© copyright June, 03 Stephen W. Medcroft (all rights reserved)
Freak Skier turned Mountain Bike Pro — Nat Ross shows us how he succeeds in the world of 24-hour solo racing…I was blessed to be able to interview 24-hour endurance racer Nat Ross of the Gary Fisher / Subaru Mountain Bike Racing Team In March of this year for a piece in July’s Mountain Bike magazine. The focus of the Mountain Bike piece was for Nat to give advice to someone interested in racing solo 24-hours and was limited to 500 words (about 1 magazine page). But Nat had many more interesting things to say so what follows are excerpts from a transcript of the original interview.
FREAK SKIING AND KNOBY WHEELING
CyclingUSA: Cliff Bar anointed you their ‘athlete of the month.’ In the press release, they mention that you put on a telemark, free-skiing event every year. What is telemark skiing?
Nat Ross: I had to kind of come up with a name for what that really meant. Telemark never really had a form of competition other than chasing gates (which is what the Euros started doing) and basic just cross-country skiing. There was nothing in between. But skiers all over were free-skiing. People in ski areas started holding bump competitions. I really want to have a showcase for what these guys are doing, myself included, in a competition. So I thought, let’s just combine the gnarliest spot that has a bunch of features to it that you can do your stuff. You can ski really steep rides, fast, you can point it, you can jump rocks, you can do maneuvers off in the air – all that kind of stuff.
CUSA: Basically freestyle skiing?
NR: Freestyle skiing, but there’s like a time limit involved.
CUSA: You’re judging based on athleticism or the heroics of certain tricks or what?
NR: In the beginning it was just kind of like the guys that threw down some crazy lines or the women that made really sweet turns were victors but now there’s a structure — it’s more about turns, consistency, style, agility, and air is a category but it’s not as important any more.
CUSA: How did you get involved?
NR: I started telemark skiing at Western State College. I was a Nordic skier my whole life. Everyone was always giving me a hard time. A lot of people there telemark skied and that’s pretty much one of the core communities and they were saying ‘well, you’re such the Nordic skier and what are you doing on alpine skis, why don’t you telemark now?’ It looked difficult and I didn’t want to do it at first but, I thought, you know what, I will take the challenge.
EVERYONE HAS TO GROW UP SOMEWHERE
CUSA: Where’d you grow up?
NR: Hot Sulfur Springs, Colorado. It’s right in between Winter Park and Steamboat.
CUSA: So you’ve stayed close to home?
NR: I don’t want to live out of the state of Colorado. This is home turf for this kid.
CUSA: Home for a lot of people who ride and race bikes too.
NR: That’s for sure. Just the race series alone in Colorado is amazing. You can pick incredible road races, everything from crits to cyclocross, to long stage races, to incredible mountain biking. In the middle of the week even.
CUSA: So in high school, were you a skier and a biker?
NR: I did buy my first mountain bike when I was in high school for like six hundred bucks. I was a cross-country skier and a runner for the most part. I competed a little bit. 1988 was my first real mountain bike race.
CUSA: You were a distance runner?
NR: I actually ran the mile. 400 meter, 800 meter, mile guy.
CUSA: How did you figure out you had the capacity for endurance events?
NR: That’s the stuff I loved. I really like it when you can go exploring and you can be out on your own and be outside for long periods of time. That’s when you kind of tap in to who you really are.
CUSA: Were you a college athlete too?
NR: I skied division one cross-country.
CUSA: Mostly inter-collegiate competition?
NR: Yeah. It was inter-collegiate and for the most part it was real competitive because most of the division one skiers were Scandinavians or European over here on scholarship. That was a culture where skiing was pretty much their lifestyle.
THE MOVIE MOGUL
CUSA: How did film-making come up in all this (Nat produces a series of extreme ski movies called Total Telemark)?
NR: I entered a lot of competitions, everything from extreme comps to big air comps. Somebody approached me and said hey, I want to put you in my movie and I want you to ski on telemark skis. So I was skiing on telemark skis for an alpine ski company in these competitions and I started filming with these people and though wow, I could do this, this is really kind of cool.
