Harlan Price wears many hats in mountain biking: instructor, professional racer, advocate, soul rider, media athlete, single speeder, enduro-er (check the spelling on that one), trail ninja; which makes sense when you hear him describe himself as a bit of a chameleon. Growing up in central Florida, about 30 minutes away from the Georgia state line, Harlan would spend his summers visiting his mother and sister in southeastern Pennsylvania. There, he'd often accompany them as they traveled to compete in endurance horseback races. These experiences would later prove to have a decidedly profound effect on his love for mountain biking, as the trips helped introduce him to the vast trail networks scattered throughout the east coast, including those found in his current home of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Over the course of his career, Harlan has traveled the world competing professionally in endurance, cross country, super-d and enduro races. He has developed a steadily growing coaching business in Take Aim Cycling. He builds strong bonds everywhere he goes, and his opinions are held in the highest regard by many riders throughout the country. He's long been well known for his adroit talents on the bike and intellectually, so we recently decided to visit him at his new digs in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for a ride and to pick his brain.
I grew up in the woods in North Florida, and in the late 80’s and early 90’s, mountain biking became a visible thing to me. I kind of had this woodsy bike that I always played around on, but never really thought of it as mountain biking. I gave up on the idea of having a proper mountain bike until after college. My sister and her boyfriend at the time were pretty influential to me, and they raced mountain bikes. So in 1999, I picked up a used mountain bike and later that year entered my first race ever. It was an off-road duathlon. After that I did a proper bike race in Blue Marsh, Pennsylvania. I had just come off of doing an impromptu European bike tour for 6 months on a $35 yard sale bike. I came back, got this mountain bike and won my beginner race. I played a lot of sports in high school and I’ve always loved competing. I love the competitive nature of things and mountain biking seemed like a natural fit. Growing up surfing and skateboarding, I think that I was well prepared to handle certain aspects of mountain biking: dealing with obstacles, playing with speed and balance, and vision.
There’s probably nothing better for improving than being lonely (laughing
). Not that I’m a lonely guy, but having just gotten out of school and moving in with my sister, I didn’t have a lot of friends. So I just went on my own adventures a lot of the time. I rode Michaux State Forest in the Gettysburg area a lot early on. I began to meet some local riders there, which there really weren’t a whole lot of. When you come across someone on the trails, you’re like, “Who the hell are you?”. I fell into a group of experienced and fast riders. I think that was really the ground work for my being comfortable on all types of terrain. Coming from a sporting background, I started racing and moved up quickly through the ranks. Without really trying, but by just riding a lot with people who were already really fast, I ended up developing a good base for that style of riding. I remember doing my first endurance event in 2002, at Massanutten, and I ended up winning that. That was a bit of an “ah ha” moment for me; winning an open class event. I really felt like I was good at those long slugfests on the bike.
At that point, I had just gotten laid off from a newspaper gig in Gettysburg. My friend and bicycle mentor invited me to come work at a shop for a little bit, and I just began to think that, “Well, I’m young and don’t have many attachments right now…” and decided to start taking steps to see if I was in fact good enough to pursue this even further. In 2003 I decided to begin training seriously. I didn’t get a coach at that point, but I was reading a lot and began putting together plans for myself. I realized that racing at a high level requires a multi-year plan, and I gave myself room to improve gradually and consistently. I made sure that part of my structure included an evaluation period at the end of every year. I knew that there would be sacrifices involved, and I wanted to make sure that they were worthwhile. Every year I wanted to upgrade. In 2003, I won the expert division (XC) at NORBA Nationals, which got me my semi-pro upgrade. But, I didn’t really think that it was worth the sacrifice, so in 2004 I just didn’t race.
I moved to Philly that year and it took me some time to connect there. I was working at a bike shop and actually got arrested one night. I was taking photos on the highway for a project. I was interested in spaces that were isolated by highways. I got a real taste for Philly police attitudes that night, and I was pretty shaken up. I ended being questioned that night by the FBI anti-terrorism squad, and it all just left a bad taste for the city in my mouth. I saved up a bunch of money to fight the case, but when I went to court, neither of the officers showed up. I had money, I was angry at Philly and so I went to Mexico and did a two month tour of Guatemala. I was pounding out miles, and fell back in love with exploring and racing. When I came back to the States, I went right to Harrisonburg. I started training again, moved in with Chris Scott and started working for him. I raced cross as well, and was really ready to get back at it when I broke my arm at Massanutten. That was a real setback. But I was still really determined, and for some reason moved back to Philly. It’s a city with great trails, a good community and it has a big airport. For me, the city presented both a vibrant culture and a good place to train. In 2005 I ended up winning the semi-pro division at NORBA and received my Pro Upgrade.
