Depending on how you word it, two names will come up if you Google who won the fifth round of the World Cup downhill series back in 2003: Ivan Oulego Moreno from Spain, and Gary Houseman, at the time a twenty-three-year-old who, with bleached highlights and a Santa Cruz V10 under him, looked every part the Californian mountain bike racer. The reason for the discrepancy? Officially speaking, Houseman was stripped of his victory and fined 2,000 Swiss francs after testing positive for THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana that makes you feel 'high.' That decision saw Oulego Moreno's second-place result became a first, and Houseman's name moved to the bottom of the page with a DSQ beside it.
The list of American men who've won a World Cup downhill is pretty short, and it looks even shorter when you compare it to all the champagne Europeans have sprayed over the last few decades worth of weekends.
But unofficially, Houseman added his name to that elite club by posting the fastest time on that rainy day in Canada, regardless of the joint he smoked a week earlier while deciding to retire from the sport.
I know it seems like a hell of a long time ago, but World Cup downhill racing in 2003 wasn't vastly different what we're watching today. Tracks were getting both shorter and far more technical than the marathon-like stages of earlier years, and while the bikes were unrefined by today's standards, they were also showing signs of what they'd eventually become. Mountain biking racing was busy transitioning from kooky to cool, and much like today, the Europeans and a handful of Australians and South Africans were pretty damn good at it.
America? Relatively speaking, not so much.
''You know, you can race your whole career, but to have that, that mark right there, it's a little bit different,'' Houseman told me during a phone call not about the figurative asterisk beside his name in the record books, but about winning. ''Winning can change everything,'' he says with more than just a hint of wistfulness in his voice.
The American men were fast, sure, but they weren't doing much winning back then. The rest of the world was on another level, Gwin was still in high school, and the last time a US man won on Sunday was back in 1999 when Palmer was the fastest in Big Bear.
With Nicolas Vouilloz retiring the previous year, these were less predictable times, too. There were no repeat male winners during the six-round 2003 season, and round four, in Telluride, Colorado, was cancelled due to lack of sponsorship. At the June 1st opener, Cedric Gracia and his Cannondale DH bike had the fastest time down the brand-new and bone-dry Fort William track that was the smoothest it would ever be yet somehow still a minefield of rocks and holes. The dust and loose conditions continued at another legendary track, this one no longer used - Alpe d'Huez - where big Rennie slid his yellow Iron Horse SGS onto the top step.
Then it was Peaty and his Orange in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec. For Houseman, who was racing on the ITS-Santa Cruz team, along with his older brother, Rich, and friends Johnny Waddell from Australia, and fellow American Henry O'Donnell, this was his first World Cup of a mostly-domestic season of racing.
The stats say that Gary finished a nondescript 56th place in Quebec. The same stats also have a 'DNF' beside Waddell's name, but those three letters don't do nearly enough to describe what happened to the Australian over the massive jump into the finish line area. The shape of the ten-foot-tall lip and the high speeds were giving racers trouble all weekend long, and he wasn't the only one who got bit. Many others crashed. Waddell didn't walk away from his.
Waddell was taken off the course on a stretcher and unconscious, and he would end up spending twenty-six days in a coma and years recovering from severe brain trauma. Life-changing would be an apt way to put it. He would eventually ride again, but there was a period in the days following his crash where survival, not recovery, was on everyone's minds. Especially Gary's.
''He was living with me,'' a clearly emotional Houseman said about that time, ''so I came home and I told my dad I wasn't going to race again, and perhaps we could smoke a joint.''
''And then the next weekend I went up there and won.''
Every cycling community has its local fast guys, but 'fast' can be taken a few different ways. Quickest descender in your group of riding buddies? Congrats on that. Winning some local races now and then? You must be doing something right. But fast enough to actually qualify for a World Cup race? There's no hyperbole needed: Only the best, strongest, bravest racers in your country are able to do that, and a lot of time it takes everything they have to simply make the big show.
Qualifying would play an even more important role than usual during that weekend in Canada.
Back then, there were no points awarded for qualifying performances, and it wasn't uncommon to see some of the fastest racers taking a more calculated approach. Forecast saying rain in the afternoon? Put in a conservative effort and you'll be racing earlier in the day, hopefully before the sky opens and the track became considerably slower and more dangerous. But for Gary and his teammates, that wasn't the case: ''The American guys trying to qualify back then, it was hard, you know.'' For them, along with many others, qualifying could be a race in itself, and there was no such thing as taking a safe, relaxed run.
Gary's qualifying time put him in the thirty-third starting slot and rolling out of the gate for his race run a few minutes before his brother later that afternoon. As it turned out, his first few cranks out of the start hut happened at nearly the same time that the rain started. This wasn't just a summer afternoon drizzle, either, with thick clouds draping themselves down onto the mountain that limited visibility to only a few feet in some sections, and water falling in sheets rather than individual drops.
Houseman, who still had a mostly dry track in front of him during his effort but was also aware of what was happening, knew that it was time to let it all hang out. And that's exactly what the twenty-three-year-old did, with a close call near the top of the course not slowing him down one bit: ''To win a national, you have to scare yourself three times. To win a World Cup, you have to scare yourself seven to ten times.''
Houseman scared himself a lot and the run was good. Really good
With it being a relatively short track and the weather rolling in, He was well aware that this was no time to use caution. ''I knew it was a short course, and there was a woods section towards the bottom that, when I hit it, I felt it was slippery, you know, so I knew just to hold on,'' he said of his run that day. ''I knew to stay on it, and at the bottom that there was a couple of other sections like that, so I just kept going for it. That's what happened.''
