WORDS MATT WRAGG
ACTION PHOTOS ALE DI LULLO/CANNONDALE
How do you introduce Mark Weir? He doesn't really fit any of the usual pigeonholes, he's simply a mountain biker, a rider and a racer. Over the years he's done nearly everything there is to do on a bike. He has travelled the world, raced at the highest levels and, more importantly, had a lot of fun doing it. In the last couple of years, a trip he made to France in 2004 has become more and more important to the development of the sport as a whole. On that trip he went to see a friend, Fred Glo, and raced in a strange new race format he was pioneering. That weird, new race format was called an "enduro." He was the first American to go and experience this new way of racing mountain bikes first-hand and since then he has been one of enduro's strongest advocates in the US. We sat down with him at the Cannondale team camp in Finale Ligure to talk about the growth of the sport, how he came to be involved in it and the realities growing up.
Where did it all start for you?
When I started, it was 1993. I played soccer in high school and at 16 I was going to go to Germany to play for a team there that was a school for boys and a soccer team and I would go pro after 18. I had the opportunity with this team. When my parents said no, it was a big change, I put my whole life into soccer and I was really good at it. I played football and when I got out of high school I didn't drink or anything, or do drugs... I had a bet with my dad. I got out and I just went the wrong way. I got drunk, I got in a lot of trouble. One night I was at my buddy's house and I got hammered, and he said "dude, you should take my bike home because you're too drunk to drive." I rode over the mountain to my house and from then on, I pretty much rode my bike every day. I started racing, I was on a hardtail for downhill and cross-country. I went through cross-country pretty quickly - sport, expert, pro. I was kinda bored with XC, so I went to pro downhill, did a couple of world cups, the national series. I was top five nationally. As an American, there are all these other guys, I was in the Palmer, Voreis era. I had some good results, Sea Otter one year I did close to a top-ten country and top-ten downhill. I think I was twelfth or something in the downhill, try and be consistent and try really hard. I don't have the skillset, like Jerome [Clementz]. Or Ben [Cruz] has the skillset and focus to be really on the pipe on some of the terrain. Now that I'm older I have to rely on power and some brain, hahaha... Which I struggle with. So, yeah... It's definitely interesting, because I never thought it would happen where I have a job where I do what I want to do every day. How did you end up becoming involved with enduro?
It was weird, because I was riding trail bikes... I was riding for Jan Karpiel frames and I was racing Downieville and this was back in '99... I was doing more downhill at that point, but I was still really fit, I was racing cross-country too. And I told him, "hey, Jan, I like this bike, can you make me a trail bike? I want a 65-66 degree headangle and I want a six-inch travel bike, run some big brakes and have some good power. He's like, that is not the future, twelve-inch travel bikes are the future..." And we went our separate ways. I'm like "Jan you are crazy." I started racing this bike, a Giant AC-1, and I was racing this bike for cross-country. Fred Glo came to the US for Downieville, and people were telling me, "you've got to take this guy out on some rides, he's like the godfather over there in Europe." I pick him up, and we just go hard at it at Downieville and I took him on every rad ride I know. He says to me "you should come to my enduro series." It was the second year, 2004, and I went and I never stopped. That was nine years ago and I would come and do at least two a year and I'd do the Urge trips.
How did people in the US react to what you told them about this new style of racing?
I'd come home and try and explain it to these guys who didn't really understand what enduro was - racers, promoters, whatever. And they basically thought I was just tooting my own horn to say "Hey, I went to Europe! Yay!" And I was trying to explain that it was so real, it was so everything that we got into from the beginning. It just took so long. People probably started going over there, maybe four years later, Schnell went over and he started preaching the same thing. Six years later, Ben is going over there and all of a sudden, it starts taking off. We had events like Downieville and Twelve Mile Super D for the nationals. But after the first year of Super Ds in the US, I won a bunch of them and they were predominantly downhill and pretty gnarly, all of a sudden the courses changed when the cross-country guys started getting involved in it. The trails turned into something where I was like, "that guy won on 29er hardtail, that's not even legal where I'm from." It's not that I don't like the bike, it's that I don't like the application of racing. So I stopped doing those and then everyone is now on the hunt. But the US is still... Some races are good, Schnell's race is cool, it's a bike park enduro, but he's trying to shift it a little. I'm not into bike park-style enduros, but the way they promote the race is awesome and Schnell's a great dude. Winter Park is a fun place. There are series over there where they broadcast the course a month in advance and you've got people going there training the courses and then they come back the week before and that's not enduro. How do you see the growth of enduro in the US?
