It's hard for me to wrap my brain around athletes like Seamus Powell. The 24 year old Giant Northeast rider is plenty fast; he has tons of fitness, he's not afraid of the ragged edge and he's loaded with natural talent. But those aren't qualities unique to Seamus as there are countless riders who can confidently claim to possess all of those traits. But Seamus is a part of that most unique tribe of athletes, the ones who possess both the relentless drive and the intense focus to push themselves beyond the reaches of what many of us think is possible on two wheels. It's difficult for many of us to ever achieve the level of focus Seamus has and it's something that sets him apart from many of the riders he toes the line against at the races. The man races professionally in four separate disciplines including enduro, downhill, cross country and cyclocross. Last summer he went and won himself two national championship titles in one weekend in both Super-D and Single Speed XC. Then he went and took down down the Eastern States Cup Enduro Series, winning 4 of 5 races for the series. After that, he decided he'd go ahead and take on the Enduro Triple Crown Series, winning 2 of 3 and the eventual overall contest. The striking thing with this guy is what happens after he sees success like this: he wants nothing more than to go faster. A lot faster.
Born and raised in the tiny mountain town of Roundtop, New York, Seamus' outdoor and cycling roots go back to his folks instilling an appreciation for what the world around them offered. "If you look back into the history of our family, my dad was always a huge cyclist." Ian Powell, Seamus' older brother notes. "He was a part time shop guy and a semi-pro road racer, so that background had a huge influence on us. He would take us everywhere on rides. We have these pictures of us riding on the back of a cyclocross bike in a basket or kid seat. We always had nice bikes to ride and our dad pushed us in that way. Cycling and bikes were big for our family."
Round Top sits on the eastern slopes of the Catskill mountains and is the place where Seamus would develop and cultivate his love for the outdoors and eventual passion for mountain biking. Initially mountain bikes represented a means of exploration for Seamus and his friends. Often they were used to access fishing spots and travelling to and from friends' homes. At the age of 10, his parents took him to a BMX race at Kingston Point. Afterwards, Seamus was promised a new bike in exchange for good grades. After the next report card, he had his new BMX rig and promptly began his bike racing career.
It wasn't until the age of 14 though when Seamus would start to see mountain bike racing as a viable outlet for his two-wheeled passion. Brother Ian and his friends had been riding and racing for years by the time Seamus had asked to join them on a group ride one summer. "I was a pretty fat kid initially and I didn’t really know what I was doing." says Seamus. "But my brother and his buddies were all fast and I looked up to them so I wanted to see what it was like."
Ian remembers that moment well. "I told him that he wasn’t going to be able to hang on our Wednesday night rides. By the end of that summer he was
hanging and by the next year he was blowing us away." So began the journey for Seamus Powell from a young, chubby adolescent to the powerful and talented rider he is today. "I started following a state series and there was a National Championship up at Mount Snow that year." Seamus recalls. "I raced beginner in my age category and ended up on the podium. So it just started to snowball from there and I began to progress through the various classes. When I was 16 I was racing junior expert and I was reasonably fast. That's the point in which I really began thinking about doing what it takes to go really fast."
In roughly 3 years, Seamus went from getting dropped on Wednesday night group rides to being one of the fastest juniors in the country. Seamus will tell you that he was never a great student but by the age of 17 his life's ambitions began to take shape. "I remember taking things more seriously after almost qualifying for the World Championship team in 2007. That race was up at Mount Snow, Vermont. I just missed the podium by a little bit but I was close enough to warrant driving all the way to North Carolina the next weekend for a go at the last chance qualifier. Unfortunately I broke my chain and wasn’t able to finish. I was self-coaching up to that point when I met with Dave Hall that fall. He was a mentor at the USAC camp in North Carolina I did earlier that year and we started to working together that winter. In 2008 there were two more World Championship qualifiers, one out in California and one in Greenbriar, MD. I would end up finishing 4th at both races. I crashed late in the race at Greenbriar and I crashed right out of the gate and caused a pile up in California. But I fought my way back and made the podium at both. I got a discretionary pick for World Championships. That was the year I knew I wanted to try and be a pro mountain biker."
Ian watched Seamus achieve growing success as an XC racer but saw even greater potential for his younger brother with another style of riding. "He got really good at XC and I started to tell him that he should really try racing some Super D’s. I thought he’d be really good at it with his XC fitness and BMX skills. I told him he should try it and when he did he told me he was really getting into it." According to Seamus, the transition from XC to All-Mountain suited him in a number of ways and not just because of the increased podium potential. "I was always pretty fast but I could never really put it together for XC racing. I think I was quick enough to make people look but (I) was never really a name in XC. I made the switch to enduro and Super-D because I just needed to get back to having fun on my bike. I think for a lot of people, that’s how the story goes. But for me, having a brother and friends who ride and race downhill, it was just a natural transition."
