Downhill racing in America isn't what it used to be. The courses, the bikes and the riders are all light years ahead of where they were fifteen years ago, when downhill racing was at its peak in terms of participation. But, the numbers we're seeing now are a small fraction of the heydays experienced during the late 90's and early 2000's. When you look at the top 25 riders on the World Cup circuit in 2014, the nationality breakdown is as follows: 32 percent Great Britain; 12 percent, Australia and New Zealand, eight percent, and with Austria, France, South Africa, United States, Colombia, Switzerland, and Germany rounding it out with four-percent each. The thing is, the population of the United States is less than ten percent of the combined population of the nine other countries represented in the top 25. America has the mountains, the riders and the bikes. There is no shortage of passion, but somewhere along the way it experienced a disconnect between the athletes and the developmental system. In this article, we take an in-depth look into the sport of downhill racing in the United States in an effort to discover how it got to this point, and we interview a number of key players to assess the direction where DH racing in this country is most likely headed.
A Look back
For many, the issue first manifested itself in the form of the NORBA National series. When USA Cycling took control of NORBA, and later introduced the Pro Gravity Racing Tour, the organization quickly seemed to lose interest in furthering its progress. For a lot of riders, USAC was more a detriment to the sport and less an asset. Up until recently, USAC didn't appear to be all that interested in an image overhaul, but with one single press release
many eyebrows were raised and the Pro GRT suddenly appeared to be making strides in the right direction for the first time in quite possibly in its existence. With new staffers at the helm, along with the assistance of American gravity heroes like Chris Herndon, Jill Kintner and husband Bryn Atkinson, there appears to be a renewed sense of urgency with bringing prestige back to American downhill racing and putting more Americans on the podium in international competition.Behind the Scenes
Not all of the new decisions are being met with open arms by longtime DH fans and especially riders attached to the East Coast staple at Plattekill Bike Park in Roxbury, New York. Its removal from the Pro GRT calendar has some folks questioning the intentions of the decision makers and the direction the series might be heading in. Over the past several weeks, we spent time discussing at length, the current state of American downhill affairs with a number of the people involved behind the scenes, including USAC's VP of National Events, Micah Rice; former National Champion and current World Championships coach Chris Herndon; Olympic gold medalist and World Champion Jill Kintner; Port Angeles, Washington, race director Scott Tucker; and Plattekill Bike Park's general manager Laszlo Vajtay. The conversations were candid, honest and eye opening. Most agreed that, while the road to this point has certainly been tough to travel, it is quite possible that the downhill community may be surprised and hopeful about what lies just around the corner for American downhill racing.
Micah Rice - USAC VP of National Events What is your role with USAC?
I’m the Vice President of national events. The Events Department oversees all of our national championships, of which we have 15 next year over all of the five cycling disciplines; mountain, road, track, BMX and cyclocross. That includes the race direction and the operations of those national championships. It also includes the ‘Officials Program'. That is the ongoing education for officials and the rule book. It’s also the Race Director’s Certification (which is an ongoing education for race directors) and it oversees the race director’s summit. We also oversee all of the top-tier calendars in all five disciplines, which for mountain biking is the XCT and the Pro GRT. Are there an equal amount of resources being paid to all of the cycling disciplines by USAC?
There’s no real hierarchy that we’ve listed out in any way. We look at a lot of things when you think about the importance of these disciplines. I think that gravity is one of the disciplines that we anticipate a big push in terms of time and resources on our part, in particular with looking at the Pro GRT and all of the pieces that are involved in it. We listen to our 65,000 members. If you want to look at the resources available, we currently have hundreds of thousands of racer days per year (one athlete racing one race on the day). If we really looked at the percentage of what our members are actually doing, gravity would hardly get any attention. Sixty two percent of our racer days are road racer days. Mountain biking is sitting at 17 percent, which includes XC and DH combined.
If we wanted to allocate resources to the percentage of racer days from the gravity side of things, I don’t even think we’d have a Pro GRT. In all reality, we’re actually putting a lot more money and time into the Pro GRT than money we’re getting back from the membership. But that's OK. We don’t mind doing that. It’s an important, World Championship discipline and it’s important to our vision of where USAC has to spend some resources going into the next few years here. People ask us: “What money are you generating from gravity racing and what money are you putting back into the sport?” The answer is, we’re actually putting a lot more money into the sport than we’re getting from it because we see it as an important direction that we have to go. In recent years, countries with much smaller population pools than our own, including Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, have been seeing quite a bit more success on the world stage compared to the United States. Does USAC see the Pro GRT as a viable tool with which the US can become more competitive at World Cup races and World Championships?
