Volvo/Cannondale Team Dirt Camp '99|
Thursday, April 01, 1999
DAY ONE | DAY TWO | DAY THREE
Day One - February 25, 1999
The Adventure Begins
76 degrees, scattered traces of clouds, the sun... My god the sun is shinning. Nothing but blue skies smiling down on me. Flying in from Seattle, after two months of torrential down pours, a record year of rain and snow, I feel like a prisoner released from solitary confinement. The blazing ball of gas and fire, although warm and inviting, is intimidating with its brightness. I set my Smith Sliders upon my big Roman nose, smile and say to myself, "I am one lucky bastard."
Lucky that Vernon Felton from Bike magazine, cancelled his trip to Dirt Camp. Lucky that Bill Rudell from Cannondale decided to ask me to take his place. Lucky that Eric Wallace, DirtWorld.com Race Team Manager and mechanic was able to tune up my long neglected bike so I could ride. Lucky Andrew Juskaitis, a six foot five inch tall Billy Idol look-a-like from Bike Magazine, a Dirt Camp veteran and my roommate for the next three days is willing to show me the ropes so I don't make a total fool of myself. Lucky to be walking and back in the saddle after two back surgeries and a long long year filled with pain and doubt.
Rudell picks me up in Tuscon and we hit the highway to Patagonia. Founded in 1898, population 2,000, elevation 4,004 feet, Patagonia used to be a booming mining town. Now it is a sleepy little tourist stop on the way to Mexico. During the drive I learn that Cannondale is going to turn that mountain bike world upside down this summer. Scouts honor! You'll be blown away when you see their new team bikes. I wish I could tell you more but I am sworn to secrecy. Not too mention the product hasn't even been named yet. But it's big. It's different and you will be SHOCKed and skeptical. You'll take one look and scratch your head wondering how the hell did they make this work. I am completely serious. Just stayed tuned.
We roll into Patagonia about noon. Fat tire brethren are clinicing in the park with some of the Dirt Camp instructors. Bikes and riders in all shapes, colors and sizes. Cannondale's traveling road show is set up right in the middle of town. Two trucks, Dirt Camp vans, four Volvo Cross Country wagons, a huge stable of bikes and a pavilion set up to meet the Volvo Cannondale Race Team. Tinker Juarez, Brian Lopes, Anne-Caroline Chausson, Cadel Evans and Alison Syder to name a few mingle with mechanics, media members and Dirt Campers.
By 2:30 PM I am checked into my room, my bike is unpacked and I am riding up the road with Annabella Stropparo. One of the newest members of the Volvo Cannondale Team, she is the reigning Italian National Cross Country Champion. When she speaks my name it rolls off her tongue like silk. Every time I hear it I want to give her my wallet, car keys, house and anything else she wants. There is something about a beautiful woman on a mountain bike the turns my brain to jelly.
The Flux Canyon Loop is an easy ride. A good place to start considering how out of shape I feel. But the dual track becomes boring. Some of the riders are lagging behind holding up the rest of us. We make conversation as we climb slowly up the canyon. The campers come from all over North America with varying backgrounds. A teacher from Dallas, a fireman from Montreal, a mom from Virginia, a stock broker from New York, a computer geek from California and a advertising exec. from Oregon. This is the highlight of my ride. The ad exec from Oregon is a regular DirtWorld.com reader!
Three quarters of the way through the ride an overweight and completely out of shape camper goes down in the rocks. A large strip of flesh dangles from his elbow. There isn't a lot of blood but it looks painful. The wound will require twelve stitches. A couple of us chase Annabella up the last hill while the guide bandages up the rider's arm.
Finally we start to descend. The ride is rough. Loose rocks bounce me around as I try to keep up with the guide and Annabella. They are fast. I am slow. My timing and confidence have not come back. Yet. Still it is damn near a religious experience to be back in the saddle!
We reach the road and Annabella continues back to town. I draft behind her and push myself harder than I should. Three more days and it will only get worse. Still I can't help but want to ride with her. She is one of the best in the world. We finish in at C-dale Camp Headquarters and she agrees to meet me for an interview in the morning. Sweeeet!