The clock said 2:06.26.
The weather, as bad as it was, somehow took a turn for the worse while Gary was in the hot seat, leaving those still at the top of the mountain facing slick conditions that required a more measured, careful approach to stay upright.
''Gary's leading right now. C'mon rain, let my dog win,'' Eric Carter, a friend of Gary's and focus of Ryan Cleek's 2005 documentary 'Downhill Speed,' says while watching racer after racer come up short. ''If it keeps raining like this, I really doubt they're gonna be able to beat him.'' The only one to come close was Frenchman Mickael Pascal who qualified in second and, in a remarkable and rarely remembered showing maybe only equalled by Sam Hill at the 2007 Champéry World Cup, managed to come within two-seconds of Houseman.
Gracia was eight-seconds back in the rain, a gap that put him in forty-fifth place and underlined how difficult the track was becoming, while Gary's fellow American's Kirt Voreis and Colin Bailey scored third and fourth with their much drier, faster race runs. Henry O'Donnell, also on the ITS-Santa Cruz program, took ninth, and Spanish racer Moreno, nicknamed 'Crazyhorse' for obvious reasons, was just a third of a second behind Houseman's winning time. Other names that might sound familiar: Claudio Caluori (14th), Jordie Lunn (17th), and Curtis Keene (23rd).
Gary got lucky with the weather, some will no doubt say, and there's little argument against that except, you know, that you have to be unfathomably dedicated and skilled to make it to even make it to a World Cup start line. You'll never get to that level using luck alone, but that same luck can sure as hell play a role in what happens when you get there.
The summer storm settled in as Houseman, who shaved three seconds off his qualifying effort, did the same in the hot seat. Neither the American or the weather would budge for the rest of the race, but Houseman was already thinking about another kind of storm that was about to roll in.
Video footage from that rainy day on Grouse Mountain shows Houseman up against the finish line corral fence, his expression equal parts disbelief and delight while chatting to Carter and other friends. He walks back to the hot seat, his bleached hair making him look a bit like a mountain biking Sid Vicious, and sits out in the downpour while nearly everyone else hides under umbrellas and pop-up tents. If you watch that scene today, sixteen years later and knowing what's going to happen, you can understand why he looked completely indifferent to the weather.
Winning means drug testing, of course, and Gary knew that as well.
''I know it, and I know I'm busted,'' he told me, with his win, an upset no matter how you frame it, immediately in doubt in his own mind while he was still in the hot seat. Tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, is the chemical that gives marijuana its well-known abilities, and it tends to stick around in one's system for a while. It'll show up in your piss days after you take it in, and sometimes more than a month later if you're a heavy user. With just two weeks between the previous World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne, the race that Gary came home from pondering retirement after watching his friend nearly die, and the race that he smoked marijuana immediately after, he knew he was in trouble.
It took six months for USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) to make the announcement that Houseman tested positive for THC, a prohibited substance across the board but, when it comes to cycling, one that was strangely policed only in downhill racing. The punishment: a one-year suspension from competition that went into effect retroactively on the date of his infraction, and a fine of 2,000 Swiss francs that was more salt for the wound than anything else.
Gary could have appealed, he explained, but he also knew that he broke the rules, that he had smoked a banned substance, and that he won the Grouse mountain World Cup with THC in his body. You probably don't get any performance advantages from smoking weed, sure, but banned is banned, no two ways about it. Even so, Houseman described winning during our phone call in the way that only the most competitive type of people can understand - ''That's what we all race for. How many people do you know that are actual winners?'' he said at one point during the conversation - so maybe he should have fought the ruling?
''No, I was wrong,'' he interjected before I had even finished asking him if he wishes he had appealed USADA's decision. ''I wasn't smoking a bowl on the lift on the way up, but there was weed in my system.'' But what if... ''It was in my system, you know,'' he says in a bone dry, it is what it is kind of tone before I can get anything else out, much like how someone would look out the window and note the rain.
The 2003 season would be Gary's last as a full-time professional racer. A separated shoulder caused by crashing into Greg Minnaar at a four-cross race ended his momentum, but not before he qualified to represent America at the World Championships in Lugano, Switzerland. His brother, Rich, along with Shaums March, would have that honor, though, placing thirty-eighth and thirteenth respectively. Minnaar, Pascal, and Barel took the fastest three spots in a time before podium inclusivity extended to the top five.
When I asked Houseman why he didn't come back to racing in 2004 or 2005 after his suspension was up, his reply was straightforward and without the sour accent to it that you might get from just reading his words. ''I didn't have any backing and, honestly, like I said, it seemed like a 'f*ck you,'' he replied without even a hint of anger. ''It was like the sport let me down, and I was ready to move on.''
These days, Gary is thirty-eight-years-old and has a pragmatic attitude about all that happened. He lives in Temecula, California, works as a plumber, and has two kids. He still rides often, he's still going fast as hell, and he still smokes, too.
Gary's frustration may have faded but he makes no effort to hide emotions that sixteen-years have done little to dull. ''I would never take anything to beat anybody,'' he tells me through what sounds like tears. ''I'm just, I'm not that bad of a person for it,'' his voice cracks, ''and I've still got a job and a career. You know what I mean?'' I do know, I say before asking him if he knows that he won on that rainy day in Canada.
''Sure, I had the fastest time of the day. I think I can still ride a bike, you know? I still would love to race, but I can't. I won't pay that fine.'' Here's to Gary never, ever handing over that 2,000 Swiss francs.