Absolutely. I think we have to build that infrastructure. I think with the Pro GRT, we’re focused on creating more quality events where we can get more people coming up through the ranks so we can see the next Aaron Gwin, Neko Mulally or Jill Kintner. You know, I think that there’s a lot of downhill racing that is not sanctioned by USAC and that’s great.
You look at a situation like Southridge and all of these races at Fontana. I have tons of respect for Donny and all that he’s done for the gravity world. He’s bringing people up from that SoCal area and preparing them for bigger and better things. I think there are a number of situations like that. Of course we don’t have any ability to track that because it's completely cut off from our grid. He goes out and buys his own insurance, which costs more than our own. But he has a system over there and that’s fine. He’s bringing people up through the ranks and we don’t make any money off of that, so we don’t have any money to spend on gravity.
There are a lot of groups like that throughout the country. We want to do is bring a lot of those people back so that we’re all kind of pulling in the same direction and we have more money to spend on gravity and making it better. That’s going to be one of our goals over the next few years; bringing unsanctioned races back into the fold so that we’re all pulling in the same direction. So USAC is looking to generate money from races to put back into the development of the sport?
Yeah, big picture that’s what we’re here to do. You start talking about Great Britain and Australia - two really strong federations that are doing a lot for the sport in their countries. A huge majority of their money comes from the government. We get zero from our government. We get some help from the USOC. They watch what we’re doing with that money because what they want are Olympic medals. So a lot of the money that they give, we have to put in Olympic disciplines. That doesn’t include downhill. It doesn’t include a number of things, criterium or cyclocross, which are both really popular here in the states. We try and even out those things that aren’t garnering Olympic medals and we fund those through what we’re doing, which is sanctioning and permits for races, and our insurance product that we make a little bit off of here and there. We sanction 3,000 races a year, so it all adds to the pot and we put it right back into the sport.
Our online registration system makes a little bit of money. So, when people are off the grid and using products from whomever, those few extra dollars aren’t being put back into the sport. Those insurers are usually for profit, which is fine; they’re obviously allowed to make money. But that’s just money that we can’t pump back into the sport. As a non-profit, all of the money [we make] goes back into the sport. Big picture? USAC is the non-profit, governing body of the sport of cycling. That includes five total disciplines, including mountain biking, which has its own disciplines within itself. We’re not a for-profit company. We don’t have shareholders. We know that we don’t sanction a ton of gravity events, but there are some and when we do, we make a few dollars, but then we pay off the overhead and related expenses and whatever is left goes back in. With the Pro GRT, we upgraded all five events to UCI international events. They have costs for chief officials, additional officials for each event - we’re giving money to each of these events to offset the costs.
We don’t gain any money by upgrading to a UCI status. Our goal is to raise the visibility of these events so that we can shine a better spotlight on the Pro GRT. We also want to put some value into each of these individually owned events in the United States. Whether it’s the Northwest Cup or the race at Snowshoe, all of these people will hopefully have more attention paid to their events as far as having a top-tier series to follow.
Riders will also benefit with the UCI points available. Now they don’t have to travel outside of the United States to have a shot at racing at Windham or Mont Saint Anne. I was talking to BMX olympian Mike Day and he’s kind of moved into downhill mountain biking. He’s asking me how many points are available at these events? His sponsors want to see him at a World Cup and World Championships. He’s an olympian and Red Bull athlete and he’s super excited about having these points available. We want to be able to put cash into a top-tier series like this, which we hope will generate more interest in other venues wanting to register their events with USAC, which in turns makes this whole operation much more sustainable.
If I had one message that I can push through, it’s that it seems as though it’s cool to be unsanctioned. Maybe it's a, “screw the man!” thing. We get beat up by folks because they don’t think we’re investing enough in the sport. Well, we need to make some money before we’re able to invest any of it. Currently, we’re probably stealing from the road guys to invest money into the downhill side of things. But that’s OK. We’re actually totally fine with that. The road guys can deal with it. But if people want to keep doing unsanctioned races, well it just won’t be sustainable and we won’t have anything left to invest with. I don’t want to sound standoff-ish and sound negative. We just have to find a way to work together and do this. We always kind of feel like we’re battling with the people who we want to work with. I think that we’ve taken a step forward and we’re investing cash into a top-tier series in America before we even have a sustainable model to work with. When looking at the race calendar, there are people who are going to be critical of the criss-crossing schedule requirements. The travel is going to be tough on people without significant resources. Is that a concern for you guys?
