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An interview with Adam Craig, October 24, 2007

Perfecting the balancing act

Talking to Adam Craig in person, it is easy to miss the fact that he's one of the top professional US mountain bikers and the current cross country national champion. The 26 year-old, Mainer-turned-Oregonian sounds and acts like he's still the goofy, fresh-faced kid who only a few years back was an up and coming sensation, but with more experience, he's finding ways to balance racing with professional responsibilities. Cyclingnews' Jackson Weber spoke with Craig about his 2007 season and his aspirations going into the 2008 Olympic year.

Adam Craig
Photo ©: Rob Jones
(Click for larger image)

While Adam Craig still crosses the line in victory with a shoulder shrug and a smirk, boisterously cracks jokes, and "likes riding bikes in the woods, fast" he is, like the sport in which he competes, learning to balance that his happy-go-lucky side with the responsibilities of a true professional athlete.

For Craig, 2007 was a mixed bag. The year hit a high note when the former New Englander won the elite cross country race at USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in front of a home crowd at Mount Snow, Vermont. "A dream come true for sure," said Craig later that weekend, fresh off victory. It was the first elite cross country title Craig had won since racing as a U23 rider. That same weekend Craig also won the Super D, an event which he pretty much owns in the US, giving him two stars and stripes jerseys for the weekend.

Curiously (and maybe sadly) for many spectators and fans, and much to his own irritation, Craig's biggest win this season from a publicity standpoint may have come at an event that has no official meaning – the Singlespeed World Championships (SSWC) in Aviemore, Scotland, just one weekend before the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.

"Literally hundreds of people came up to me in my two days at Interbike and said something to the effect of 'Nice work at Singlespeed Worlds' [and] people out on the trails say, 'Hey, singlespeed champ' and such as I roll by," wrote Craig in an email. "Not one person has said, 'Good work' on being the proper national champ, which actually took some doing."

Adam Craig (Giant)
Photo ©: Rob Jones
(Click for larger image)

But while Craig had a shining Nationals and Singlespeed Worlds, the only other major event that he won this season was the Pan American Games in Brazil. The rest of his season lacked some luster. On the World Cup circuit, Craig barely broke into the top 10 on a few occasions, which was still better than his fellow American competitors, but well off the podium, unlike in years past. At other American races, Craig's form was lacking, never coming together like the weekend of Nationals in July.

"I had planned to get in shape and take things serious-like, but all the other aspects of being a professional..." Craig trailed off for a moment as he chose his next words. "I dunno just doing stuff for sponsors – which is fine, great and easy to do and beats the hell out of a real job, but I'm still figuring out the balance. I think I'm getting closer…or at least riding faster so I must be getting closer."

Events and words like these highlight the change that is still ongoing in Craig. He is the goofy Mainer who showed up to the SSWCs clad completely in denim with a mustache and a rather unfortunate mullet. He continues to crack jokes and has the best post-race color comments of any racer but now he also displays an impressive amount of poise and maturity – more than that for which he often gets credit. He's reached the point in his career where he knows he can win and that he has to represent his sponsor well at the same time, and he now sounds fully prepared to take on both roles successfully for 2008.

Chasing the Olympic dream

"I want to go to the Olympics and do as well as I can - the Olympics are just another World Championship except with less dudes."

-Adam Craig on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing

Much of Craig's new-found seriousness stems from the fact that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, are looming in the distance, and Craig appears dead set on representing the US. "I've acknowledged the fact that bike riding is my career," said Craig rather nonchalantly, "and the Olympics are always good for John Q. Public and the career in general."

Even when pressed further, Craig remained relatively controlled about the whole thing. "I don't have the super duper Olympic dream of 'I just want to be an Olympian,'" explained Craig. "I am an athlete and I want to compete on the grandest stage and compete well there. I want to go to the Olympics and do as well as I can - the Olympics are just another World Championship except with less dudes."

Only when the asked about the Olympic selection process Craig turned abruptly serious. The amount of riders allowed to represent each country in the Games in Beijing is dependent upon the cumulative UCI rankings of the top three riders from each nation, with the top five nations being allowed three riders and the next eight nations being allowed two. For the racers, it creates an unusual amount of interdependency amongst those who are typically opponents, as one racer's lack of participation could cost another a chance at the Olympics.

For the US, this means Craig, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (JHK), Todd Wells and to some extent, Jeremiah Bishop, who was nipping at Well's heels, are responsible for how many racers are allowed to go. At the time of the original interview, both JHK and Wells had just skipped the Pan Am Games, and Craig, who missed the 2004 Olympics, wasn't entirely pleased. Even now, he still sounds irate, if diplomatic.

"We're actually kind of behind the eight ball on the '06/'07 cumulative nations ranking," said Craig. "Since we've all raced at about 70% of our ability this year internationally, despite moments of greatness thrown in there by each [of us] once in a while, the Germans have blown our doors off and the Belgians are squeaking in front of us. But, alas, Todd and Jeremy weren't interested in racing Roc d'Azur or any other stuff back in Europe this fall, so I'm not about to go over there and roast myself trying to float the whole boat…There isn't much we can do, other than wish we'd all raced more consistently this year. [It's] pretty frustrating for me and everyone else I'm sure."

Adam Craig (Team Giant) offers a competitive snarl at Singlespeed worlds
Photo ©: Matt Ferrari
(Click for larger image)

With the 2007 season rapidly coming to a close, all thoughts are now on 2008 and the Olympic Team selection process. USA Cycling, having been the object of much criticism for the way it ran the 2004 Olympic mountain bike selection process, which was documented in the film Off Road to Athens, has made the 2008 process very simple (well...simpler), with automatic nominations for placing in the top three at a UCI World Cup or the World Championships, or nominations for the "athlete with the highest cumulative placing in their best three 2008 UCI World Cups prior to June 23, 2008."

This means that between April and June those racers with Olympic dreams are going to be romping around Europe, all serious in their racing. Even Craig, who is regarded for his racing into shape (i.e. racing slowly) approach in the early season, acknowledges that there will be changes in the works. He was one of four men involved in the chase for Olympic Spots in 2004, but ultimately did not make the cut for the US team which was filled by Horgan-Kobelski and Wells.

"I'm gonna get in shape next winter and be ready for the spring World Cups since regardless of if I am the national champion and get a medal at worlds and win World Cup finals [in 2007] that still doesn't qualify me for the Olympic team," said Craig, who accomplished the first of those three goals. "So I really have to be sure that spring swings and from April through June, I'm really good at those World Cups which are usually my racing-into-shape time frame."

2008 looks to be a defining season for Craig, with his quest for the Olympics surpassing all else. 2007 can be viewed as a year of adjustment, balancing and learning – a season that added to Craig's professional growth with a brilliant success or two balanced by mediocre placings in other major races.

In the end, Craig still makes it obvious that fun is still the major reason he is on the bike. "Maybe I can shift the balance back to the good 'ole days a bit and still inspire people to ride bikes fast in the woods," said Craig. "Which is all I'm really in it for anyway – after 2008 anyway, 'til then, struggling seriousness."

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