I was still seeking creative outlets, and so I began writing for Dirt Rag; it was a short lived column called The Dirtbag Way
. Being a poor racer without real sponsorships early on, I was just trying to come up with ways to circumnavigate consumerism. You have all of these things you need to buy to have a complete getup for racing, so I was trying to DIY everything. Why go buy $60 riding glasses when you can go and buy $15 safety glasses? I definitely saw the writing on the wall in terms of the value of being a fast racer. There just wasn’t a whole lot of money there, so I realized that I needed more than just good results. I needed to provide content. I wrote for some print publications, and worked on some blogs as well. That was a good way to market myself to potential sponsors.
|This is why I do not think some race promoters understand what it means to pay out at a race. To pay the top three is great and important, but there are a lot of people who need encouragement. You have the Mid Atlantic races paying 15-20 riders deep, and that will keep them coming back. It helps folks harness the potential to race full time. When you are racing that way, you try not to think about the future a whole lot.|
I was fortunate to get some support from Independent Fabrications. They gave me a small stipend 10 months out of the year. It wasn’t much, but I was really good at getting by, so between that and race money every weekend I got used to living on a small budget. My dad and I bought a house in the city as well. It was a rehab project, so I spent three winters without any heat as I worked on it. Sponges were freezing on the sink, olive oil was congealing, it sucked. It wasn’t the smartest move being an athlete and living in a situation like that. We didn’t spend much up front, and we put a lot of sweat equity into it. I rehabbed it for a few years, built a second apartment out of it, and began renting that out in 2008. But it helped me get used to not having extra things. When you’re passionate about something, and you’re goal focused, those little things start to not matter as much.
Between Indy Fab, the house and some weekly race winnings, I made ends meet. There were definitely some crisis moments though. This is why I don’t think some race promoters understand what it means to pay out at a race. To pay the top three is great and important, but there are a lot of people who need encouragement. You have the Mid Atlantic races paying 15-20 riders deep, and that’ll keep them coming back. It helps folks harness the potential to race full time. When you’re racing that way, you try not to think about the future a whole lot.
When Super-D and Enduro really became a thing, I felt like it was a good style for me to explore. I was always good at the long races, especially ones that featured technical singletrack, because I knew I would be able to crank up the pressure in those situations. But when Super D’s came to be, I was really into this format. I knew that I was a pretty technical rider, and I really dug the mass start format. I have always been a pretty strategic racer, and I love pitting myself against other athletes. I enjoy being in a situation where there’s some back and forth with another rider. How do I hold my line here, or how do I keep them from passing me there? It’s a whole new strategy to racing, and being able to draw it out over several minutes is cool. I did Downieville in 2007 on my XC Hardtail 29er and got 7th overall. Next came Ashland Super-D and that's when I saw people like Jeff Kendal-Weed and Scott Chapin shred in a way my XC crew never had. I decided I needed to up my game and learn to jump amongst other things.
I never raced DH, but as soon as Super D was replaced with Enduro, and once it became more of a time trial situation, it added a stress that I didn’t enjoy as much. I really liked being engaged with other riders, versus being alone and trying to go as fast as you could through the woods. There are things there that are cool, but it removes the mutual experience in my opinion. Sure, you can ride transitions together, but I love getting to the bottom of a descent with a buddy and high fiving each other because of what you did together. Those moments are the most important to me.
A Clinical Approach
During the summer of 2011, I was hired by the BC Bike Race to write their press releases. While I was out there, I discovered the world of skills instruction. I had done some fitness coaching for a couple of years, and my athletes had actually progressed well during that time. But I wasn’t into the daily hand-holding that comes with that style of coaching. I’m more of a manual labor kind of guy, and saw skills instruction as a perfect fit for me. A lot of people pay a coach to become 5, 10, 15 percent fitter and faster than they are currently, and I feel like those same people with better technique and greater efficiency, can reach those same growths. I recognized that the skills instruction industry had some validity in BC, and I looked around to see who else was developing similar businesses.