If you plug the Pro GRT calendar into the international calendar, whether it’s Crankworx, or Sea Otter or some of the World Cups on the East Coast, you can get a better idea of what we were looking to do. We wanted to get a few events on the West Coast and some on the East Coast and one somewhat in the middle, which ended up being Angel Fire. We are trying to even the series out too; last year it was very East Coast centric. So we wanted to spread things out.
Remember, the Pro GRT is built first and foremost for the top pros. The top pros include those that are travelling to the World Cup. Do we think that the next tier down will be able to attend every single one? Sure, that’s a process and we get that. Our funds are limited, so we need to know where we can best put the money. With UCI points being available, you can help people get the opportunity to get some World Cup or World Championship starts. If you talk to someone to someone like Gwin, well he doesn’t really care about that because he races the World Cup already and gets way more points than you could ever get racing domestically. But, if you talk to someone who races the Pro GRT and is getting somewhere between 5th and 10th regularly - well, they’re going to be pretty excited about those points because that’s going to get them to the World Cup and allow for them to start in their factory kit, as opposed to the USA kit that’s required by the UCI.
Maybe some money is best spent trying to take these events that we have and raising them up to the international level that you find at UCI races. There’s been some discussion about having us send officials to the events. Does that help offset costs for the organizers? There’s also been some discussion about helping out with the overall prize purse. That puts money into the riders’ pocket so that they can get to these events. Or does that just make the rich richer? So you look around at all of the pros and cons of these decisions and that’s something that we need to continue to discuss. Plattekill has been a part of the Pro GRT from the beginning and there are a number of riders who think that the track there is the closest thing you’ll find in the states to the stuff you’ll see at the World Cup. What ended up being the primary reason for its removal from the Pro GRT series?
There are a few reasons and this is probably a better question for Chris Herndon, but what I will say is that we are looking very seriously to raise the bar of the Pro GRT. I have a lot of respect for Laszlo and what he’s done for the world of downhill. The guy is super passionate, he has been around for a long time and he definitely has one hell of a course. Some would say that his pro track is almost too difficult for a Pro GRT. I think that putting the pros on a track like that is great prep for a World Cup actually. But, there aren’t very many facilities, its tough to get to and the production value is not great there. It’s also just not that conducive to the amateur side of the sport. We need to support them and make sure they’re well taken care of. If you look at Mammoth Mountain, they have a completely separate course for the Kamikaze games. That makes a lot of sense. We look at a lot of things and as much as he’s been a part of it for a long time, we want to raise the bar and its been decided for a number of reasons that he didn’t make that bar. From a USAC standpoint, what do you think fans of downhill here in the States and from around the world have to be excited about when it comes to the Pro GRT?
It's about taking steps. We can’t just make gravity racing here kick ass overnight. We saw the rise of it in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but that was fairly unsustainable. It’s dropped down to a low point but it’s on it’s way back up. It’s important that it’s at a sustainable level. We need to start with doing everything we can to create value here with the Pro GRT. We need to develop a nationally recognized series for the pros that really has some benefits for the amateurs as well. It starts growing these larger events that drop into the Pro GRT. I think that the pros need a place to hone their skills and the media needs something to follow event and rider-wise. It’s going to be really hard to grow the sport if you have this group over here wanting to do their thing, and this group over there wanting to do another. Our job is to try and grow the sport but its also to field a team for the World Championships. USAC is going to be around long after most of these events come and go. We’re in for the long haul and we want to find other people who want to be involved long-term as well.
Laszlo Vajtay - GM of Plattekill Mountain You’ve been involved with downhill racing and riding for a number of decades now. From your perspective, what is the current state of downhill looking like?
You know, I believe that the numbers speak for themselves. George Ulmer runs a great race series here on the East Coast here and I don’t know what the deal is with other parts of the country. I just don’t have time to monitor it, I can only focus on my own business and trying to bring racers here. But, what I have experience with is the Eastern States Cup and what I have seen over the past 20 plus year is having races early on with 700-800 people on a race weekend when we were doing XC and DH races; to a low where we could only scrape up 60-70 racers. I think we’re beginning to experience a bit of a resurgence over the past few years where we’re seeing anywhere from 100-150 racers show up for a downhill event. I just haven’t seen a single event, unless it was a Pro GRT, bring in over 150 racers. That sends a strong message that the athletes aren’t there and they’re not bringing new athletes into the sport the way we used to in the 90’s and early 2000’s.
