onto the podium in the Canadian round of the mountain bike World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne.

Courtney started off the weekend with a third place in Friday’s short track XC, behind teammate and winner Annika Langvad and Jolanda Neff (Kross), who was second. This gave the 23-year-old American a front-row start in Sunday’s XC, which she capitalized on, riding top-three for most of the race. However, she suffered a late-race flat tire on the rocky course and was out-sprinted by Anne Tauber in the end, settling for sixth place.

Kate Courtney
Kate Courtney at the start of the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup. Photo:
Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

In the under-23 men’s race, Blevins proved his potential with a second place finish to South African Alan Hatherly. Blevins is more than simply a mountain biker as well — on Thursday he starts the four-day Colorado Classic stage race with Hagens Berman-Axeon.

Durango Pro XCT and Pro GRT races canceled

In the aftermath of the enormous wildfire that engulfed 50,000 acres of forest in southwestern Colorado, organizers of Purgatory’s Revenge were forced to cancel the race that was scheduled for August 30-September 2.

“The 416 Fire, which started 10 miles north of Durango, played a direct role in the race’s cancellation by delaying race course trail construction. All registered participants will receive a full refund and we are hopeful to bring this race series back to Purgatory in the future,” said Hogan Koesis, Purgatory mountain bike director.

Read more about how the fire has impacted mountain bikers in the Durango area >>

Got some news you’d like to share in The Dirt? I’d love to hear from you. Please email me your news and updates on all things gravel and mountain biking.

Read the full article at The Dirt: Jeremiah Bishop on the evolution of endurance MTB on VeloNews.com.

Vintage Leadville video #4: 104 miles on a 35-year-old MTB

With about 30 miles to go in the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, I resorted to the most ancient shifting technique known — with a slight acceleration, I unclipped my right foot, kept spinning the left, and gently tapped my chain into the granny gear on my triple-chainring crankset.

This is the sort of adaptation one makes when riding a bike from 1983 in a grueling 104-mile race up above 12,000 feet among Colorado’s highest peaks.

A few months before the race on August 11, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of sourcing the bike industry’s top-of-the-line products to maximize speed and comfort, I wheeled out my vintage Specialized Stumpjumper — a bike approximately as old as I am, bought on eBay last year. I chose to ride this piece of mountain biking memorabilia to prove that no matter how outdated your gear might be, you can (and should) get out and ride.

It came as no surprise that Leadville was a hard 10 hours on the bike. However, I had way more fun than I expected, and that old bike, well, it was almost trouble-free.

I started this 25th edition of Leadville at the very back of a field of about 1,500 riders, among my fellow first-timers. In practically any other race, this would have been cause for anxiety. I’m naturally a very competitive person. But on that cold Saturday morning, with dawn breaking on the peaks above the highest city in the U.S. (10,152 feet above sea level), it was the perfect place to begin my introduction to this race that founder Ken Chlouber calls a “family.”

It is quite an exceptional family. On the pointy end of the masses, there are pro athletes such as Howard Grotts (Specialized) and Larissa Connors (Felt-Sho-Air), who each won their second consecutive titles. In the back where I started, there are even more inspiring riders, just hoping to finish inside the 12-hour cutoff time to win a coveted belt buckle.

For the first 15 miles, I rode near a man who is legally blind and relies on a guide rider to pilot him through the field. As we rode along the field changed pace erratically. We sometimes even dismounted to hike climbs as the course twisted up the trail on St. Kevins. I couldn’t believe the blind rider’s confidence on this trail, which was strewn with loose rocks. I was also amazed by the pilot rider’s selfish devotion to his blind companion.

He wasn’t the only one devoting a long day in the sun to a Leadville rider. At the course’s five aid stations, hundreds of supporters set up tents to hand off bottles, food, Slim Jims, you name it. And they cheered on practically every rider who came through.

This support has provided me my fondest memories from my race at Leadville. The vibe amongst riders and spectators was positive, from mile 1 to 104. Within the mass of humanity, riders encouraged each other. On the side of the trail, fans, friends, and supporters urged everyone on. At the end of the race, the questions asked are more along the lines of, “How was it?” or “Did you make it under 12 hours?” rather than “What place did you finish?”

