Words and Photos: Colin Meagher
Any bike racer, gravity or otherwise, will assert that the wins are made in the off-season. A chunk of that is time "off", pure and simple. Call it physical R and R, but it's also a good mental break, too. The bike gets kicked to the curb in favor of other pursuits. Current National XC, STX, and CX champ Todd Wells takes that precious window to re-acquaint himself with surfing and suds in Mexico. Kelli Emmet goes back country snowboarding. It's basically anything but the bike.
But, now that race season is upon us, it's time for a quick re-cap of where the players have landed during this year's "silly season"—the time between race seasons when racers and teams engage in contract negotiations.
The silly season this past fall has lingered into 2011 a bit longer than is the norm, and for certain, more changes have been made on the gravity side of the. But the XC side has seen a few interesting moves as teams and riders look to get set for a strong 2011 race season.
There were two subtle moves of significance made domestically. The number one move was Willow Koerber leaving the Gary Fisher/Subaru squad that she's called "home" for five years for Trek World Racing (TWR). Actually, it was more of a swap, as Emily Batty left TWR to claim Willow's open spot at the re-branded Gary Fisher line of Trek-Subaru team. Realistically, this was more of a cosmetic move than anything else: Willow's focus is primarily World Cup, same as TWR. But it also allows Willow more options with 26" wheeled bikes on tap for select courses vs. 29er only.
The second subtle move was former US National Champ Adam Craig's shift from part time Giant Factory/part time Giant-Rabobank racing to full time Giant-Rabobank racing. Will that mean we'll see AC banging elbows on the cobbles during the early road season? Not at all. But no longer will you see a blue and white clad Craig rocking the "mean green" Michelin race tires during Euro mud slinging events. Rather, he'll be decked out in Rabobank kit on a Vredestein-shod Giant race machine. When he's not riding shotgun to Carl Decker on some rally car course, that is.
In a surprise move, Rabobank has also picked up CX racing machine Katie Compton for WC MTB racing this season. This ensures that for the first time Compton will have the support of a top-tier team for her MTB and CX racing ventures. This will be a huge step up for Compton, who despite problematic leg cramping and asthma issues, is one of the strongest American women currently waging war on two wheels in the dirt.
Sticking with Giant, or rather Giant's Factory team, Liam Killeen is stepping into Craig's shoes. Liam's had to take some time off from a back injury that hampered his '09 season with TWR. Killeen's focus will be squarely on WC and European racing, so you're not likely to find him doing time at Downieville.
In other Giant Factory news, Giant will no longer be rocking Michelin rubber or Shimano components: They have made the switch to Schwalbe and SRAM. While these may seem to be minor changes, they mark the first major sponsor change in the Giant Factory Team's history in quite some time.
The Trek-Subaru squad will remain the same as when it was the Gary Fisher-Subaru squad, with the exception of the Emily Batty for Willow Koerber TWR swap: Sam Schultz, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, and Heather Irmiger remain the top dogs on the squad, with U23 rider Russell Finsterwald as the new-ish kid on the block.
The Luna squad will be minus Amy Dombroski who has left the fold to forge her own path for MTB racing (Crankbrothers is her primary sponsor). Georgia Gould is putting in 15-16 hours a week of base miles—and seems to be carrying some fitness from her CX race season, taking the inaugural ProXCT race in Bonelli Park in San Dimas, CA last week. Katharine Pendrel is putting in a mix of XC ski training and trainer time. After a long CX season, Katerina Nash is likely taking some off time putting in as many days of epic skiing as she can before it becomes time to crank out road miles.
Ryan Trebon has left the Kona squad to pursue a primarily CX racing focus, but don't count him out of the MTB scene. Just don't expect him to pursue a full Pro XC Tour schedule, as CX racing relies heavily on road training. A title sponsor remains to be announced for Trebon.
Scott-Swiss Power team retains Nino Schurter and Florian Vogel as the main stars, but adds Swiss CX racer Marcel Wildhaber for the 2011 race season.
Specialized has elevated Max Plaxton from the Sho-Air team to the USA Factory racing squad. Plaxton is joined by former Maxxis/Rocky Mountain racer Lea Davison, back in form after taking 2010 off to recover from injury—Davison won the Pro CXT short track event in Bonelli Park a week ago.
Specialized is ramping up their factory team of Todd Wells, Burry Stander, Christoph Sauser, and Lene Byberg, by adding Czech rider Jaroslav Kulhavy to their factory squad—the 25 year old Kulhavy had a "break-out" season in 2010 with a "W" at the Windham World Cup as well as World Cup XC overall and World Champs podium appearances.
Jose Hermida and Ralph Naef continue to form the core of the Merida army.
Julien Absalon will continue to be the man to beat on the Orbea squad. To be honest, even though Absalon had a sub par 2010 season (he only won one World Cup and placed second overall for the series—sheesh!) I'm not certain that Orbea needs any more firepower; an on-form Absalon is unbeatable.
Lapierre will be represented by Alexis Vuillermoz (elites), Thomas Lapeyrie, and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Espoir, or U23 racers).
Team Central Ghost is now the Ghost Factory Racing team. Sabine Spitz elected to leave the squad, but Elisabeth Osl remains, and is joined by Eiberweiser Mona, Anja Gradl, Katrin Leuman, and Johanna Techt.
Speaking of Sabine Spitz, the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal winner has switched to the German brand Haibike for 2011. Spitz debuted in Cyprus in late Feb of this year on a full suspension "Sleek" instead of a hard tailed "Greed" model.
Topeak-Ergon will remain unchanged: Wolfram Kurschat and Irina Kalentieva head the team with Colorado hard man and Leadville 100 honch Dave Weins repping the brand in the USA. Canyon is now the team's bike of choice.
In a nutshell, that's the XC wrap up for 2011.