Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Sue Haywood founded her career as a pro mountain biker in the woods of West Virginia during the sport's zenith in the early 1990s. As a beginner, Haywood's struggles to keep up with the guys often ended in crashes, frustration, and even some tears. But her perseverance led her to win the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association Series six times before earning a pro contract in 1998. Since then she has raced on four continents, taught thousands to ride and respect mountain biking, and evolved a successful career in a diminishing field. However, in an increasingly insular world as a pro athlete, Haywood learned that hard work brings results but trust can shatter ambition.
Due to a clerical error in calculating the points that would count toward an Olympic spot, a flawed organization crushed Haywood's aspiration to make the Olympic team. Haywood's angered fans were outraged and even disgusted at how reckless the business of mountain bike racing had become. A botched bid for the Olympic team, the sting of suffering from someone else's blunders, harsh legal battles, and withering late-season performances chiseled away at Haywood's monumental career.
Most athletes would cite such misfortune as a reason for quitting; for Haywood, it is motivation.
"Winners think like winners," explained Haywood. "When a great competitor steps up to the start line, they believe they can win the race. They also know the race is never over until you cross the finish line."
Her blue eyes, Mason-Dixon lilt, and fit physique weaken knees in admirers already smitten by her character. That she comes across oblivious to her attraction only fortifies her allure. A folksy attitude hides a savage competitor. If mountain bike racing were like NASCAR, then Sue Haywood would be Terry Labonte: cool, calm, and consistent under pressure. Haywood steps to the start of each race, takes inventory of her competition, and stomps on her pedals while she forges a white-hot pace in her specialty: short track.
In effect, short track is the NASCAR of mountain bike racing. Riders speed around a course less than three-quarters of a mile in under three minutes. Sand, dirt, asphalt, mud puddles, rocks, jumps, switchbacks, plucky climbs and fast descents require expert bike-handling skills and unbridled physical power. To train for short track, Haywood endures painful V02 max intervals that involve maximum effort and a short recovery period before each one. Even at her physical best, Haywood learned early on that sometimes the smartest--not the fastest--racer wins.
"Strategy can play a big role," said Haywood. "For example, if you position yourself next to or behind the fastest riders, when the furious attacks start during the final three laps, you're already at the front maintaining a pace which can be accelerated if the attackers threaten your lead."
Haywood admits to seeing stars due to the hard effort demanded by short track but she loves the event for its entertainment value. Frenetic fans line the course and nearly go into seizures from excitement as the finish draws near. At 33, Haywood owns two national championship jerseys for short track and, like most invigorated pro athletes, she plans to add a few more national titles to her resume before she retires.
The bikes she will ride this season must be as performance-oriented as the racer. Trek's full-suspension Top Fuel features Trek's proprietary 110 carbon fiber and three inches of front and rear suspension with full lockout capabilities should Haywood need to switch to something more rigid depending on terrain. Gravity races like marathons and the Super D beg for some extra bounce and with four inches of front and rear suspension, Trek's Fuel Ex offers Haywood "plush bump-eating compliance" when the trail takes a downward dive.
Haywood's home in the far-flung outpost of Davis, W.V. has proven one of her best training secrets since Davis sits at 3,100 feet and there she is surrounded by 100 miles of technical trails. Pro athletes tend to flock to trendier mountain bike settlements in Colorado and California where superior athletic achievement often meets with yawning regard. She cut her teeth as a 24-hour racer down the road from her house at the legendary 24 Hours of Canaan in 1992. With hardly a flat stretch of land in the entire state, West Virginia's governor and state tourism department tapped the potential of the mountain bike market and helped the state earn the highest grade on the annual report card for the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Haywood's status as one of the most recognized names in pro mountain bike racing earned her the rare distinction as one of the few pros from east of the Mississippi and prompted the West Virginia Division of State Tourism to sponsor her since 1999. West Virginia is one of the only states in the nation to sponsor a mountain bike racer.
"The Division of Tourism ranks as a progressive state agency both because of its involvement in my career and its support of mountain biking in West Virginia," Haywood said. "I learned to ride here and that makes it easy to represent and be an ambassador for mountain biking in the Mountain State."
2005 marks Haywood's eighth year in the pro ranks and her seventh year with the mighty Trek/VW team. After the emotional defeat of 2004, Haywood probes the possibility of landing a spot on the 2008 Olympic team, hoping by then that the national governing body responsible for Olympic selection will have fixed the problem that cost her chance at the 2004 Olympics. In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Haywood scoped out the venue during a trip to China in the fall of 2004. Since the debacle regarding her spot on the 2004 Olympic team, Haywood has become an expert on the Olympic selection process, a process which involves amassing points in races sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale.
Haywood's 2005 schedule will take her to all National Mountain Bike Series races with stops in Texas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, West Virginia, and Vermont. She will race at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colo. in June and she will show up on skinny tires at the Road Nationals and Redlands. She also plans to race in the World Cup finals in Scotland and the World Championships in Italy. Her complete schedule can be found on Trek's website.
As a member of the Trek/VW Mountain Bike Team since 1999, Haywood has stepped up to the podium dozens of times, represented the U.S. in two full seasons of World Cup races, and has twice won the Pan-American Championships. Haywood's compassion for mountain biking inspired her to become more involved with growing the sport. Now thousands of enthusiasts have Haywood to thank for teaching them how to become better bikers. Haywood's 2005 sponsors include Trek Bicycle, Volkswagen, Rock Shox, Shimano, Power Bar, Nike, Bontrager, Zeal Optics, Swani, JBL, AMD, Jansport, Cane Creek, IMTTO, IMBA, Wrench Force, Pedros, OCLV, Genuine Innovations, and Carmichael Training Systems.
For more information about Sue Haywood, visit: www.trekbikes.com