Twenty minutes on ice, a long hot shower and quick nap and it is nearly time for dinner. Andrew and I cross the lonely street to the Patagonia Courthouse. C-dale has taken it over for the week and made it our dinning room. The food is catered. Salad, salmon, fresh strawberries and more. I load my plate twice. A couple of Dirt Campers share the table with me. They are talking stocks and bonds. I don't say much. Instead I just listen and watch the racers. They seem like every day regular Joes. Unassuming and humble. Except for Brian Lopes. He has California written all over him. But his goofy I-am-still-a-kid-at-heart smile is infectious. You can't help but like him.
The evening climaxes with a question and answer session with the team. Amazing is an understatement. Every member of the team has a serious resume. C-dale has brought together, World Cup Champs, National Champs, an Olympic medallist and several other racers who are constantly finishing in the top ten at World Cup events. 1999 will be a long year for any other team. With the C-dale bikes and the massive support team C-dale has assembled it is hard to imagine anyone else competing with them.
10:30 PM and I am beat. Tomorrow we are shuttling out to a section of the Arizona Trail called the Kentucky Camp Loop. The trail runs almost the entire length of the state from north to south. We'll bite off a thirty-one mile chunk that includes single track, dirt roads and dual track. This is why I am here. To rail down a twisting ribbon of dirt. I can hardly wait to fall asleep and wake up to start my day. I can't decide if it is the ride or my interview with Annabella! I told you I am one lucky bastard.
Day Two - February 25, 1999
Star Struck and the Arizona Trail
7:30am I wake to the alarm feeling like my head just hit the pillow. Oddly I am refreshed and ready to ride. Breakfast is in the hotel restaurant. I sit down at an empty table with a plate of fried potatoes, bacon, yogurt and a bowl of Fruit Loops. Yohan Engstrom asks me if it is OK to join me. "Of course," I say. Yohan is the Swedish National Downhill Champion and European Dual Slalom Champion. Impressive. But the next thing I know Anne-Caroline Chausson plops down next to me. She is a six time Downhill World Champion and maybe the fastest woman alive on a bike and she is sitting next to me pouring soy bean milk on her Special fricken K! What do I say? WHAT DO I SAY? Star struck I manage to ask how she likes Patagonia? How does the soy bean milk taste? Her English is limited and I can tell she is embarrassed. She does not realize how special she is. This girl has won nearly every major race she has entered in the last five years and she is completely down to earth. No arrogance at all. The fact that she blushes almost every time she speaks English is sweet and endearing. I'll bet her competition does not see her this way! The contrast between the young demur French girl and the speed demon that has annihilated the competition for the last five years is fascinating.
10:30 AM and my interview with Annabella falls through. There just isn't enough time between setting up my test ride and shuttling to the trailhead. A temporary set back as I'll be riding with Alison Sydor, Cross Country World Champion and Canadian Olympic Silver medalist. Still it gets better as I'll be riding a team prototype bike. Again, I am sworn to secrecy. For now all I can tell you is that the bike looks and feels as if it is alive. The Team may be racing it this summer. You must get out to the World Cup and NCS races to see it. And be sure to look for my review in April.
Twelve of us head up a smooth dirt road that quickly turns to single track. This is the first ride in a long long time. I bring up the rear. I have no choice. I am still out of shape, my timing is wacked and my back is weak. If my doctor new I was hear he would shoot me. Slowly my skills are coming back to me. On the twisting single track and descents I pass at least four riders. But I hate the fact that the tail guide is waiting for me. This is a first and I plan to do every thing I can to make it the last.
The trail winds and rolls through the sagebrush, tall dry grass and cacti. Our guides warn us not to brush up against anything. Nearly all of the plant life protects itself with thorns, barbs and needles. The tail guide gleefully explains to me how he removes the barbs of the Jumping Jack cactus. He uses a straight comb to rip them out. Ouch!
We reach the half way mark just after noon. I grab a few minutes with Alison. Again I am amazed by how humble these riders are. She is one of the best in the World and there is no hint of arrogance anywhere. I am nervous in the presence of such a talented athlete and it takes me a while to feel comfortable asking my questions. We talk Olympics, bikes, the state of Cross-country Mountain biking and whether or not she is single!
After a couple of shots of Power Gel we are back in the saddle and riding a semi flat twisting trail. Here is where it gets good. The single track whips through cacti, tall grass and a few cotton wood trees. Our group of riders is bunched up at the beginning and from near the back of the pack we look like a slithering serpent. Alison pushes out in front and disappears. Even the guides who are professional mountain bikers cannot keep up with her.
