Bike racing for me has always been a sort of identity. From racing around the neighborhood to retiring my BMX career to my current love of mountain biking, racing has defined my life. I began writing this at three in the morning after racing slalom at the U.S. National MTB Championships at Mount Snow, VT. I was in a mood…
After getting burned out on BMX, I turned to this new sport of mountain bike racing in 1988. I did my first NORBA National mountain bike race in 1989 at Vernon Valley, NJ (which is now, ironically, Mountain Creek) competing in both trials and downhill. On the same bike, as we all used to do it in the day.
I started a bike company in 1991 in a garage/barn, started writing for Dirt Rag, started organizing a trials series, built NORBA National slalom courses and started this whole ride of my new identity within the sport. It became my life and my family, pursuing points, races, places and faces, it was the addiction, the reward, the chases. Gunfighter mentality, chasing titles, taking them down, building it up, life on the road, riding and racing with this traveling circus which was headlined the NORBA US National Championship Series, the most prestigious series in the world.
Nick Van Dine on a vintage EWR, racing to one of many podium’s at Mount Snow, from back in the day
I had heroes, and I could face them down on the road all summer. I used to ride trials, and I competed heavily in that as a means of self support and fulfillment, as well as to generate more exposure for my bike company. We traveled the country and competed in the most killer locations, living the dream and experiencing life. I’ve competed with the best riders in the country and had been on that level for a few years, sweated, bled and reveled in the liberty of youth, optimism and the pursuit of clean lines.
I’ve done ridiculous road trips, seen amazing things and met amazing people. I’ve been to dinner with Hans Rey and learned all about Noodleschlappen. I was there when Libor Karas came from Czechoslovakia and brought a whole new level of riding ability that we’d never seen, and he’d also brought tar. Yes, tar, the stuff on your roof that he put on his rims to make the brakes stick and we all got really squeaky.
When racing Dual Slalom at Nationals, there would be 70-plus people trying to qualify for the program, back in the days when there was no practice before qualifying. I’ve seen and raced with young upstarts Eric Carter, Brian Lopes, have been awed to line up against John Tomac and Guido Visser in the gate, been scowled at by Shaun Palmer trying to intimidate me at Seven Springs, watched Lars Tribus bend his forks backwards from shredding a berm so hard in Utah, and yelled at countless racers and friends as they tried their best to get into the finals.
I screamed so hard for Lance Armstrong at his first mountain bike race back from cancer in 1988 in Park City that I lost my voice. I watched him drill the climbs and fumble the singletrack, but he was a contender and a huge animator in the race who’s pace forced points leader Rishi Grewal to drop out (and subsequently loose the national title).
Last year I watched Greg "Fergie" Fergusen race the short track at Mount Snow in Mens 30+ Expert; a major race animator, he drilled and drilled the pack into the last few laps, laying his heart all out there making the best and most emotional race I’ve personally ever seen as I lost my voice.
I’ve had tears of emotion well up as Mike Yozell was called up to the line before the start of the men’s Pro Cross Country race, also against a huge international field in the ’90s, also at Mount Snow, when he was racing full-time and chasing his dream.I’d also watched him crumple to the ground from fatigue and cramps with his hand defiantly thrust in the air as he crossed the line last year, winning the Expert Men’s Veteran XC National title.
Racing is drama, passion, heart and a universe of other things, but most of all it is pure. You, one on one. Unless it’s, well, 4X.
True Grit. Mike Yozell, 8 a.m. XC at the US National Champs, Mount Snow
Now I see these young kids, some that I’ve coached, racing up through the ranks chasing their dreams and defining what this racing business means to them. I’ve ridden with a three-year-old Nick Van Dine when he used to sit on a seat his father Galen had duct taped to the top tube of his old Crotch Rocket holding onto the bars at the stem and resting little feet on little pegs on the forks.
I’ve criss-crossed the country during the ’90s with Chris Van Dine when he was an upstart junior racing XC, SL, and doing trials in the Nationals. Now I watch them racing pro DH, win national titles, or watch then in the latest biking videos. I’ve helped coach tons of kids like Trevin Newpher, who now kick my ass in slalom.
I’ve been all around this sport as it has been all around me. If it is my life-blood, then Mount Snow is my fountain of youth. This year was its second and last as the USA Cycling National Championships, and I’ve been coming here since 1991 for Nationals and World Cups.
This place has meaning to me. I’d trained hard for the last few weeks, did my program and thought I’d be a contender. I felt good in practice and qualified for the finals and the privilege of racing in the Saturday evening showcase. I thought I had the speed, but man, all these new kids have the talent. For me, raw horsepower I was never lacking, it is the more technical aspects that I could have been better at, like flinging myself into hub deep ruts at 25 mph in the 180 degree corners and not touching the brakes.
I could not do it, be it age or ability, as the younger kids could. There, in front of all of my friends, I was racing my heart out, going through all those emotions and the elation of being in my element. There it is head to head, advance or be eliminated, do or die gunfighter-mentality racing. I had a disadvantage going into my second round, so it meant that I had to pin it in the last heat. I did, again getting the holeshot and leading the first straight. I lost ground and tried the last ditch slingshot going into the next to last berm, and blew up the soft corner, going down in flames. I’ve lived many lives within the 25 seconds that it takes to complete a slalom heat, and being eliminated brings reality crashing back… End of title chase.
Van Dine Clan: the legends of Jim Thorpe.
Why do we do it? Why does anyone do it? I’ve been around for mountain bike racing’s heyday of the ’90s, and seen it dwindle to low numbers, as there are other things to do and racing is not on everyone’s radar so much anymore. I’ve happily seen the resurgence this year, which warms my heart as the numbers have shown a much needed upswing.
This is our National Series, National Championships, and, well, this is our sport: mountain bike racing started here in the US of A! During the amateur qualifying at Mount Snow I watched young gun and U.S. hopeful JD Swangen stand around all night cheering friends and waving an American flag. That means something. I’ve coached, ridden with and screamed for youngsters Max and Ray Syron as they come up through the ranks this season. Will they be the next J.D. Swangen, or Gary Fisher?
Why do I still do it, after all these years? Perhaps "Fergie" summed it up best for me with his "Boobie Theory". When he was young, he decided he liked, well, boobs! He then wondered what it was that he liked about them. He then questioned why he was wondering why he liked them and that freaked him out. So, he settled back upon the fact that he just plain liked them.
Just like mountain bike racing, we do it not for money (most of us), but for our own reasons (all of us). It is our passion at whatever level we choose to engage, but it balances out our work lives, creates a community, fulfills a drive, and is perhaps our identity as a person. We train and race travel and put ourselves to the test, throwing our hearts down the hill chasing after them. Sometimes we get hurt, but we get back up and get back on the bike. I guess I am getting old, and how on earth can someone my age still be competitive in the young gunfighter game of slalom racing?
Of course Eric Carter winning the Pro Men’s Slalom Title at a ripe old age of 38 shoots my theory all to pieces. So much for self pity…
"Fergie" slumming across the line Mount Snow STXC 08, probably thinking of boobies…