The ones I have gone to are all pedally, flowy, higher speed. No real rocks or roots. I mean, maybe there are some, maybe we'll find some. Most of them are just high-speed, groomed singletrack. They're not anything like this. It's not... It's very physical... Curtis Keene is winning these races on a 23lb Stumpjumper. The one of these races that has technical parts in it on the downhill is Schnell's race at Winter Park. It's not hard to ride, it's just there's no dirt left because so many bikes have gone down through it, so you really have to ride on top of stuff. It's just breaks bike parts. When it rains, it's fairly dicey as there's no dirt left. Then the rest are just berms and jumps, they're not real courses. How do you think the US racers will find it when they head over to Europe to race?
That's going to be sweet. That's where the guys from the US think they're just going to come on over and get a top ten. They go to Fred's event, you could find yourself in 40th, real fricking quick. You go to Valloire... It's my favourite race because I've gone into Sunday's race in second, I went in behind Jerome, not far behind him and the Sunday course has claimed me every time. I've ripped off derailleurs, I just can't pull it together on that course. It doesn't even look that hard, if you sit there and ride it, you put yourself at speed with those goat ruts, how it cuts across the hill, and those things will just completely take you off your bike. You'll find you're trying to grab your brakes and your tyres aren't on the ground.
How do you think enduro should be raced?
You ride enduro your own way, with no real knowledge of the course and that's going to become something that's not really going to happen. People are all going to know the courses, soon enough, people are going to want to win so bad... I think it's going to be tough to keep enduro pure, because you're going to have to invest so much. And that's what it's about. I could go there on Friday, knowing nobody knew the course. I could fly in on Wednesday, and get to Valloire knowing that nobody knew the course much better than me because they just built it Friday. So... Yeah, definitely we'll see how the changes go. For the French races, I would just go to say I got top five, for people to say, "that's impressive, he's an American who doesn't know the course." And of course they did, shit, I wish I did... I just don't because it's not my home town. It's not their fault, it's not Jerome's fault he's been racing the series for ten years, you should have been there. It's a shame, but they can't keep making new trails and that's what's going to make guys go there early, to justify... "They know it, so I should know it." How much has getting a bit older changed your approach to racing?
It's been hard the last two years. After I won Downieville for the last time, I invested everything in my fitness and I have to give away a lot of time to the people to the people I love, not give them the time with me, and it becomes very vain. I get older, y'know, you get older... And it's not that I wouldn't love to come here and train, have some knowledge of the courses and some physical ability. But to do that is giving away from my son and my wife and my family and my friends. I get to cherry-pick my events, but I have to do these marketing things. I do Fox, Shimano and Cannondale, I did two weeks in Utah for them and I did this [coming to Finale Ligure in Italy] for them last year. I'm kinda like a personality, but I'm supposed to do well at the races. I'll do as well as I can and be safe and, hopefully, I'm in the top five most of the time, but knowing that I've only given 60% of the training I used to do. It's still good, but it's whether your pride can handle that you always get beat. And you don't stand a chance to win, because you know going into it you don't deserve it. I've got a kid, I want to have another kid, and it's getting to the point where it's their turn. My turn is kinda up. I still want to race, I still want to work, I still want to be involved. I'd love to go fast and I'll go as fast as I can, but... Unless my wife all of a sudden says "let's do this..." But I don't see that happening. Yeah, I don't feel any slower or older than I was seven years ago, I just don't have time. Ben Cruz is more or less your protege, how does it feel to see him doing so well?