CUSA: This was the Warren Miller movies?
NR: It never was Warren Miller. I never filmed with him. The first person I filmed with is actually my competitor (in the making and sales of ski films) now. He’s taking a break from movies this year and working with Fox sports network but Unparalleled Productions is his company.
CUSA: Well, I remember how every year such a big deal was made about the release of the newest extreme ski movie. Is that a formula for your movies, one per year?
NR: You want to hear something crazy. I’m already planning next years calendar for the premiers. And I’m not even finished filming. We’re still filming today.
CUSA: So there’s a certain window of opportunity to put a film out there?
NR: There is. The editing takes place over the summertime. Which is always the tightest, hardest part for me because all I want to do is be on my bike and I could care less about preparing a movie that I’ve already shot footage for. Then it becomes crunch time and the movie comes out and we have to hit the ski towns and try to get the biggest hurrah to show your movies. It’s a game. You have to advertise and market to that community and say ‘hey, our crew’s in town, we’ve got athletes here for our movie premier, come check it out.
CUSA: It seems like you’re making a successful life from skiing. Is cycling just another passion to compete with skiing? Is it something you’re moving too, and away from skiing? How do you make the transition from one life to the other?
NR: I never really separated the two, just kept on doing both with the same amount of passion and putting my heart into it. For the most part, in the early days of endurance racing, it never seemed that (racing your bike) could even be a job. The only person that could really pull it off was Stamstead for the most part.
CUSA: Were you riding to stay in shape for skiing or skiing to stay in shape for riding?
NR: I was skiing to ski and riding to ride.
SUCCES IS MEASURED 24 HOURS AT A TIME
CUSA: When was your first endurance event?
NR: 1998 was my first on a bike, a full fledged 24 hour race. I had run marathons before that. I’ve done anything you can do basically like multi-winter triathlons, and triathlons just for the heck of it.
CUSA: Your first 24-hour race was in ’98. In 2000, the first 24-hour national championship was held and you won it?
NR: Yes. At Winter Park.
CUSA: 24-hour racing hadn’t yet taken off the way it has now. Was their a circuit of races to compete on or were there only stand-alone events?
NR: Yeah. How I’d find out about them is I would just pick up the biking mags and for the most part, but you could always tell that there was a definite series with Snowshoe, Donner Pass, and Moab. So I did a couple of those events. Montezuma’s Revenge was in my back yard so I did that event. And then when I read that Trilife was putting on a NORBA Nationals at Winter Park, it was like ‘holy cow, this is awesome, this is perfect.’ It was my home town and it’s exactly what I want to do. It’s my course, where I grew up, where I cross-country skied after school every day and a special place to me. That was kind of the eye opener for me to say that I want to focus on doing more of these events.
CUSA: So you began to train specifically for 24-hour solo racing?
NR: Pretty much starting in ’99, that year was a pretty good year for me; I got a first, a second, and a third in the three races I did. Then I said well, here we go. That’s it. I want to focus on this race, this series. Do the same thing next year. Then the Winter Park race (NORBA national championships) popped up and I said I’m going to definitely prepare myself for this. Make that a very special race.
CUSA: And how many will you do in one year now?
NR: I like to keep it in between four and five. This year I’m going to push the limit a little bit and venture up into six.
CUSA: Over the course of twenty-four hours, what are the mental challenges you’re talking to yourself about? I can imagine that you think about quitting?
NR: You always wonder how long you have left to ride. I try not to find out what time it is and what place I’m in. For me, the hardest point is knowing I’m in third place and want to be in second. As long as I can push those thoughts aside and just ride for the reason I actually started riding which is to enjoy it, to have fun, and for the challenge, the hardest part is pushing everything else aside, pushing through the pain and not caring what time it is. I know that, at a certain point in time, it is going to be light in the morning. Then shortly after that the race will be over. But there are so many challenges out there that it’s never ending. If you start having tire or lighting issues, or mechanicals or equipment problems, that is so hard to work through it actually just eats away at you. You end up not as mentally crisp. Your patience level just isn’t the same and it’s really hard to push through. It’s important to have a well-tuned machine such as the 29ers that I’m riding.