I always look at what the barriers to entry are. The resounding standout there is the freaking cost of equipment. It’s just really, really expensive. We have found that our rentals are doing really well because people want to buy these things, but they just can’t afford to buy them. I’m not speaking to the upper one percent of the industry, but to the rest of the industry where its full of people who just love two wheels. There’s a big portion of the industry as far as competitors are concerned that come from another background, such as BMX and motocross. What baffles me is that in the moto world there appears to be a ton of money. I’m not just talking about sponsorships and prizing either. What I am seeing is that there are a lot of people that are going out and spending $5000 on a racing moto bike. There’s this inherent block in the minds of a lot of people who see their mountain bikes costing the same as these dirt bikes. So those people who come from the moto scene have less of an issue coming over to mountain biking if that’s what they’re choosing to do.
I know that bike prices are coming down, especially now with the all-mountain bikes becoming more and more capable. From an equipment perspective to an affordability perspective, I think that we have a little bit of a fight ahead of us. That was one of the reasons I was really upset about being muscled out of this Pro GRT series. It was the only event where I would see over 200 racers show up all year. Granted, we had to spend a little bit of money to be a part of it, but it was always the event in which I would regularly see over 200 racers. I’ve been doing this the longest out of everyone in the series. I’ve seen the rise and fall and weathered the storms of economic downturns. That’s kind of my take on the scene right now, I haven’t seen great numbers; at least not in this area. I do know that the numbers at both of the Snowshoe and Beech GRT’s was dismal last year. But I also think I know why. I think it had a lot to do with USAC and the date selections. It screwed up the travel schedules of the pro teams. How was the removal of Plattekill from the Pro GRT schedule presented to you?
I’ve been promised multiple calls back from USAC and I haven’t gotten any. I personally think that Micah was gunning for me. I don’t know why, as I’ve never met the guy. But, I will say that I was the only guy who spoke in black and white terms during our phone calls and I think that he took that too personally. I think he was gunning for me and just wanted to get Plattekill out of the schedule. I think that the reduction from six events to five was just an excuse for bouncing me off of the schedule. I’ve been on the Pro GRT schedule longer than any other venue on that schedule. I’ve been continuous for six years. Never missed a beat. Not a single other venue can say that.
I was there when Kelly Lusk was at the helm and was trying to give the national series a resurgence and she practically begged us to put in a bid for the Pro GRT. She also asked us, if we could afford it, to put in a bid for UCI inscription. Which we also did. They just never gave me a valid reason. They just said “You will not be hosting a Pro GRT event this year.” Thanks for spending your $150 on a bid, but no dice. Black and white; that’s all I heard. Micah did write to me once and told me he wants to speak with me about how I can improve my events and that he valued my opinions on how racing can be improved in the country. I was promised a follow up call from there and never got one.
We were the only venue that stuck around since the NORBA days. But, all of that is out of the window. I also believe, and no one has ever said this to me, but its been suggested by others, that because I don’t have the fancy facilities and restaurants and places to stay; that my venue was always frowned upon by USAC. But I can’t confirm that. Nothing has been explained to me so I have to assume it has something to do with a personality conflict. Maybe my mouth got me in trouble. It’s a shame that I can’t speak freely. I thought I was allowed to do that among my peers. I was just trying to suggest certain things that might improve racing and improve our numbers. If you were to take a critical look at your operations and venue, what would you say about your facilities and course design?
We definitely depend on our surrounding communities for restaurants and lodging and what not. But as far as the on-mountain facilities, keeping it raw and the same as what we grew up riding on is important to me. I’m 52 and I’ve been racing and riding since I was in my 20’s. When I took over the mountain I was 30 and still an avid rider. Back then there was no such thing as suspension and disc brakes. You had your XC bike and you rode everything on it. All of our original trails were built around riding our XC bikes downhill. You were king of the mountain if you had 100 millimeters of travel on your bike. I find that bringing back a lot of those trails make for the best downhill trails. It separates the men from the boys. It definitely makes for better riders. What about the beginners? A lot of people love your mountain for how tough it is, but that it’s maybe not a great place to take someone who’s just getting into the sport. Do you agree with that?
I think it depends on what kind of beginner you’re talking about. If you’re talking about a Cat' Three racer, or someone who has been riding for a long time but is just now getting into racing, I’d disagree. If it’s someone who is just getting into downhill for the races, maybe they’re not really looking to race just yet. The fact of the matter is, if you look at my summer camps, they’re enormously successful and full of kids who are learning to ride downhill for the first time. We have great instructors and the kids have great times.
