The Changing Face Of US DH

Men’s Podium (LtR): Rafael Gutierrez; Aaron Gwin; Neko Mulally; Dakota Norton; Magnus Manson.

We made some good progress this year.  Vital gave me the creative reigns, and said, “Cover the Pro GRTs for us!”  I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be called up the Big Leagues and have a go at creating coverage which resonated with riders and fans alike.  From the feedback throughout the season and seeing the interest levels shift, I think it was a successful endeavor.  It was about changing people’s perspective of the scene and shining a light on the rad women and men shredding between the tape.  While the implications of what was achieved remain to be seen, the hope is that 2017 at least can be remembered as an epoch of wicked racing, exciting coverage, and overall progress with the recognition of US DH.  Here are all the links to the domestic races I covered with Vital, and for some perspective about the state of the scene leading up to it, have a read through a previously unpublished (well, half-published) piece I wrong for Decline leading up to the start of the year:

Downhill South East #1 [ 1 ]

Pro GRT #1, Windrock [1 2 3 4]

Pro GRT #2, Port Angeles [1 2 3 4]

US Open [1 2 3]

Pro GRT #4, Killington [1 2 3]

Pro GRT #5, Windham [1 2]

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[PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED WORK]

Preface:  With each year of racing that I’ve been covering as a Media Squid, the level of racing seems to elevate exponentially.  It’s staggering to see the pace at which the top racers in the sport are now attacking courses.  At one point in time, it had been a personal goal to progress to the top-tier of the sport and race with the best of the best.  Life took a different direction, and now I get to still attend the biggest events in the sport, but from the B-Zone toting camera gear and a child-sized pack; good thing I also like going to the gym.

As the transition into a photojournalist gained momentum, a slight shift in focus and goals became necessary.  Thankfully, Vital MTB (Shawn Spomer) recruited me to be the new lens pushing the coverage of the US DH scene.  It was a gamble for both of us, but it was a hit right from the get-go.  The reception to having proper media attending events was huge, bigger than hoped even.  It was a privilege to be at the sharp end of the stick and leading the charge bringing back the glory to the American race scene.

Prior to the adventure and foray into semi-unknown territory, I wrote a hefty piece for Decline Magazine on what was at the time, a failing and downcast scene.  US DH was wallowing and in jeopardy of becoming a joke.  But, as it turns out, changes were on the way and occurred after the submission of the article – and then I was recruited to be on the front lines of the 2017 domestic race season.  Funny how things work out sometimes.

I feel it’s necessary to understand the issues that preceded the new epoch of US DH, so I’ve published the full article, replete with photos and quotes, as a retrospective to give a broader perspective how where we started leading into the year, and how it all ended:

State of Play: Domestic Downhill Dilemma

Forward:  Sadly, Decline Magazine was shuttered suddenly a week after this piece was published, and the second half of the article I had as an upcoming feature will not be getting printed.  So, as it won’t be getting published, I have included the full article here, second half included.  Thanks for tuning in, and thanks to Alan Davis for the opportunity to be a contributor in what became the last issue of the iconic magazine.  

The Legend Shawn Palmer found himself in a track-side stream trying to cool off.

10 years ago, Sam Hill was dominating, Schladming was still a staple venue on the World Cup, NORBA was freshly dead.  The idea of an American racer doing remotely well abroad was a laughable notion, and domestic racing was crumbling.  World Cup racing was getting its second wind thanks to internet broadcasting, and the interest in racing was gaining traction among riders.  The American race scene wasn’t quite keeping pace though, and the scene was growing stale. Fast forward: last year in 2016, an American won the World Cup overall for a 4th time (Aaron Gwin), and a second rider from the USA finished out 9th overall (Luca Shaw).  In the last two rounds of ‘16, there were four Americans in the Top 20:  Charlie Harrison, Eliot Jackson, Luca Shaw, and Aaron Gwin.  There is no longer a question about the competitive abilities of riders from the land of Big Macs and Truck Nutz, but there is still a lingering question of another kind:  what effect has the international recognition and achievement had on the national level of racing?

“I will build a great track - and nobody builds tracks better than me, believe me - and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great track on our biggest moutain, and I will make the UCI pay for that track. Mark my words.” - Donald Trump

The competitive spirit is alive and well domestically, with four big race series producing tight racing across the country:  The Eastern States Cup, The North West Cup, The Southeast Series, and the Pro GRT which cherry picks some of these regional races to produce the American national series.  Individually, each race organization has wild riding and competitive racing.  Each one has it’s hotly contested Elite categories, racers-on-the-rise in the respective Junior category, and as usual, the weekend warriors.  The non-Elite racers, in the various age groups of Cat 1-3 continue to be the bulk of the attendees, and have their own unique rivalries, keeping things interesting as always.  This is promising for keeping the sport moving forward and churning away each Summer, bringing friends and families to different mountains, to pit themselves against the clock and each other on the weekends.  What remains to be seen, is how much of an effect the top-tier of the sport trickles down to the roots of the sport, the local scenes and series.  