|The world has changed and the demand for instruction is rising. Mountain biking has shed some of it's punk-rock baggage and everywhere I turn there are new opportunities. From the high school leagues, to the general acceptance that you can learn a lot quickly from someone who can deliver information clearly and with reason. There are so many skill concepts that we have lived with that are actually hurting people's riding ability. I love that I can clear up some of these myths and take away some of the barriers to having a good time on the bike. |
In early 2012 I went to back to take a level 1 and 2 instructor course from Darren Butler at Endless Bikes in North Vancouver. He was and continues to be such an inspiration, and a source of knowledge and advice for me. Since then I've been through IMBA's certifications as well as the PMBIA Level 2. All the programs have valuable information to offer and I feel fortunate to have been through all of them. I'm pretty addicted to learning from other instructors and really enjoy any opportunity I have to participate or observe someone else instructing. I learn something from everyone and get to file it away in my tool bag for helping others reach their riding needs. To me the ultimate goal is working towards best practices for developing new riders into confident shredders.
If you provide a good service, and people get something out of it and respond positively, you can’t help but grow. Going into my 5th year of full time instruction I have seen how skills instruction is beginning to be embraced on the east Coast. From the beginning I knew it was going to be a slow hard sell to a culture that was very DIY. I was a perpetrator of the "Ride More and follow better riders" mantra in the early 2000's. But the world has changed and the demand for instruction is rising. Mountain biking has shed some of it's punk-rock baggage and everywhere I turn there are new opportunities. From the high school leagues, to the general acceptance that you can learn a lot quickly from someone who can deliver information clearly and with reason. There are so many skill concepts that we have lived with that are actually hurting people’s riding ability. I love that I can clear up some of these myths and take away some of the barriers to having a good time on the bike.
There are so many people here, and every inch of land is accounted for. Even when you think you’re "out there", say for example the George Washington National Forest, that’s not the same thing as being out there in Plumas National Forest in northern California. They’re two different things. So it is hard to get a sense of isolation on the east coast. You can to a degree, but the east coast has always had a scrappy identity because you have to fight for every inch you get. There’s also a certain amount of localism that goes on here, similar to what you have in surfing. I don’t think people get angry in the same way they do in surfing, but folks like to have their own little zone. People worry here that if their spot gets to be too popular, they will no longer get to ride alone in the woods. Well, the problem here is that there are just a lot of people on the east coast. You get into stretches like northwestern Pennsylvania, or West Virginia where it can be pretty isolated, but it’s been occupied here for 200 years longer than anywhere out west.
We don’t have the same land resources here, so people can be a bit more protective of their spaces. There are a lot of spots that float just under the radar here, and once it’s time to post up and be legit, it can create a lot of tension among different groups. It’s hard to resist change, so the people who do resist it will probably never win. You have to be involved in the change, or it’ll just happen all around you. I think that the east coast is slowly learning that, and instead of mountain bikers being viewed as the villains here, the script has been flipped and they’re viewed as the purveyors of volunteerism and stewardship.
|Putting it in the air is what looks good and I get my kicks out of it, but my roots go back to this style of riding where the terrain isn't planned for you and you have to adapt. Subtle moves and finesse combined with pucker inducing commitment is where my love for mountain biking started. Fighting for every inch and somehow finding flow where the odds are against you is my favorite type of riding.|
The Philly Pumptrack is a great example and was a learning experience for everyone involved. The local club was super excited when it started. Some of the members had some unreasonable expectations of what the city would be able to do. Those voices put down the idea of having a pumptrack because they wanted a bike park. You can’t always look to the west and expect us to have everything they do, certainly not in a city this size. The Pumptrack started small, and was as much about building community and getting the leaders there to buy in. Anytime you are asking to use a piece of public land, and want to build something very specific on it, there will be a lot of voices saying “what the hell?”. Especially in an area without many land resources. Even if the spot is barely used for anything, there will be some political issues. Our local advocacy groups are finally learning that they need to play the political game.
The Pumptrack was an evolution of this. That would never have happened without Kenn Rymdeko or Heidi Grunwald. I was there to be a hype man, and speak to some groups. I was a communicator. I wasn’t as involved in the behind the scenes stuff as they were. It was a 4 year evolution, and by the time the shovels were in the dirt, my business was in full swing and I wasn’t around as much as I wish I could have been. But they had plenty of advocates. I’m really proud of their effort, and to have been a part of it early on. It’s really amazing to see if affect lives in a positive way.