As far as beginner racers are concerned, I actually think that is a great question to ask George Ulmer. I think that the beginner category is the biggest at most races now. But I don’t get a lot of complaints from beginners. My youngest racer this year, who raced every single one of them, was 11 years old. Another area to focus on is bringing more women into the sport. Everyone is really frustrated with the cost it takes to put on the women’s category and there’s just no return on it. I know George is really upset about that. Women are demanding identical pay outs and we’ve been matching prizes purses for years. But we had to finally had to say enough is enough. If two women show up to race, we can’t pay out $5,000 to two women. I know Kathy Krauss is working on a women’s developmental program. But even that is seeing limited success. But I don’t think we’re having any issues with beginners. If you’re looking for a “bike park” race course, you’re not racing gravity. We’ve made a name for ourselves with the downhill tracks and I think that is working in our favor, not against us. Do you want to be a part of the Pro GRT going forward?
I’m ready to go forward. I was ready to go forward this year. I was having a number of conversations with Micah and some others and then one day, boom. I’m not going to be a part of it. I’m no longer on the schedule. Why? Tell me why? What is the reasoning to cut it down to five? We were back to back with Mountain Creek. All of the pro teams were here and we had all kinds of great programs set up. Why? There was no specific reason given and I am being brutally clear about that.
George runs the Eastern States Cup better than USAC. He should be the head of the gravity scene for USAC and the Pro GRT. I think what he has developed - and I stand behind my words - has been the best thing that will happen for any type of gravity racing. Certainly on the east coast and I dare say nationally. He has a good national presence at his races and he’s even getting an international participation now. I think he represents the future. He needs to be supported. They should be throwing money at him.
Port Angeles and Plattekill are the two places without all of the fancy amenities. They use a bunch of shuttle buses. But I was the one left off of the schedule. Why weren’t they? What have I done differently? I spoke from my gut. I am not one of these guys who hide behind my computer and make all of these statements. I speak my mind. But I would very much be interested in getting back into it. The Pro GRT was a big part of the business model. This is going to hurt my bottom line.
Chris Herndon - Gravity Advisor for USAC, World Champs Coach How did you end up in an advisory role with USAC?
I’m not really sure how that came to be. They reached out to me earlier in the year looking for some help. They asked if I’d be willing to consult with them on a few things, mainly national champs. I think that they knew I had a role in the Beech Mountain National Champs and I’ve also been coaching the national team at World Champs for a few years now. So they reached out in the spring and I made it clear that I was kind of hesitant initially, but that I’d be willing to work with them to try and make it better. What has stood out to you over the past few years that you thought needed to be changed in order to really drive the series in an upward direction?
I think when the series first started it was a great idea. Jeremiah Dylan Dean did a great job with it and we started to see some start up North American teams. It started well, but I think he just got burnt out. Over the past few years it's dwindled and has become diluted. In my opinion, the quality of the events was too low. So one of the big goals was better tracks. Consistency across the board with scheduling too. I think limiting the number of races was big, that makes it easier for athletes to follow the series. Honestly, a lot of thought went into trying to make the flow of the schedule better.
I know that this year, a lot of people are upset with how often you have to travel across the country, but a lot of thought went into how things fell and that’s just something we felt worked best for this season. The World Cups affect it. We want top notch racers to be able to follow the series. The Pro GRT is also used for junior World Championships selection and there has been a big East Coast bias over the past few years. Early in 2014, you had Plattekill and Mountain Creek on back to back weekends, which was tough to do during the school year for kids on the West Coast. World Champs is just so important to top level juniors. I wanted to eliminate that bias.
Some venues aren’t being returned to this year and I think that there’s some entitlement from some owners because they’ve been a part of this the whole time and think they are going to essentially be grandfathered in because of that. We want to change that and really develop a top-level event. It’s not just something organizers can sign up for anymore.
My number one goal was getting UCI status this year. I was asked by USAC what my top tden goals were with the Pro GRT and number one was UCI. Our top guys don’t care because they already race World Cups, but its hard for the up-and-coming riders who are quick and dedicated to get any points and a chance at a World Cup. It always comes down to putting in a discretionary nomination to USAC and being selected to participate in those events. If you’re talking about an event oversees, it’s not a huge deal because not a lot of Americans are going to travel to race those. But if you’re talking about Mont St. Anne or Windham, we had a lot of people petition us this past season and a lot of people didn’t get to go to those races.