I stepped away from racing in 2015, after tapering down my own attendance in the preceding summers.  During those gear-down seasons, I noticed (as did several long-time racing friends) that there had been a paradigm shift in the pits:  People no longer socialized like they once did.  Pop up tents no longer felt open to banter, and there were a lot more bikes on trainers and riders with headphones on than ever before.  What had once been a thriving social scene, had turned into a parking lot full of cliques. This isn’t unheard of, it’s just part of the nature of a sport growing up; people want to do better, and things get more serious.  But in the process, something was lost, a certain care-free feeling of “riding bikes with friends” was fading away into the background.  Teams and groups seem to spend less time with one another, in favor of keeping to their own camps, the classic “wander around the pits” felt more like an awkward stroll through your childhood neighborhood.

When your nickname rhymes with "Huck", you're bound to be a sender - Charlie Harrison boosting into 20th in seeding.

This change seemed peculiar to me, as these races were for a regional series.  It reminded me of what I imagined World Cups to be like, and would see on occasion at a national round.  What was at stake was merely bragging rights.  The points, the placings, the [lack of] coverage, it was all in the name of fun and passion for the sport; it stopped feeling that way.  When the national series became the Pro GRT, I had a really difficult time getting stoked, and I still do now.  The races garner decent attendance from locals and those chasing the series alike, and there have been some cool tracks put forth for racing, but on a whole, there seems to be something lacking, a certain fire is missing.  It’s not for a lack of talent, the Elite fields are stacked and highly competitive.  But, they don’t have the same excitement levels and prestige like other national series around the world.  The Australian national series, the infamous BDS races in the UK, and the highly touted iXS Cup in Europe all make the news, and it’s a big deal; this cannot be said for the Pro GRT.  Perhaps this will change soon, as American World Cup racers are no longer an oxymoron.  We are fielding strong riders internationally, which is really exciting.  But, for a country with such a huge riding population, our ratio of top-tier racers is abysmal.  This is something I get asked about a lot, and have puzzled over for many years.  Why is it that only now we are seeing more than just Aaron Gwin showing results for the USA?  It’s fantastic to see Eliot Jackson, Luca Shaw, Neko Mulally, Luca Commetti, Nik Nesteroff, and Shane Leslie all having consistently notable results this season; Max Morgan found his stride and was on pace, so was Kiran McKinnon – as were a  few other racers-on-the-rise like Shawn Neer and Bruce Klein, which is very cool.   


Eliot Jackson: “I’ve always just thought that Americans, until more recently, just don’t care as much about racing World Cups. Everything is just so incredibly different over there and I think it takes time to adjust and learn. From the practice schedule, to the conditions, to the jet lag. There so much to deal with and if riders don’t experience that, there is really no way to prepare for it. I really think this has changed where now you do see privateers hitting as many as they can and maybe skipping a few U.S. Races to make that happen. I think this is a great step and other than riders having the ambition to race outside the U.S., I can’t think of any silver bullets.”


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A big step in the right direction to bringing American racing back up to par happened a couple of years ago when it was finally granted the status of being a UCI Cat 2 series.  Now, UCI points are awarded through the Elite ranks, helping riders step closer and closer to being able to race on the World Cup level without needing to petition for a national jersey.  This is a crucial step, in that racers are now able to arrive at a World Cup race, on their own terms.  There is a sense of pride and ownership of one’s success as a racer when you can say you’ve definitively earned the plate on the front of your bike.  That isn’t to take away from petition spots – not all riders have the ability to attend enough races to accrue the needed amount of UCI points to race (which has just been upped to 40 for 2017), but are strong enough riders to step onto the big stage and give it a try.  The point system is a point of contention in its own right, but the real hang up for the Pro GRT is the number of designated rounds.  In order for that notability to exist, a sense of exclusivity needs to be established, so it makes sense that not every race series should be awarded the ability to give out UCI points.  However, when there are only 7 races in the US in one season, and those rounds are the only ones which have these points available, that seems unfair and low, considering the size of the country.  In places like the UK where one can drive tip to tail in about 10 hours, or in Europe, where a journey of similar length will take you almost clear across the continent, 7 races isn’t too bad.  But in the US, based on where riders are driving from, that drive-time to most of the venues is on the low end.