Well, I did finish. And it was awesome. As I said at the beginning, riding my vintage bike was almost trouble-free. Thankfully I didn’t suffer any flat tires, which was my chief concern. But when I got back to my hotel after a post-race dinner, I heard a funny rush of air, and sure enough, my front tire had just gone flat, not more than six hours after my finish.

The old bike did have a few issues on the trail. The chain fell off on rough descents. I had to stop and get the headset tightened three times — when I finished, the steering was perilously clunky.

And of course, there was that front-shifting malfunction that made the final climb up Powerline quite an adventure.

Despite all that, it was totally worth it. It was worth the sore back, limp arms, and momentary cross-eyed vision on one descent (can your eyeballs get rattled loose?). It was worthwhile because so many people — in the race and along the course were stoked to see this old bike in action.

I finished in time to get that coveted belt buckle, as did 1,100 other riders. The real reward for me, though, was the experience of riding with this family and brushing up on my old-school shifting techniques.

Watch the rest of the videos in the Vintage Leadville series >>

Thanks to The Leadville Race Series for letting us participate in this year’s race to bring you the most in-depth coverage around the event.

Read the full article at Vintage Leadville video #4: 104 miles on a 35-year-old MTB on VeloNews.com.

Video: Breck Epic done and Gold Dusted on stage 6

The 10th edition of the Breck Epic mountain bike stage race wrapped up Friday with stage 6. The 30-mile finale took riders over Boreas Pass to the Gold Dust trail — then back over the 11,500-foot pass again to return to the finish in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Katrina Engelsted (Boulder Cycle Sport) won her first stage of the race in the pro women’s category ahead of Carla Williams (Joe’s Bike Shop), who won the overall. It was Williams’s first time at the Breck Epic, an event she has wanted to do for years.

Carla Williams on her way to winning the Breck Epic overall on stage 5. Photo: Eddie Clark

“It was definitely on our bucket list to do this year. the riding’s just been incredible. I’ve had so much fun on the trails,” said Williams.

“I was definitely a little nervous about how the altitude would affect me. The first day was the shortest day with the rain, and my lungs were just burning, I could hardly breathe. The second day, it was hard to find the power I normally have in my legs, but after that, I started feeling a little bit better each day.”

The Virginian is making the most of her trip to Colorado, heading up to Leadville to race the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race Saturday. That played a factor in her pacing on stage 6.

“Today was the only day I took it sort of easy. I’m doing Leadville tomorrow, so I wanted to have a little bit in my legs for tomorrow, so since I did have a gap I settled into a comfortable pace,” Williams said. “Today I did have a bit more fun.”

Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak) won stage 6 and wrapped up the overall title in the pro men’s division, happy to have bookended the race with stage wins on the first and final days.

“I just felt healthy, strong, and confident,” Bishop said. “This week was really good front to back — winning the first stage, winning the last stage.

“We had fun. Just goofing around and talking. It was really positive. I’m so stoked to ride with some of these young kids that are coming up through. Nash [Dory], we had a good battle on this last stage, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should give the stage win to him.’ He’s been working so hard and riding so well all week. But then I kind of remembered that you’ve gotta make him work for it! I told him where the last climb was and I figured that was enough of a hint, but I was able to hold him off.”

Jeremiah Bishop won the 10th edition of the Breck Epic. Photo: Devon Balet

Bishop added that he felt his good late-season form was due to some unexpected rest resulting from an injury.

“I think getting injured at Cape Epic in March almost was like a blessing in disguise. Now I just feel really healthy. I’m able to recover well.”

Bishop also won the first edition of Breck Epic in 2009.

“It is nice to be back and win the 10th — I won the first and I won the 10th. A lot has changed since then … I raced with Travis Brown at this one.

“The race has grown up in ways but actually it’s still the same in a lot of ways. It’s still got its character, its class. It’s unapologetically mountain biking. It’s just awesome.”

Check out the Breck Epic website for more >>

Read the full article at Video: Breck Epic done and Gold Dusted on stage 6 on VeloNews.com.

Breck Epic Basics: Recovery, or how the race is won in bed

Photo: Devon Balet

Editor’s note: The 2018 Breck Epic mountain bike race is underway, running August 5-10, and we sent Spencer Powlison up to Breckenridge, Colorado, to cover the event from a rider’s eye view. In addition to daily updates from the race, this series of “Breck Epic Basics” will offer tips on how to handle the challenges of an event like Breck Epic — or any multi-day cycling trip or event you might plan to do.