That selection gets really fuzzy because a lot of those guys don’t get to race against each other. You have East Coast guys and West Coast guys and the people making the final decision on that don’t often know who all of the riders are. So, that’s one of the reasons I was brought in this year, to help with those decisions. It’s really tough to stare at a sheet with 18 names on it and determine who out of that group deserves a shot at World Champs. There were two or three options where it was clear that they should have gone, but there were another eight to ten who were kind of all the same speed and you might not have seen them all at the same event, so it’s hard to see how they stack head-to-head against each other.
With UCI status, now they can get points without having to petition. I also think that UCI points will help bring some prestige back to the series. I am already hearing, since the press release came out, that there are some Canadians who are looking to come down here to chase some points. That’s huge. That’s how it used to be back in the day with the Australians. Now you never see that here. Bryn Atkinson had some valuable input at the summit with respect to the UCI points. He sees it as a good starting point for the Pro GRT. Will you have a role in establishing the standards with which course design is going to be held to?
I wouldn’t say that I’m officially involved, but it’s certainly something we talked a lot about at the race director’s summit. We’ve had several emails since then as well. The one thing we did agree upon is having a separate Cat' Two and Cat' Three track, from the Cat' One and Elite track. We obviously don’t want to hurt our Cat' One riders, but we want to see our top-level riders progress with this series. It’s supposed to be the premier series for the United States and number two on my list was course design.
They have to be harder. When Aaron Gwin is racing on the same track as a Cat' Three rider, there’s obviously something wrong there. It’s not good for the top-level riders or the beginners. You’re discouraging on both ends of the spectrum. Obviously, mountains are limited with what they can do, but all five mountains [on the 2015 schedule] were really receptive to this. We’re also separating pro and amateur practices next year. We had some dangerous situations last year with combined practice times. That discourages people from even wanting to be out on the track. I wouldn’t want to be out on a moto track with James Stewart, so why would amateurs want to be on the track when Neko and Aaron are blasting through? Have you seen a concerted effort from USAC up to this point to cultivate a higher level of competitiveness on the world stage with downhill?
I wouldn’t say that fully, but I think I have seen a lot of changes at the World Championship level since I’ve been a coach there. I think that the change is slow but productive. I think that there has been a lack of gravity input at USAC to a large degree. I never would have signed on, but USAC admitted that they didn’t really know a lot about gravity racing and that they weren’t doing as good a job as they could have been doing. I think that was a sentiment shared by racers across the board as well. So, it was nice to see that acknowledgement from them this year.
They also stepped up big by providing a lot of funding to get the UCI status this year. I think they are wanting to see the numbers increase. There are a lot of unsanctioned races and gravity memberships are a lot lower than XC. I think once that they see more value [in DH], they will start putting more time and effort back into this. A lot of people stopped buying licenses, six, seven, eight years ago because they weren’t seeing much of a point to it. In turn, USAC didn’t see the support from the gravity community and it became this vicious cycle. Now we’re at a turning point. We’ve got a lot of really good promoters who have banded together to help make a really good series. They didn’t have to do that. But USAC put up their own money to help ensure a better event for these guys this year and in turn, I hope that the gravity community starts to see that and comes back to the Pro GRT. There are some really great people at USAC who are willing to work hard and make this happen. Plattekill’s omission from the series stands out to the large number of people who place it at the top of their list of favorite bike parks. Is this something that you see becoming a highly selective process going forward that venues are going to have to work hard to secure a spot on the Pro GRT calendar? Will the locations change from year to year?
I think that the new selection process was in place this year. I had a big influence in that Plattekill decision this year and I know that I’m going to get hammered for that. I love Plattekill. I loved racing there as a racer and it’s probably the hardest track in the US right now. The big problem with it is safety concerns. No course marshals and blind drops. This stuff was all outlined to Laszlo before though. If someone crashes at certain spots on that track, how are you going to get to them? How do you get them down the mountain? It just seemed like the level of that event had dropped.
That is an example of that sense of entitlement I was talking about earlier. He used to have UCI inscription. The level of racing just hasn’t changed in a very long time there. We need to move forward with things. That track is great for elites, but for everyone else? I mean the go-arounds were sometimes harder than the main lines. We all know about the shut up and ride mentality up there, which is great - but for a Cat' Three rider who’s never been, they’re walking down the track. Why would they want to keep racing downhill if that’s what’s going to happen?
That’s not how you grow the sport. I was an elite rider and that’s obviously where a lot of my focus has been in the past, but it’s also about the Cat' Twos and Cat' Threes. That’s where the volume of racers will be coming from. We need more of them to show up. We want them to excel and enjoy themselves without getting in over their heads. We all have friends who don’t need to be on the same track as Neko. So yes, a lot of the focus this year has been on the amateurs.
