Pure mountain bikers, anyone who doesn’t live in the Pacific Northwest and people who weren’t reading bicycle magazines in the early ‘90s are allowed a little slack for being unfamiliar with the name Greg Oravetz. His professional mountain-bike-racing career was woefully short and, at least to some extent, seemed to further stoke the us-versus-them attitude that boomed when road racers began trading in their skinny tires for fat ones back when ‘grunge’ music was steadily creeping toward the mainstream. But that doesn’t change the fact that Oravetz was one of the most talented cyclists in U.S. history.
As a young teenager, Oravetz knew his calling: He wanted to become a professional bicycle racer. Back then though, one would aim for a career in road racing, because mountain biking was still a fledgling sport with no money and only modest panache.
He raced and trained and spent as much time as possible at the Olympic Training Center. The OTC, however, wasn’t giving him the necessary tools, he felt, so when young Oravetz heard that Greg LeMond was hosting a training camp, he begged and borrowed the $1,000 necessary to attend. LeMond, now the United States’ only official Tour de France champion, liked what he saw in the kid and asked him to come back next time as a ride leader.
With a little bit of help from LeMond’s influence in global cycling at the time, Oravetz landed a spot on the French powerhouse, Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt
(A.C.B.B.) cycling team. Being on the A.C.B.B. team was practically a guarantee to a pro cycling career, the Ivy League of bike racing, but the roster was also fairly massive, and Oravetz wanted to actually race and learn.
He downgraded his program, so to speak, opting for a smaller team. It was the right decision, because he started racking up wins in France’s most prominent amateur contests.
Though his goal of landing a spot on a French or Italian team didn’t quite play out according to plan, Oravetz was quickly offered a spot on the Belgian Domex-Weinmann team for 1989. Given Oravetz’s physique and riding style, this team that was clearly focused on pro cycling’s major one-day classic races seemed a great place to land as a rookie.
Almost as quickly as the ink dried on his contract, though, the young American hopeful lost his ride. The UCI, in its infinite wisdom, decided to impose a series of new rules on how teams could be structured. Foreign riders and first-year pros were limited, and since Oravetz was the last hired, he was also the first to be fired.
There was interest elsewhere in Europe, but the contract was slow to come. Add to that a language barrier and the experience he’d just had with Domex-Weinmann, and the healthy offer he’d gotten from Len Pettyjohn to join the Coors Light team in the United States seemed like the way to go. And if there was a silver lining to his storm clouds, the Coors Light program had somehow been able to pair up with Greg LeMond’s ADR team, so Oravetz would get the chance to stretch his legs in Europe a little bit.
In his first big test of the ’89 spring season, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Oravetz went top-20 after riding in the service of the team’s top riders all day. In mountain-biking terms, he washed his teammates bikes, pushed to the top of the hill instead of taking the lift, and still went top 20—in his first time out. Another notable achievement of his rookie pro season was winning the United States PRO Championships in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prodigy is an oft-overused word, but not far off the mark in Oravetz’s case.
Alas, the Adolph Coors Brewing Company was not soon to be selling beers in Europe, and since the beer brand was paying his salary, Oravetz was needed on the American circuit. He was making a damn good living here at home, but his heart was on the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1993, at the end of four successful seasons with Coors Light, Oravetz found a loophole that would let him get back to Europe: contract break.
If he broke his contract with the Coors team, he could start entertaining the offers that were coming from Europe. If he did so, however, he would not be able to continue competing on the road for a year. So he went mountain-bike racing.
Admittedly, Oravetz’s foray into off-road racing was meant for the short term, but that doesn’t mean that he attacked it nonchalantly. With designs on equaling pedal strokes with likes of Tomac, Overend, Wiens, et al, Oravetz trained for the mountain-bike season with the same fervor he’d reserved for the monument races of the road just a few years before. He even made big splashes in early season races in preparation for the NORBA Nationals and World Cup events.
Depleted of water on an epic training ride in preparation for the Big Bear opener, Oravetz settled for a bit of spring water to get him through—water that gave him Giardia.
Greg didn’t know he had Giardia—he only knew that he, by his standards, sucked. The guy who’d won a national championship jersey in his first season and often been called ‘the next Greg LeMond’ hadn’t signed his contract with Barracuda to struggle for a top 50…or to DNF.
He started seeing doctors and was tested for every cancer he could imagine. He was tested for AIDS. Both the mountain-bike and road-racing press vilified him. His boss stopped sending paychecks. Debts mounted and soon he found himself without a house and a car. So he did what any reasonably talented human being would do—he hoisted two huge figurative middle fingers to bike racing and the bike industry, moved to Maui and went surfing.
Oravetz met his wife, also a mountain biker, on Maui. They have a seven-year-old son together. He’s made the odd attempt at a comeback over the years, but the drug-addled state of bike racing in recent history—combined with his own acknowledgement that his animal desire to win has significantly diminished since he was a 20-something racing in northern Europe—has kept his best bike racing decidedly in the past.
Oravetz is a bike rider, though, and a damn good one. He’s equally agreeable to pulling on the spandex and riding the roads for an hour—or five—as he is to donning a full-face and letting gravity do its best.
Speaking from experience, ‘what could’ve been’ is a hard pill to swallow, and Oravetz is probably not immune from that creeping feeling from time to time. He did, however, help blaze the trail for countless young shredders, both on road and off, and can be proud of the fact that he can hold his head high—that he’s one of the best bike riders in U.S. history.