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[Regarding the increase in UCI points needed for World Cup eligibility]
Adam Morse: “This is a good debate question. In small European countries that are low on talent, yes I agree 100%. In large countries with growing talent like US and Canada, no the same logic doesn’t work. Euro world cup vs anywhere else in the world attendance is objective evidence of this. I can understand the reasoning, to address the issue of talent present in Euro world cups, but this is imbalanced elsewhere.

Eliot Jackson: “The problem now is you’re getting into diminishing returns. Getting 40 points in the UK is exponentially harder than getting 40 points in another. You end up reducing the pool of potentially talented riders at the World Cup level and having the same lower level riders still getting to race. Having to get that many points means that you really have to get most of them your countries National Championships because the point paying spots at National rounds are usual filled by World Cup racers. While this is all fine, I think this is about as far as you can take it. I would hate to see people not getting World Cup experience when they were starting out because they were injured the one week of National Champs.”


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Looking more closely at the travel dilemma facing riders here, the first sign of struggle is the bizarre scheduling.  The Pro GRT tour crosses the continent five different times, so any rider wishing to compete in the whole series will either end up flying around the country with bike in tow, or rack up a whopping 11,919 miles of driving [that’s assuming they only drive to each venue, from the previous one, which is certainly not the actual case], spending 178 hours [see previous caveat] on the road for the season (not including In-and-Out Burger stops, refueling, and requisite fireworks purchasing when possible).  That’s a huge commitment to racing a single series, granted racing is a big commitment, but if one of the West Coast rounds (Mammoth or Angel Fire for example) had been adjusted to be at the beginning or end of the season, that would have saved at least one entire trip across the country.  Making racing as accessible as possible on a national level is the most crucial part of wrangling riders to participate in the sport, and helping it grow, not to mention fostering a deeper field of Elite racers.


Frida Roenning: “America is a big country and does not really have that many good riders so I think it can be improved on. First of all you guys don’t have any pro women. The pro guys form America doing good in world cups is increasing so that is good. I think it is important to do races all over America and on world cup level courses or courses close to world cup level to make the riders better. The pro GRTs are a good race series, but I think they should put the east coast races all in one time of the year and then the west coast races so everyone can make it to all of the races without to much cost. Also have more lower level races for kids all over the states to increase the number of young riders coming up.”


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Another factor in this equation is that there has been a significant rise in bike parks popping up i.e. mountains realizing they can make a summertime-profit.  Due to this, or perhaps coincidentally, we’ve seen a massive decline in race attendance.  Before the time of prevalent bike parks, people raced because it was the only way to enjoy lift-access riding, as a few mountains would open the lifts for race weekends only.  As time went on, mountains built more and more trails, and eventually started opening up on all summer weekends; finally operating full-time during the week from June through August, with large fleets of rental bikes.  They made riding accessible to everyone, not just the hardcore racers.  Suddenly, you didn’t need to race to ride the lifts any more.  As more mountains opened up bike parks, riders had options, they got to choose where they could go ride.  Now, from where I live in New Hampshire, within a 3 hour radius, I can go ride at least ten different lift-access mountains, and only pay for a lift ticket – no license, no registration fee…just gas, and a lift pass (Pro Tip: pack your own lunch).  It’s amazing really, that on the East Coast, there are now nearly as many lift-access places for bikes in the summer as there are for skiing and snowboarding in the winter.  While this could be seen as a “duh” moment regarding race attendance, it is actually just more puzzling: the iXS Cup in Europe and the BDS series in the UK have historically been packed to the point of entry being limited, yet there are dime-a-dozen bike parks in Europe, and several now in the UK.  It’s clearly not an issue of access to terrain or a disinterest in the sport in the States, but our race attendance numbers continue to be low.

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So then, what else could be factoring into the drought of American racers?  The country which bred the sport from infancy through maturation with the formerly formidable NORBA series (at one time in history out-shining the World Cup series) now finds itself with low-racer turnout, and a hugely lack-luster attitude about attending a race in a general sense.  Maybe it is due to the tired tracks, or maybe it is the unsubstantial support from sponsors.  It is difficult to say that it’s just one thing.  For certain, somewhere down the line the true spirit of the sport was lost in the meleé from the effort to scrounge up every last cent of profit,  financially capitalizing on riders’ enjoyment of competition.  This is working against the progression of the domestic scene, seeing that it currently costs a minimum of $200 to buy an Elite race license (Cat 1-3 is reasonable at $70).  It can cost up to $330 if you feel like buying a t-shirt, a magazine subscription, and a couple other things.  That is obscene, a fact which parleys into a more pressing matter, one which resonates on a very personal level: the quality of the races themselves are vastly undervalued.  