CUSA: As a competitor in solo 24-hour racing, you have to deal with Tinker Juarez. What’s your approach to him?
NR: I think him racing is great because it added a new credibility to the sport. When you get someone who has that kind of a background, has raced in the Olympics, has always been a bike racer and that’s his passion, with results to prove it. When he starts a 24-hour race, he usually dominates it with incredibly fast laps. Back in the day Stamstead used to set the standard. Stamstead focused less on speed work and more on the longer, grueling, suffering type of riding. Tinker added a new dimension — an incredibly fast pace right from the start.
CUSA: Does he intimidate the other racers?
NR: Motivates. He sets a challenge for us all with his lap times. He’s cranking them out back to back. And it’s cool just to be out there with him. The best part about that (for all 24-hour competitors) is that you ride on the course with the pros. Whether you want to compare times or just say ‘hey, he rode with me for a second,’ or Nat came up on a climb and said ‘hi.’ That’s what fun. Because for us we’re just riding our bikes for a little bit longer duration but it’s so nice to see that no matter what, whether someone is a professional rider, expert, sport, or first-time soloist for that matter, we’re all out there dealing with same things and having the same fun.
CUSA: Do you have a favorite moment or event?
NR: Montezuma’s Revenge is definitely the most challenging race. I haven’t won it yet. I’ve been second a bunch of times and third a bunch of times.
CUSA: What about the worst experience you had?
NR: Last year I dropped out of two races. It was lack of conditioning on my behalf. I wasn’t ready for Laguna-Seca, started out at a fast pace like I typically do and I couldn’t hold it — just diminished and had a mental breakdown. I broke down and couldn’t handle getting beat the way I was getting beat.
CUSA: So when approaching a race now, do you try to set a good pace in the early laps, see were you are in standings, then settle down — or what?
NR: I guess my tactic is that you can’t get any faster than when you start the race, you’re only going to get slower. But you have to set a smart pace. I remember at GrannyGear’s race in Donner Pass, I was riding with all the guys in the beginning. I was riding solo and we started climbing and I’m like ‘man, these guys aren’t climbing fast enough and it was all I could do just to hold back until we got to the downhill. Then I was like ‘man, they’re not going downhill fast enough.’
So I broke away and I ended up coming in a couple of minutes in front of the next person, in front of the whole field. I can remember Laird (Who, from where) saying over the loudspeaker, because he didn’t know who I was, that was my first GrannyGear race, "Wow, this guy Nat Ross has come through at a blistering pace. He a soloist. I can’t see anybody else coming through so he’s going to bonk." For the rest of the race, that’s all that was going through my head is like ‘I have to not bonk, I can’t bonk.’ But all I could think was man, he was right, he knows what he’s talking about, he puts on these races, I’m probably going to bonk.
But I’ve improved over the years. So yeah, fairly fast and definitely aggressive out of front of the pack worked good for me. But then you watch Dawes Wilkins (double check spelling) at Moab this last year and his goal was to just gradually increase speed or at least maintain every lap.
CUSA: Did it work out for him?
NR: He blew me away.
CUSA: So people are still playing with the tactics of how to win these races?
NR: I’m pretty sure that whatever Tinker and Chris Etough are doing, which is starting out fast and remaining fast, is the right tactic.
NAT ROSS 2003
CUSA: What are the goals for this year?
NR: I have three specific races that I’m focusing on starting with the World Championships in British Columbia. I’ve also got the Mountain Mayhem which is in The U.K. in June which is going to be a fun, new, exciting race for me. Then Montezuma’s Revenge. There’s also a new race in Gunnison called Rage in the Sage. And probably one other event in there somewhere depending on how I recover. This year, I was going to start a little earlier because I was going to do Fountain Hills (24-Hours of Adrenaline at McDowell Mountain Park, Fountain Hills, Arizona). My fitness is already there, now I’m going to try and pump another race into the calendar.
CUSA: Bring it to six a year?
NR: I’m kind of testing my abilities.