The single track ends at a dirt road and we start to climb again. The top is soon within sight and we regroup one last time before a twenty-minute descent to the road. This kicks the crap out of me. The rear suspension, a Fox Vanilla Shock and the new prototype swing arm handle the terrain easily. But the 70-milimeter travel Head Shock can't handle the constant pounding of the loose rocks. And there are loose rocks everywhere. My hands become numb, my shoulders burn and my back feels like it is going to explode. Still, I manage to stay out in front of at least one rider. I catch a couple more due to a pinched tube. I take a break myself. Two actually. At the bottom I am relieved that it is over. I am spent and still there are 8 more miles back to town.
The group hits the road together all drafting behind each other and taking turns at the point. Thankfully I have caught a second wind and I hang with Alison and the guides for a couple of miles. My second wind lasts all the way back to town but I cannot keep up with the lead group. They are now a speck in the distance.
Back at the C-dale camp I turn my bike over to a mechanic and sit down exhausted. I don't even have energy to wipe the dust off my face. But the day has been fantastic. Breakfast with Anne-Caroline, a prototype bike, and a challenging ride and interview with Alison Sydor. I should be in Vegas right now my luck is so good!
More ice and another shower. I am famished. I cross the street to Santo's Mexican Restaurant. Seriously. The owner is as amazed to learn my name as I am to see it on the front of his menu. I was named after my Italian Great Grandfather and he after his father. Santo asks me if I know the meaning of our name? I reply, "Yes of course. But I am not a Saint!"
I order a Burrito de Pollo and pull up a chair. Two guys are nursing cervesas and talking about the day's ride, the new bikes and the Team. It quickly becomes apparent that I am talking to a couple of VIP's. They know far too much about the business and the bikes to be any thing else. Turns out it is Felix Magowan, President of Inside Communications (Publishers of Velo News) and Scott Montgomery, Director of Cannondale and son of Joe Montgomery, Cannondale's founder.
Usually I am not so star struck. I have worked in the media for over ten years. I have met rock stars; actresses, actors, Olympic medalists and politicians including our sex crazed president. But the last couple of days I have been walking around like a silly groupie. I just hope the rest of the camp doesn't realize it!
Scott and Felix turn the conversation to DirtWorld.com. "Our goal is to build the biggest race and trail database available to mountain bikers in North America," I explain. Scott seems interested while Felix, dismisses our concept. Scott asks several questions all of which I think I answer intelligently. I must have because he presses a business card in my hand, asks for mine and tells me to send him some more information about DirtWorld.com.
Day Three - February 27, 1999
Humbled Under the Mid-night Sun
I sleep in and catch some much-needed z's. I don't drink but I feel like I tied one on the previous night. We piled into three cars and headed south of the border to Nogales, Mexico. Only eighteen miles from Patagonia, Nogales is a small border town. A mangy tourist trap at best. After dinner at a relatively clean restaurant we visited a dance club. After brushing my teeth twice, eating breakfast and lunch I can still taste the second hand smoke. Still it was crazy to watch the team react to the Senoritas asking them to dance and the dirty little kids selling Chiclets. Many of the team members are barely out of puberty, hailing from small European towns they have never experienced anything like this. Neither have I for that matter. Despite the smoke and filth we manage to have a good time. So good we stay in Patagonia until 1 AM. Now I am completely wiped out. I sleep until ten and feel hung over when my feet hit the floor.
After breakfast with Andrew, I stroll over to the Cannondale Team Camp. Brian Lopes is kicking back listening to Run DMC. A perfect opportunity to talk with Brian about Mongoose and Cannondale, Ann-Caroline and his goals for the 1999 season.
At twenty-seven years old Brian has never worked a real job. He has been riding and racing in at least one off road biking discipline since he was a young teen. A Toni Braxton and Jennifer Love Hewitt fan, he can belt out nearly any Run DMC lyric. Outside of friends and family he doesn't seem to have a care in the world. Except about winning on the World Cup level. With US National titles in both Dual and Downhill Brian is still probably the most unproven rider on the team when it comes to World Cup competition. Still, he expects to win and as we talk I can't help but believe he will reach the podium in 1999.