Charlie Harrison is quickly becoming one of the it-factor riders. 14th at Worlds, the second-fastest American, he's towing the line well for American racing.

Elite race entry fees start at around $120, and one would expect a certain level of racing to be provided for this price.  Yet lazy building, just to “get it done” and saying “this will work for now” seems to be the general theme for tracks these days.  This is a shame.  Promoters, track builders, and race organizers all appear to have lost the plot or given up. It is sad to see the reuse of old, worn out trails which are passed their prime in lieu of building something new and exciting.  To continue encouraging the current crop of riders to show up, and the up-and-coming next generation of racers to stick with it, race tracks needs to be on point, and as comparable to international-level racing as possible, because after all, that’s the pinnacle of the sport.  Why wouldn’t a local race want to be on a relative level to the World Cup?  That’s how Windham got the World Cup round in the first place:  we all loved the track in 2007 so much, we told those in a position to petition, to throw the mountain’s name in the mix of options to see what could come of it.  Then in 2010 Windham held its first World Cup, the first American round since Angel Fire, NM in 2005.  It became an instant classic, one which saw some absolutely legendary race runs and truly mad riding.  With bikes at the height of their potential, and riders training/understanding how to train properly and use better riding technique, the courses should be at their latest zenith of “amazing”.  We don’t need dumb, dangerous lines built through boulder fields, or unrideable roots, but leaving a track raw, and letting the bikes sculpt the lines, that’s what racing needs right now.  Watching old tapes and DVDs of race venues come and gone, and getting more stoked on those tracks than what is being ridden now, that’s a sure sign change is needed.

The story of the weekend was flat tires and sullen riders. Luca Cometti had a big result in 42nd here last year, but didn't get the chance to back it up this weekend.


Luca Commetti: “I certainly would [race domestically], as fun as traveling internationally is, we have some amazing tracks and venues here in the U.S. Plus it would be a lot less expensive, which would be great for privateer programs. I wish I started racing before the NORBA’s ended.”


It is even harder to build the “Next Generation” of downhill racers when the tracks they face at home are so laughably out-gunned by the tracks raced internationally.  The few Americans currently on the World Cup scene, are all just old enough to have come through the ranks as Juniors during the tail-end of the “gnarly years” of American racing.  It’s no surprise that riders like Mulally, Shaw, Jackson, and Richie Rude all excel at big, fast, rugged tracks – that’s what they showed up to years ago when they were smashing out onto the scene.  But now, American Juniors don’t really have anything to prepare them appropriately for when they show up to European rounds, on some of the steepest, roughest tracks around.  In the meantime, Juniors from the UK, France, Italy, etc all spend their pre-World Cup years out on those tracks (or ones like them), honing their skills on serious terrain.  It would be like trying to train a World Cup ski racer on Blue Square trails their whole life, and them asking them to race down the Birds of Prey track in Beaver Creek – it’s just not going to be comparable or fair.  The glory years of fast, steep, technical race courses are waning in favor of watered down vanilla, milquetoast tracks with Cat 3 catering instead of full-tilt boogie wild rides with appropriate alternate lines.  In the East coast, the regional races sometimes get it right, but instead of listening to rider feedback i.e. making tracks fast, fun, and exciting, courses are being rehashed from old ones – at times, racers are traversing bits of singletrack older than the younger riders in Cat 1 Juniors.  

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Becky Gardner: “The race seems to be negative and regressive. A once booming sport has really lost a lot of attention. This is the first year that I didn’t attend a lot of the ProGRT races. To me it seems boring, same venues, same competition, same stuff we have been doing for years. I chose to do more enduro races because I needed to do something different, race some new places with some new people. The national race series in the US just seems really stuck. USA cycling is trying to make it more appealing for people but all they seem to accomplish is making new rules to control people and push people out of the sport. “