There is an old pro cycling chestnut about stage races, and what really makes a difference in the end: “The race is won in bed.”

I couldn’t determine who first said that (or something like it). Perhaps it was Eddy Merckx. No matter who devised this truism, they were right. Racing day after day takes a toll, and if you can find ways to recover well, sleep enough, and stay fresher than the other racers, you’ll have the edge.

So for the six-day mountain bike race that is Breck Epic, it seemed fitting to ask a couple of pros how to handle the toll of a stage race: Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak) and Amy Beisel (Orange Seal).

Jeremiah Bishop:

Photo: Eddie Clark

“In the stage race, it’s full-on survival mode. You’re not trying to get in shape. Inflammation is building up, and one way to handle it is ice baths, or put your legs in an ice-cold creek — there are a lot of those in Colorado. I’ll go sit in the ice-cold water until my feet don’t hurt. Also, I might do it before bed. Sleeping is probably one of the worst things to deal with in stage races. Ben King, he can attest to it, having done the Tour de France. Sleep is rough. I’d say it’s partly just because you’re so amped up from the race and you’re thinking about the excitement from the race, the action the crashes, you have this inflammation, your heart rate is elevated. I avoid any narcotic sleep aid and drugs in general, if you need it that’s one thing. The ice baths really help. For some people that have chronic sleep issues, melatonin is pretty good that’s over-the-counter, pretty benign sleep aid that’s what I usually go to for these stage races if I have trouble sleeping.

“Chamois cream is huge. Sunblock is the most important thing to bring … a hat with a brim. Naps daily if you can do it also make a huge difference.

“Another tip for general stage race survival is going with the package deals – massage, mechanic, nutrition. It might seem like it costs more but guess what, if you roll your bike to somebody and go sit in the creek with your buddies, drink a coke and relax, that’s just amazing.”

Amy Beisel:

“I’d done one or two stage races before. I ate dinner but I didn’t think I replenished my calories enough at Breck Epic last year. I think this year I’m going to have a much bigger dinner with more carbohydrates, maybe pasta or rice. And just eat more. I didn’t eat enough after the race. I thought I did but you’re so tired after the race that it’s almost a chore to eat after you’re done riding. I’m gonna really try to focus on having a really big dinner even as hard as it might be.”

Spencer’s take:

Photo Eddie Clark

“Planning out the basic logistics of your meals makes a big difference. The process of finding a restaurant, ordering, waiting, and then waiting for a check isn’t very relaxing for me, especially at a race. Instead, I’m going to do a big grocery run beforehand, and I’m staying in a house with a kitchen. For midday meals, I’ll have lots of supplies to make burritos and sandwiches, and in the evenings, our group of friends will alternate on who cooks dinner.

“I’m also bringing some dorky space legs for recovery. The inflatable recovery leg sleeves aren’t quite as good as a real massage, but they help get the blood flowing a bit. At the very least, pack some compression socks to help with circulation.”

Check out the Breck Epic website for more >>

Read the full article at Breck Epic Basics: Recovery, or how the race is won in bed on VeloNews.com.

Video: Breck Epic stage 5 climbs wonderful Wheeler

The penultimate stage of the six-day Breck Epic race is both revered and feared. Wheeler Pass takes riders back into the high Alpine to the highest point of the entire week — 12,536 feet above sea level before they plummet back to the valley on the race’s most difficult descent. Then it’s back to the finish at the base of the ski hill on the undulating Peaks Trail to end short but arduous 24-mile day.

As was the case in stage 4, Levi Kurlander (Orange Seal) won the men’s pro race and Carla Williams (Joe’s Bike Shop) won the women’s race. Youngster Nash Dory (Construction Zone) was second to Kurlander after battling all the way back on the Peaks Trail. Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak) finished third and kept his overall lead. Williams is also poised to win the overall race with one day left and a substantial lead over Katrina Englested (Boulder Cycle Sport) and Meghan Sheridan (Bingham Cyclery Peak Fasteners).

But really, the story of Wheeler Pass has to be told visually. To appreciate the huge rocky cirques that dwarf the riders, photography is the most effective medium. Enjoy these shots from Eddie Clark:
























Check out the Breck Epic website for more >>

Read the full article at Video: Breck Epic stage 5 climbs wonderful Wheeler on VeloNews.com.