After the final World Cup in France, Adam Craig took some time out to speak to 1859 about his qualifying campaign, the rigors of Olympic mountain bike racing and where the rest of the season will take him.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Bend, Adam Craig seems relaxed, reflective—and in his own mellow way, excited. This serene state is odd for one of America’s top mountain bikers discussing why he will not qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Craig, 30, has been one nation’s best for nearly a decade, but he was not selected to represent the United States in London.
A 2008 Olympian in cross-country Mountain biking, Craig was a likely candidate to make his second Olympic team leading into the first period of the 2012 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. Instead, he found himself sidelined by illness and playing catch-up at the back end of races.
A Mainer by birth, Craig moved to Bend during the 2003-2004 season because, he jokes, “it was the same latitude basically” as his hometown of Bangor, Maine. “I wanted a place where I could train year-round but still had four distinct seasons, not somewhere like Sonoma or Flagstaff.”
With its rich mountain bike culture, Bend was a good fit athletically. Giant Off-Road teammate Carl Decker was living in Bend at the time, as were a few other pros, making for a good training group. Besides the vast network of trails in Bend, there were other things to do. “The potential to cultivate hobbies [in Bend] is awesome too, so I have outlets off the bike.”
Craig notes the Metolius-Windigo trail (between Sisters and Lava Lake) as his favorite place to ride. Hood River tops Craig’s list of places to spend time off the bike—mostly for its whitewater kayak opportunities.
Neither Bend nor Hood River were where he was expecting to spend his summer, however. In the United States, there are two ways to automatically make the Olympic mountain bike team: either place in the top three at a World Cup or make the top fifteen rankings overall in the series. In 2008, Craig achieved the first of those two criteria, and was selected—along with U.S. teammate Todd Wells—to compete in Beijing. Lamenting their poor finishes, Craig admits that they both “rode kinda like jokers” at the Beijing Games.
Unlike its road cousin, the mountain bike community highly values the Olympic race. While the field in World Cup races frequently reaches two hundred riders or more, the Olympic cross-country race has fifty competitors. A small field brings with it some advantages, but less room for error. “The Olympic field is the easiest field to manage, but everyone is at 150% fitness. It’s definitely the fastest race of the year,” Craig says. “If you have a little issue, you’re not placing 150th in a field of 200. You’re placing 50th, but 50th out of 50 hurts more.”
Since 2008, Craig has noted a shift in the World Cup field. Races have gotten shorter, moving from two-hour contests to around an hour and a half. Because the races are shorter, the pace has ramped up significantly. “In 2008, I was riding at the front of World Cup fields and lately I couldn’t hang,” Craig muses. To adjust, he tried to change his training to incorporate the ability to sprint up short climbs and sustain a high pace for longer, but it was difficult physiologically.
Heading into an Olympic year, Craig knew that he’d have to be at his best. “Going into the year, I was really close to qualifying, based on my history.” He planned on building his form through the early races, and then hit a peak for the Games. “Instead I got a gnarly virus after the first race and it took me two weeks to get over that. The fields are too fast to survive when you’re not one hundred percent, so I was always chasing.”
Looking ahead to the London race, Craig foresees a difficult time for the U.S. men. First, the London course is the poster child of the changes in racing style over the last few years. The lap is four kilometers long, meaning the winning time will be right around ninety minutes. The climbs are short and punchy, requiring the ability to repeatedly sprint out of the saddle. It’s a tough course to pass on as well, but with fifty riders, Craig doesn’t imagine that will be a significant issue.
Craig thinks the men’s team in London will consist of his 2008 teammate, Wells, and 26-year-old, Sam Schultz. Wells is known for coming through with strong results in important races, while Schultz has been one of the most consistently-improving U.S. riders over the last few years. Craig speculates that a top ten finish would be strong for Shultz. . “A medal ride would be absolutely out of their skin for either guy,” he adds.
“In the Olympic format [of cross-country mountain biking] the U.S. is still outside the ‘core four’ Western European powers in mountain biking,” Craig says. “We pop one decent result here or there, but nothing consistent. Is it a cultural thing? A talent thing? I don’t know. The most consistent thing we can do is put a guy in tenth in the World Cup series.” That tenth place used to be occupied by Craig and lately it has been held by Todd Wells. But no matter who holds it, Craig laments, it’s not enough to produce a medal at the Games. “A medal means a lot. It means more funding for the next cycle, which can really help guys get to the next level.”
While Craig may be a bit disappointed that he is not in the mix for the Games, he is also energized when he discusses where the rest of the season will take him. “It’s definitely a paradigm shift from World Cup cross-country to different events,” Craig muses.
He is excited to race a format called “enduro racing,” which is a series of fitness downhill competitions, combining the descending skills of downhill and freeride mountain biking with the fitness of cross-country events.
“If you do the same World Cup race ten years in a row and stop being good at it, [you] might as well try something else.”