A few tracks with the proper “Gnar Factor” do exist, like Mountain Creek’s Pro GRT tracks, Sugarbush’s race track, and Windham (as examples from my own experience), beyond those though, the census quickly became that the on-the-rise Enduro events had more challenging tracks than the staple downhill races.  It doesn’t help that the local/regional Enduro races have become increasingly popular, which in a way removes incentive for DH track builders to try and “wow” a dwindling crowd – this isn’t an excuse, but more of a musing of mine, as I can’t fathom why the last race of the year for the Eastern States Cup was a pedal-fest, anything but a proper send-off for the culmination of the downhill season.  And this is why I would suggest that Enduro is killing the DH Star, at least on a regional level, but it is a national trend, and a very strange direction for the sport to have taken.  The popularity makes sense, because most riders don’t actually live near lift-access mountains, but have plenty of XC loops with wicked downhills in their towns.  And, now that “Enduro” Bikes [barf] or “Trail Bikes” as I prefer to call them, have come along to the point where they are mini-downhill bikes, the appeal of spending $5k on a DH bike you can’t really use all the time is rapidly becoming a moot point.  Better yet, everyone can go for a trail ride after work – pretty much no one can go for some lift laps after work.  The interest in a day of downhill laps is not as strong as it once was now that there are amazing multi-use oriented bikes.

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Becky Gardner: “I felt like American racing was improving for awhile. When I was younger during the US Open years I felt like momentum was building and races were big and exciting, and then I’m not sure what happened but its not in a good place now. No one is happy with USA Cycling and they know their losing members so their making up a bunch of ridiculous rules to control people which is just making more and more people not wanting to be apart of Downhill races. I know so many people who refuse to buy a license and just race enduro instead. It’s not because they don’t like Down hilling its because they want nothing to do with USA Cycling. Its really a shame. This year I chose to race more enduros then DH races because I was bored with the DH scene, same courses, same competition, and I just needed to switch things up. The enduro courses are new and have a lot more women competing. At the Aspen EWS we had almost 55 pro women competing, that is more then I have ever seen at any other race. The prize money in enduros are also more lucrative. I love DH racing but things are not like they use to be, and the sport needs to make some changes to get people re-stoked on the sport.”


However, there is some hope for the US DH race scene, thanks in part, massively, to Neko Mulally, who has started his own race series in the Southern US.  The Downhill Southeast series is a by-rider-for-rider race series, where the entry fees are cheap; $40 for Pro Men, $30 for Am Men, and $20 for Women Open; and purse prizes which are sizeable and even for Men and Women, with $500 for 1st place.  Everyone who raced this low-key series loved it, and the tracks were interesting, fun, and unique.  The talent was deep, and the racing was always tight.  This sort of grassroots racing is the revitalization that racing needs.  It is a huge undertaking for Neko, as it is all on him to produce the series, but his work has turned out what is arguably the best series the US has at the moment based on pay-in versus the pay-out.  The prestige of other races may be greater, but the fun-factor seems to be found in this 3-race off-season-series.

Rocking a mullet and a smile, Neko Mulally was having fun and feeling confident this weekend. That is what it's all about at the end of the day, and the results follow: 23rd.


Juergen Beneke:  ” Way different !!! We actually made money when we won a Norba race. I think the pay was about $ 4,000.- for a win (almost equal to a World Cup at close to $ 5,000.-) which brought a lot of international competition to all of the Norba races. Courses were a lot easier, bikes were cheaper and racers would do more than one event. There was always a dual slalom and some of us also raced the cross country for training purposes. It was always a well-mannered party.”


Eliot Jackson: “I’ve never been a proponent of the the sanctioning body giving financial support to riders wanting to race World Cups. I’ve just never felt entitled to that. Maybe because I’ve never had that, I mean the AMA never helped me get to the races while I was racing motocross and I wouldn’t expect them, or USAC, to do so. When I was a privateer I was happy to pay my 175 (now 210) for them to sanction the races, provide a path to racing World Cups, anti-doping, set up accurate timing, etc. Of course things could be better, but I think we have it pretty good from an international stand point.”


Neko and Logan Mullaly take a gander at the track on the way up. It's great to see Neko back to racing after missing the mid summer season. 48th and looking steady.

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This thematically represents another issue, and that is support.  It’s not easy to get stuff for free, and rightfully so, but perhaps more brands and businesses should see helping riders through the ranks as an investment in the future of the sport.  Racing has always been the pinnacle for any wheeled sport, and by supporting the ventures of the people using the bits and pieces the manufacturers produce/products the businesses sell, it shows confidence in the users, and a belief that the product is superior enough to be tested against the clock.  I personally want to see people awarded help through merit, as there are a lot of “model athletes” at the moment, and I think it is becoming a trite way to market products.  I don’t care if his jawline looks good with the frame’s lines, I don’t care if her hair shines like her helmet – how well do they ride, and do the products find adequate representation of use by these riders?  This is a smaller piece of the puzzle, but an important one, because you don’t win races by being careful with equipment.  You win races by riding everything into the ground, knowing it lasts long enough to cross the finish line for the win, every weekend.  While there may not be any growing support, the staple brands who have been fostering upcoming talent haven’t wavered in the slightest, thankfully.  The current crop of US riders consistently gracing the top ranks abroad are all from programs that have continually believed in racing: Leslie, Nesteroff, and Commetti all came up through Intense Cycle’s development teams; Shaw came up on Sram’s development team; Jackson cut his teeth on the Yeti program – as did Gwin; and Mulally started out his career with the Specialized development program.