I hope that we move forward with there still being a discussion every year about the venues. I think that, with the new standards that were set this year, there will be even more competition for a spot on the calendar next year. This year saw the most bids ever for USAC and the Pro GRT series, so there is more interest than ever. It was hard this year and I’m scared for next year when even more promoters show that they’re willing to step up their games for a spot. That’s just going to make the decision even harder. We’re creating more competition for not only the riders, but for the venues as well.
Scott Tucker - Port Angeles Pro GRT Race Director How did things go at the Race Directors Summit in Bend last month? What happened there that gave you the confidence to go into 2015 as a part of the Pro GRT series?
Well, it was not a laydown. We (Casey Northern and I) basically had to tell them that they needed us more than we needed them. So let’s all try and make this work together. All of us were ready to say: “Screw it, we don’t need to do this.” To their credit they [USAC] did step up. It does feel like a turning point. I think that a majority of the success will still be up to the individual promoters. But, just making us all come together, for me is a big deal. We’ve done the Pro GRT since it started. In the past, all I was concerned with was Casey and my race at Port Angeles. I didn’t care how I fit into the rest of it. But now we are all working as a team and USAC facilitated that.
That was big and also the fact that they are helping offset the costs of the UCI inscriptions for each event. As promoters, we need some sort of commitment. We aren’t working with huge budgets and this is expensive. Without raising prices, it’s hard to say, “Yes, we can afford that.” So, for them to help and get that started definitely encouraged people to stick around and work out the details. They were willing to do that and we’re willing to work hard for them. It was good because we all got to see each other’s perspective. I feel really positive about it. Jill and Chris also put in so much effort into this. There was no gain for them to do that other than to see it succeed. They really want it to do well and are committed to international success. Port Angeles is considered by many to be the premier downhill event in America outside of the World Cup in Windham. How did it become what it is today and why did you initially want to be a part of the Pro GRT?
I guess we have certain advantages with where we are. One is that we’re essentially at sea level, so we can put on races in the spring when everyone really wants to race and the turnout is big for us. We have a lot of handmade trails with a lot of variety. They kind of all intertwine like a bowl of spaghetti, so you can do a different track virtually every time. We have three separate tracks for beginners, intermediates, and pro/expert. With the Pro GRT, one of the things that we’ve done from the beginning was we put the race the weekend before or after Sea Otter. Most years, a lot of the World Cup guys will head to Sea Otter to show off their new pajamas and they’ll just head up the coast to ride some really good and technical riding. So we’ve had that draw for us.
I think it was Jeremiah Dylan Dean as the original face for USAC before the Pro GRT. He helped them get that going in that direction. He helped us by pointing out that being a part of it wouldn’t hurt
our attendance - plus, we were already meeting a lot of the requirements they had. What were some of the misteps USAC took with regards to their relationship with the downhill community?
I had a lot of assumptions along the lines that USAC didn’t care about gravity and that they put all of their resources into road. I also had some assumptions that they had a good budget to work with and that it was all going to road and not mountain. I think that a lot of other riders shared those assumptions. I see now that it isn't as simple as that. They really are more of a licensing and governing body rather than an event promoter. In the world of mountain biking, they put on National Championships and that’s all. To me, that’s a good thing. From a promoter’s standpoint, they lay down some rules for consistency but they don’t tell us how to run an event.
If you compare us to road, and I put on events for both, it’s a different mentality and approach and you can’t homogenize the two. Road guys like what they like and mountain guys like what they like. So, if it’s just providing insurance and some of the other things they do, I’m fine with that. They’re definitely not getting rich doing it. They just don’t have a ton of money to put into road or mountain biking - it’s just not there.
Jill Kintner - World Champion, Downhill Racer How were you and Bryn approached by USAC to be a part of the Race Directors Summit?
Herndon had a lot to do with that. He was a consultant for USAC this year and is really passionate about our sport and making a difference. He’s someone who’s been watching for a while and can see the full spectrum of the sport. He’s not someone who will say a lot, but when he does say something, it’s factual and to the point. He’s worked with a lot of different riders (myself included) at World Champs and through teams he’s run in the past. He mentioned to me that this event was going to be held in Bend, Oregon, this year, which is not too far from where we are in Seattle and wanted to know if I would like to be a part of it.