2:30 PM and Tinker Juarez is riding shotgun in Rudell's pickup. I'm in the back with a Spanish photographer named Chebby. Five miles out of town we pull over to access another section of the Arizona Trail. After introductions we walk thirty yards into the desert to a spot in the trail with a couple of turns. Tinker is skinny and brown. His elbows and shins are riddle with scars and a few scabs presumably from the hazards of his job. His shinny black dreads bust out from underneath his red, white and blue helmet. His team jersey is also red, white and blue not to mention his Sram Grip Shift shifters and derailleurs. Only Tinker is allowed to wear this jersey. It is a privilege of capturing the U.S. National Cross-Country Championship.
Tinker makes the tight steep turns look easy as Chebby pops off several shots. Both professionals, the shoot is over almost as soon as it begins. We drive back to the C-dale camp where Tinker and I sit down for a quick conversation. We talk about his bike, his belief in God and the upcoming season. Again, I am amazed at how level headed, humble and real these racers are. I don't know what I expected. I guess tons of attitude and trash talking. Not one of the racers has been obnoxiously egotistical. So far Tinker is the nicest of them all.
Andrew and I climb on a couple of test bikes at 5:30 PM for one more ride. Mine is a new Super V 1000. Andrew and Richard Cunningham, Mountain Bike Action Editor, who joined us, are both on the new prototype bikes. The sun is already setting as we head out to the Red Rock Canyon Road section of the Arizona Trail. Both of my riding partners are stronger than me. This is going to be yet another humbling experience. The first three miles are all rolling dirt roads with a few short steep climbs. The pace is fast and I am tired already. Thankfully we stop for a couple of pictures.
Back on the bikes and two miles later we reached the single track. It is smooth and dry as it winds though the desert. The moon is opposite the sun against a dark orange and red sky. Both throw shadows in different directions making it tough to spot obstacles on the trail. Andrew picks up the pace and promises that the final descent will be even more technical.
In my attempt to keep close to my partners I am all over the trail, and off the trail. I bash through the dusty dry sagebrush and undergrowth. Just like the Dirt Camp guides said the desert plant life is full of needles and barbs. Fortunately, I manage to avoid any cacti.
Nighttime has asserted itself on the day. Visibility improves now that shadows are only coming at us from one direction. The midnight sun is shinning so brightly we can see relatively well so long as we are not in the trees. I spoke too soon. We drop down into a gully and under a thick blanket of cotton woods. I just hang on and hope for the best. Some how I clean the obstacles. Andrew congratulates me. "You know some of the riders walked that in the daylight our first day out. Nice job." Andrew doesn't know it but he has made my night.
We reach the crest of the last hill and we stop for another photo, Power Gel and a brief rest before we tackle what Andrew keeps promising will be a technical ride. "Dude, it's full of drops and steep switch backs." "Perfect," I think to myself. Note sarcasm here. We drop in and the trail is all that Andrew said it would be. It is the steepest part of the ride all-night and riddled with rocks and drops. Having caught my second wind and becoming adjusted to the Super V, I manage to stay upright with just a dab here and a dab there.
Up ahead our route cuts down into another thick covering of trees. I blow the shift as the transition out of the gully comes to fast. My chain breaks. Just great! A broken chain, a mangled derailure and only the moon light by which to see. Richard and Andrew are not phased in the least. Between the two of them they reconnect my chain but they cannot save my derailure. I'll only be able to use my small chain ring the rest of the ride.
The last section of single track is pure bliss. I can hear Richard and Jerk Boy, Richard's nick name for Andrew, laughing and whooping it up. Richard blows a tight switch back with a burly drop in the middle. With my skills and confidence returning I stick it and make it look easy. Richard is impressed and says so. What a perfect way to end the ride as we reach the road and head back to Patagonia.
11 PM With four bikes, four people and all of our gear, we are headed to Tucson to catch our flights home. Andrew's rented mini van is pounding with industrial music. The two Cannondale engineers in the back are asleep despite the repetitive throbbing coming out of the stressed sound system. I feel their pain. Three days of riding, testing new bikes and hanging with some of the best riders in the world has left me battered and bruised. "Man it feels good to be alive," I think to myself as I begin to does off? Can a guy get any luckier? I guess so. When I called home to arrange for a ride from the airport, my girlfriend said the sun is shinning in Seattle. Talk about a lucky streak!