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Eliot Jackson: “So many amazing riders are coming out of the US. Unfortunately, even though a lot of these riders can go to a World Cup and get a top 30 or better, they aren’t able to get a World Cup level ride because sponsors don’t put as much weight on U.S. racing as they did previously.
In 2010, you had teams like Trek, Giant and Yeti, as well as European privateers, coming over to race. Doing well here carried a lot more prestige world wide, which meant it was easier to get sponsors and experience. At the end of the day, all that really matters is the quality of riders and quality of the races and I believe both of those things are better than they’ve been since I began racing.”


In discussing American racing, Aaron Gwin must of course be the first name mentioned.  I feel, categorically speaking, he doesn’t quite fit into the conversation in the same fashion as the other riders though.  Aaron found DH racing after the Warren brothers and a few other SoCal friends goaded him into getting on a big bike and joining them out for some fun.  He initially made himself known to the rest of us in a video clip from the famed Pine Valley jumps, riding a borrowed Haro Magnum 357, hucking a jump mid-train, sideways, to flat.  And the Lore of Gwin was born just like that.  Shortly there after, in 2008 he ended up on Yeti.  In that same year, he landed in tenth at his first-ever World Cup at Mont Sainte Anne aka the bar hump heard around the World, and then 8th at Schladming, his third-ever WC (34th at Bromont in between the two).  Bursting onto the scene and beating a huge percentage of the World’s best riders ruffled a lot of feathers – everyone was left standing around trying to figure out who the random American dude was on a Yeti; a brand notorious for its ability to scout talent and grow riders, and this was an exceptional case.  

So smooth, so fast, and looking so composed, Aaron Gwin is on it. 3rd.

Aaron wasn’t part of the farm-program, where he started in Juniors, worked his way through “Pro” (the pre-Elite category days of USAC), and eventually catching the eye of a race program director or whomever and getting a frame deal.  What Aaron was, turned out to be a fluke – not in a bad way.  He was a former Motocross racer trying something else out after he burned out on fumes, and found that he was quite gifted at riding a pushbike.  He was the 1%, the kind of rider that shows up and just gets it done purely on talent.  Now, he is obviously more refined and a dedicated cyclist, but his roots were humble, and he literally showed up out of nowhere.  So, to include Aaron in the conversation, it’s important, because he is now the face of American DH internationally (and domestically of course), but his is not the story of battling up into the limelight from years hustling through the Amateur ranks – and that’s what we’re getting at here:  the soul of the sport, the people who live it, day-in and day-out, the young dudes who want to be Aaron, and the young dudettes who want to be Jill Kintner.  Aaron’s accomplishments are nothing shy of insanely amazing, though his is not the typical story, he is the exception to the rule.

It's always hard to tell what Aaron Gwin is up to on track, as he practices at a staggeringly slower pace than his race-pace.

A counterpoint to Aaron, is powerhouse Richie Rude.  He started out in the lowest ranks of racing, competing in DH at the ripe age of 13, and he was already 5’8” and pushing 180 lbs.  As a kid racing, no one realized he was still a “kid”, and so when he raced early in the day with the Sport Junior riders (Cat 2), people who didn’t know him would lose their minds.  His times were mad-fast, and in 2010 at the age of 15, he was granted his Pro license.  He was picked up by the Specialized Allride Academy team in that same time period, where he stayed for a year until being brought on board by Yeti in 2011.  Those Colorado gents know what they are up to.  After taking the American scene by storm that year, he showed up to the World Cup scene in 2012, and immediately got to work putting down insane results.  In those days, the Elites and the Juniors were still mixed together, so Richie’s results were in Elites, but he has the  “*” next to his name to denote his Junior status.  His results were very impressive, with multiple Top 30’s, and a 15th at Windham in July.  He showed up and made sure everyone knew who to watch out for.  His 2013 season wasn’t quite as noteworthy, but that mattered less, as he won the Junior World Championship in South Africa.  In 2014, Yeti had a program restructuring, and opted to move everything over to Enduro, and that was the last of we saw of Richie on the World Cup circuit.  However, a year later, he won the 2015 Enduro World Series…and successfully defended his title again in 2016.  And so, Richie Rude managed to go from budding DH star, to flipping the Enduro game on its head and winning the series back-to-back in a what was thought to be a Euro-centric segment of the sport.  It is incredible to have two Americans currently rank #1 in the World in both DH and Enduro respectively.