I know some of the USAC guys from my time at the Olympics and other events from the past. I think that Bryn and I bring some knowledge of the logistics involved for the athletes that maybe some others didn’t understand. Bryn and I care a lot about US racing and we bring a lot of organizational and informative skills to the table, which I think was useful for this. It really felt like our opinions mattered. It wasn’t just my perspective either. I sent out maybe 50 emails to other racers, pros and amateurs alike. I asked people what the most important changes they think should be made to the series and a lot of the responses came back regarding consistencies across the board. A better logistical schedule and venues with great tracks and resources. People were also looking for a better East vs. West Coast balance. For me personally, I don’t want to fly out to the East Coast three separate times. I just don’t want to.
Now it seems like we’ve helped to develop this series with a lot more prestige, and it’s something that going forward, venues are going to have to work hard to be a part of. I printed all of the comments out from the feedback and every single venue and USAC saw these responses. It was great for these guys to see this as opposed to just hearing it from me. It was just great for myself, Bryn and Herndon to have the floor in front of these event promoters and USAC. All of the promoters were super cool.
People like Casey and Scott from Port Angeles don’t even need the Pro GRT. Their event is so big regardless, especially coming right off of Sea Otter. Their event is so good and everybody wants to race it. But the turning point for everyone was the UCI points. That was the big thing, wondering what USAC was going to do for the sport. If they don’t invest or care or put something discernable back into the sport, no one is going to care about their banners or logos being placed next to an event. That won’t do anything for the series or unify it.
They needed to put something up for us. But, after the summit, it’s clear that USAC wants what we want: they want top level riders at the World Cups. They want essentially what Britain has already, which is depth and a healthy sport. For them to come to the table with UCI inscriptions for the whole series, it really raises the standards of the whole thing. Now a national event is a true national event, not just a regional event with a GRT tag on it. I remember when the US Open was a killer event in America. That was when qualifying was important.
There was a standard set there. That’s how it is at the World Cup level. You don’t want to get cut, so you work hard to make sure you’re in. Cutting a standard and raising the bar is a big deal. So we made a couple of adjustments there; if it’s under 100 riders the cut list goes to 40, but if its over 100 riders the cut list goes up to 60. Eventually, all of these rounds will see over 100 pros. The series is going to be great for the riders and I’m really excited for the future of the US Series. Before, you just sensed that it had split into more of a series of regional races. I didn’t go to any this year and before that, I was a huge proponent of racing in America. In the past, what would you say were some of the biggest communication gaps between USAC and the downhill community?
I think that the system was pretty fractured. With the Grand Prix, it was obvious that USAC just didn’t care. So, there were a lot of people who were just trying to do their own thing independently. It was good to see that a lot of people now seem to care and really want to grow the sport. There is so much potential in downhill and it felt like for a long time they were giving very little back to the development of it. But now they have the right people in place and it’s the right time. Micah was there and he wanted to hear what we had to say. They were at Worlds and Windham and they’ve seen it at a high level. They want to get people who will medal. I’ve been there and I’ve gotten fourth at Worlds and even won the World Championship in 4X, gotten the Olympic medals - there’s a lot more excitement when you’ve got someone on the podium. I think that we’ve fixed a lot of the problems that we faced in the past. Do you see this as an opportunity for Americans to really begin to see more riders inside of the top 20 at World Cups?
I sure hope so, but no one can say how long that’s going to take. I can see the juniors coming up from this. This will definitely help make them more competitive. There will also be a lot more coverage. I think that, regardless of the impact at the World Cup level, this is going to be big. The dialed schedule and the better payouts will make this a big series in and of itself. The KHS boys will be there, all of the US guys who want to succeed will be there. Do you and Bryn feel like its your responsibility to act as examples for other top-level riders by making this series a priority of yours?
Yeah, for sure. I think that is a part of it. It’s set up well for top-level riders to be able to follow it. I think that the Mountain Creek race was moved on the calendar to right before the Scotland World Cup stop. So you will be on the East Coast already and can hop on a flight to Scotland for the Fort William race. I have all but one Pro GRT on my calendar because my sponsors have me going to Colorado for the Freeride Festival instead. Yeah, I definitely want to do everything I can to help develop the series and make downhilling in America better.The 2015 Pro Mountain Bike Gravity Tour (Pro GRT) Schedule:
Apr. 24-26 - NW Cup
Port Angeles, WA
May. 31 - Mountain Creek Spring Classic
Jun. 19-21 - Chile Challenge
Angel Fire, NM
Jul. 26 - Snowshoe Wild Hare
Sep. 26 - Kamikaze Bike Games
Mammoth Lakes, CA