It's always tough when Ben does well and I'm sitting there going "shit!" He's the one I want to win over anyone, because he's my boy. Anything he does over there is a reflection of all the people that are with him and we love that. But who likes to not be with him? I want to be with him, I want to do just as well... But it's not possible. You've got to put in your time and he's doing it. And Jason [Moeschler] said the same thing, "I want to move here, I want to do this." Our window has passed, now we have to help companies, work with companies and do other things with the names we have made for ourselves. Ben could be really great. That's why he's going to be over here, being able to experience the whole scene, being able to ride and get used to the places they ride, whether they're on the tracks or not. That's what it takes, you've got to give away everything, to get something. He's leaving his home. Everyone wishes they could do that, but we all don't get that opportunity. You mention the window. That's something you hear in a lot of other of action sports, like skateboarding, but not so much in mountain biking.
The window is there... You got stay healthy, stay focused and start saying no to things that are really fun. Women and beer, hahaha. Those things you just can't do, you know... You'd like to, you'd like to be able to have that Cedric Gracia style of life, but you're not going to win in enduro if you do that.
Do you think the level of the sport has got higher?
I just watched The Miserable Champion, the Palmer film and it's awesome, but that time is gone. That era isn't there, they were putting gas in the carburettor and there was nothing in the tank. Everyone was broke and saying "oh shit, it didn't work." In 99, I built the course for the World Cup at Squaw and it was one of the gnarlier courses, because that was the kind of stuff I was riding. I got to race as a pre-rider and get a time, but I didn't get to get a time. Palmer was so pissed, because he thought the course was going to be all flowy and jumpy and Nicolas [Vouilloz] was all "I really like this course." I was digging stairs into it and there were huge, nose-first drops that you had to go nose-first into, you couldn't just sail it. I ended up, close to the top 20, I was just some rookie and I was stoked with my time... and Palmer was pissed off, Nicolas won and Kovarik came out of nowhere. He got second. Nicolas didn't think he could make up the time on Kovarik after the first run, of course he did because he was just the alien. That was cool time, I'm glad I was there. But if I wasn't there, and I was younger, I might be here, which is going to be an equally cool time. Were you before or after the big money left the sport?
I was just a scrub, working in a bike shop and racing. Those guys were out of touch, I was like "that guy is rolling." You see Cully in the video and he's, "it's not about the money." And the cars... They panned down in his garage and there's his Lexus with 22s on it, and it's totally full of shit. It's Cully, he's a cartoon character, of course it's about the money. That whole image made everyone want to be a pro, I wanted those things, but by the time I got there, they weren't there, hahaha. I was driving a Toyota two-wheel drive... Do you think it's getting tougher for kids coming into the sport?
Tougher and tougher. There's so many people coming up. In the US, with the high school league, we've got 4-500 kids racing at the high school league, more than on the football teams. Those kids are all going to be coming, they're all going to want a piece of the pie and there's just not that much pie yet, maybe there will be. It's going to be real hard to make living in this sport, just like it always has been. But maybe, the field of pay will grow, what is it now in enduro? Maybe six guys can make a living? It's rough, dude. Now maybe it'll grow to ten if we're lucky. Adam Craig is making a living racing enduro, Curtis Keene, you got Jay Cage. They're all making and they have to have a lot of pressure on them, there's no way they don't. Now they have to perform in a sport that they don't know that well. You can't just say "I'm racing World Cup Cross-Country, I'm going to race downhill now because that's where I'm going to be good." You can't make those calls any more, especially with the way enduro has progressed. These guys like Remy, Jerome, Nicolas, Lau, Wildhaber... Those guys are hard to beat, they're just solid. So... You're not just going to come in a push them around. And, Fabien? He's another story, because he is an amazing person and athlete.
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