As Seamus's fitness and ability grew, he recognized a need to straighten his psyche in order to take the steps forward he was working so hard to take. Early on, he admits to an overly fastidious approach to racing and training that cost him quite a bit of energy; often before he could manage a pedal stroke. "There was a time when I just wasn’t able to relax when it came to bike racing. I wasn’t in a healthy mental state and I was over trained and just not happy. I’ve worked through a lot of that stuff with my current coach Matt Miller." Seamus and Matt had spent a few years as teammates and friends on what is now known as the Giant Northeast Team. It was the combination of Matt's professional racing experience, their friendship and Matt's expansive research in mountain bike specific physiology that convinced Seamus to bring him on board as his coach. In addition to the uncharted and groundbreaking territories of Matt's research and coaching programs, Seamus's decision to bring Matt in as a coach had much to do with straightening his head out. "It wasn’t a coaching problem prior to that; it was all on me. I think that a big part of the equation for success is finding that coach who’s right for you. There are a lot of coaches out there and they’re not all the right fit for everyone. You have to find that person who fits well and I’ve known Matt for a long time. We’ve traveled together and have been teammates and good friends for years now. We work well together. It’s important to separate the friendship from the coaching; when he’s my coach he’s my coach and when he’s my buddy he’s my buddy."
But after all of that, there's still the focus and determination and trying to understand where he gets it from. Given the opportunity to take a look behind the curtains of riders like Seamus and others who are developing into the very people who will shape the sport for years to come, the most striking aspect of their approach is where the will to succeed comes from. "A lot my ambitions I want to keep to myself. I don’t want the pressure of expectations out there in case something doesn’t work out. I don’t need to be the Jared Graves or the Jerome Clementz of the enduro racing world. I just want to be fast and consistent. I want to be considered one of the strong North American riders at the very least. I’ve proven myself here in the northeast and I’ll get the chance to do some EWS races this year with the factory team too so I’ll have the chance to see where I stack up. Every year I just want to progress. I don’t really know what “making it” is in the mountain bike world, but I think if I ever get there I’ll know it then. I may not ever get to that point though. But I sure as Hell am going to try hard to be the best athlete I can and always work to be a good ambassador for the sport."
"I think my motivation is an intrinsic thing for me." Seamus says. "When I go out (to ride), priority A is to make sure I’m having fun racing my bike. Priority B is to push myself so that I am able to do something I haven’t done before. Some weekends it happens and some weekends it doesn’t. Ultimately it boils down to always being willing to push myself. On race days I try to put it all together and if it doesn’t happen I make a promise to myself that the next time I race I will
lay it all on the line."
For Seamus, his east coast roots remain an integral part of the story. This year Seamus is being given the opportunity to spend a few weeks racing the Enduro World Series with the Giant Factory Off Road team as an audition of sorts for next year. Considering the huge opportunity Giant is presenting him with, in addition to the other factory-team suitors that are inevitably going to come calling, Seamus is at a point in his life where he needs to start thinking about the implications of where he bases himself out of going forward. Many in his shoes would elect to place themselves out west where most of the manufacturers and media are based out of. But according to Seamus, "My roots are in the northeast. I like living on the east coast. I’ve been out west a bunch and it’s definitely unique with some really cool riding. But I’d like to stay in the east. Guys like Neko (Mulally) and the Shaws (Luca and Walker) are making it happen here. My support system and the people I know are all here. The enduro and downhill scene are really good here. We live in such a cool area. You’re never more than 4 hours from a super high quality race. You have all of these bike parks and there's just a really good cross section of all the types of riding you could ever want all within a close proximity."
Plus Seamus' primary motivational source can be found high up the in mountains of the northeast: his family. For all of the coaching services, the race experience, the amazing bikes and the lessons learned throughout his years on two wheels, it's his family that has been the biggest factor behind the success he has seen so far. "My family has helped me all along the way so I try to pull some motivation from them all of the time. I want to validate all that they have done for me."
For Ian, watching his little brother succeed as a mountain biker hasn't been much of a surprise considering the role cycling and the outdoors have played in Seamus and the rest of his family's lives. But for Ian and Seamus, being a Powell goes far beyond the scope of simply racing bikes. "He’s a super good guy. He’s a hard worker and a really decent guy. He’s the kind of guy who will take the shirt off of his back for you." Ian says. "That’s just how we were brought up. You help the family and community out. He’s always helping to take care of the local trails and helps out with local events. He’s a good, solid guy." After a prideful pause: "Yeah, my little brother is a good dude."