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With such inspiring riders at the forefront of the sport, there is ample inspiration for achievement.  But sometimes, it takes more than just positive racing roll models to stir up aspirations: losing Windham off of the World Cup schedule was a huge blow to domestic racing.  Seeing a race in person is jaw-dropping, and as a kid who grew up going to Mt. Snow in Vermont during the NORBA glory daze, I can say with great certainty, “Seeing Elite-level racing in person is an eye-opening experience, and truly inspiring!” I am extremely aware of the reasons why, and some of the surrounding issues, but on a broader scale, not having an American World Cup round is a travesty.  We have more mountains to ride than I care to count, yet not one of those are a World Cup host.  Again, there are a lot of reasons for this, I know, but without an American host round, it is hard for a lot of American riders and racers to become interested in international racing – Redbull TV can only help so much.  Up-coming racers want to know that they have access to race courses which are like the ones they see in the media.  And while Windham is still on the schedule as a Pro GRT and local race, it lost prestige and luster when it was taken off the World Cup roster.  


[Regarding racing World Cups] Elliot Jackson: “Oh my god! For me there was no other option! I started racing mountain bikes with the sole intention of going to a World Cup. The travel, the tracks, the level of competition, it all just seemed so amazing. I think it has turned out to be exactly what I hoped it would be and more.”


Adam Morse: “Again, this is a shift I am beginning to see. US racers not focused on the world cups and more focused on the national series. Friends of mind have made this change in focus (great for US racing, because it will breed better competition), but those same people have also expressed the lack of coverage the national circuit has and how difficult it is to find write ups, photos and results.”


After viciously greeting the ground in his second practice run before Finals, it's remarkable that Aaron Gwin was still able to race as flat out as he did. He is a man who wants to win, so settling for 2nd was perhaps not ideal.

So again, what can be done to further stimulate downhill racing domestically?  Purse prizes are now high, bikes are amazing, the national series has UCI points, there are tons of races to attend, and the media is even starting to take a little notice.  But, license pricing needs to drop, the USAC race license is the most expensive internationally for an Elite license.  If race entries are going to be as high as they are, the effort to produce a $120/Elite-racer-track needs to happen.  Our national sanctioning body needs to properly support and contribute to gravity racing like it does with XC, CX, and road (a long-fought and frequently-touted issue).  Because, unfortunately for grassroots racing, it can inspire as much as it wants, but it won’t be able to obtain the UCI points designation it needs for riders to be able to attend and move on to international competition.  A weekend racing with friends is always a wicked time, but for those with aspirations to stand atop a World Cup podium, the biggest hurdle currently is just getting to an event with points.  

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The potential is right here in our backyards, and the talented riders are putting in the hard work, but we need a better platform to build up our riders, and produce a future generation of racers.  As long as there are races, there will be kids who want to be in them, and they can get there with the right tools and support from home.  Mountain biking has been my life from a young age, and while my career on two wheels may not have quite come to fruition, that doesn’t mean someone else’s can’t.  We have a killer group currently getting rowdy between the tape, providing ample motivation for the up-and-comers, so there is high hope for the next batch of shredders currently tearing off knobs and destroying wheels chasing the dream.  The balance of American representation internationally really does need a lot of work.  The number of jerseys that read “USA” are often fully absent from a World Cup round (while “FRANCE”, “ITALY”, “GERMANY”, “AUSTRALIA”, “NEW ZEALAND” etc are all deeply represented), it gives the impression that there isn’t anyone trying to make the jump overseas – which is obviously not true.  But why are the petition spots not being filled?  It’s the Junior ranks that are most lacking, and that’s troubling, because when amateur riders aren’t being properly groomed to make the jump, by the time they are thinking about it, it’s already too late.


Eliot Jackson: “While I can’t talk much about the quality of USAC in terms of running a National round, I actually believe USAC is great at supporting riders wanting to race on the World stage. They fill all the spots for the Worlds team, and this year was a great example of using discretion with Neko, World Cup results with me, National results with Shawn and National Championship results with Shane. I think in this category, we have it the best out of any country. I’ve been in touch with Marc a lot throughout my career and he has always be open and willing to help me get to the World Cups. Whether it was my first race over seas or after I had been injured.”


Jack Williams: “There nees to be a consistent system of getting talent to National and International events consistently.”


Speaking of the next-gen, the ESC team and the Palmer development team are good examples of grassroot initiatives looking ahead to the future of American racing.  For 2017 the ESC team is fronting a promising bunch of shredders, and finally fixed a big problem: until this season, not a single female rider was on one of those teams.  Reading along up to this point, you’ve likely noticed things have been a little male-centric, no discussion of Elite women.  This isn’t due to a lack of talent:  Jill Kintner still races, and is a force to be reckoned with, but she has reduced her schedule in the past few years, and no one in recent times has tried to supplant her.  Lauren Daney is a rider of note, who still competes and does well, but is not a full-timer, and the rising crop like Samantha Kingshill is doing her best to get American women in the spotlight.  Frida Helena Roenning is competing here in the US, and was crowned the 2016 Collegiate National champion.  However, being that she is Norwegian, I can only really suggest that she is doing a great job of putting Norway on the map by racing in the US.  But, on a whole, the American female demographic is missing from the international circuit, and that is a real shame.  I am hoping it is just a matter of inspiration and not determination.  I know plenty of women who shred, and the way bikes are now designed, they are much more gender neutral in sizing, as well as accommodating for shorter riders.  Historically, the US has storied racers like Kathy Sessler, Leigh Donovan, April Lawyer, Melissa Buhl, Missy Giove, Marla Streb, and Kathy Pruitt – that’s a huge list of badass women on track.  Hopefully the women riding up through the ranks find the speed and support to keep on aiming for the top, and add one more red, white, and blue flag to the start list abroad.

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Becky Gardner: “I think we have some really amazing riders killing it that have helped make Americans look good. However, I do feel American women struggle competing internationally, we don’t have any women successfully competing Internationally in DH besides Jill. I don’t necessarily think its just because we aren’t good enough though I think a lot of companies are not giving women a chance to race overseas. Money isn’t going to strong riders, and no one can afford to fund a World Cup season out of pocket. I think it’s a mixture of lack of funding and not women riders not being taken seriously that really put us behind other countries. We seem to focus more on image then on riding here in states. The fast women are not getting the support they need. Racing world cups take practice and without proper funding no women is going to get the training they need to be in the top spots on the international circuit.”


Juergen Beneke: “I think the racing scene in the US is in fair shape, but it is stuck in a rut and there might not be an easy way to keep it from flat lining. More outside sponsor money and less lawyering (decreasing the liability risks for promoters) could increase that number of races quickly, but that’s not going to happen.”


Kiran MacKinnon: “I think overall it is pretty positive. I see it being regressive from recent years though. There were a couple years recently when there were key individuals (that are no longer involved) that were really helping to make the national scene more respectable. Because of this new absence, it is going to be hard for people to take the national series seriously without some major reconstruction of how things are prioritised within the sanctioning body.”


It was selfie-central in the finish corral. Aaron Gwin always has time for the fans.

In an epoch of the sport where the quality of the equipment available to the average rider is nearly that of the professionals, the grassroots racing should be breeding top-level riders right here at home.  But, for some reason, that’s not the case.  The lack of challenging track designs, the shallow entry numbers creating a void in the competition, and the general apathy of USAC is doing a fine job of flattening the future of American racing, right when it has the potential for carrying the most momentum forward.  More mountains have bike programs than ever, bike companies are stoked on racing again, and the ability to produce marketing content and have it rapidly viewed is easier than ever.  The American scene should be flourishing with young racers gnawing at the bit to get to a World Cup and show the Lucas, Neko, Aaron that the path they are paving, and standards of performance they are setting, are being seen, received, and expanded upon.  The pieces are all here and available to construct the next wicked crop of racers, but the initiative is wallowing.  As someone who spent over a decade racing domestically, against Neko, Richie, Joey Schusler, Kevin Aiello, and a handful of others who have gone on to become notable figures in the sport, I am saddened to see such a thin and inconsistent turnout of riders and rivalries in the current ranks.  I gave myself to the sport, and it gave me everything in return.  It is my lifeblood and my passion.  I want to see more kids as equally inspired to train, ride, and hanging it out when the timer counts down from 5.  The glory days of American racing having been waning away, but I want to see them wax back towards the ideals of fun and exciting competition, the weekends once again filled with heated rivalries and invigorated racing.

Luca Shaw has found the recipe for success with his smooth and aggressive riding. He has thus far improved his results by around half at each race this year (21/13/6), so half of 6th at Leogang seems very possible.

 

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