By Ernie Clark - DEXTER - Adam Craig is far, far away from his central Maine roots this weekend, racing on a course at Mount Parnitha near Athens, Greece, where the world's best mountain bikers will gather again in late August for the 2004 Summer Olympics. The race is being staged in part to work out all the logistical bugs at the venue in advance of the Games. But for the 24-year-old native of Exeter, hopes are high that this test run will serve as merely a reconnaissance mission for the fulfillment of a dream.
"The course is supposed to be smooth and fast," said Craig, a 1999 graduate of Dexter Regional High School. "This weekend will give me a chance to learn the course and know what I'll be dealing with if I end up going to the Olympics." Craig is one of four mountain bikers vying for two spots on the U.S. Olympic Team. One berth is likely to go to Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, the leading American on the International Cycling Union, or UCI, tour and currently ranked 16th in the world. The second berth will go to the top American in the 2004 World Cup standings as of July 12, provided that rider is in the top 25 in the UCI standings. Should Horgan-Kobelski earn that status, the second-best American in the top 25 overall would earn the second U.S. Olympic berth.
The six World Cup races that likely will determine the second U.S. Olympian begin May 23 in Madrid, Spain, followed by dates in Houffalize, Belgium; Fort William, Scotland; Schladming, Austria; Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec; and ending at Calgary, Alberta, on July 4.
The challenge is fairly simple for Craig - finish in the top 25, and beat fellow U.S. contenders Jeremiah Bishop of Harrisonburg, Va., and Todd Wells of Durango, Colo.
"I'm stoked about this chance because I've always had my best races at World Cup, and I've beaten Todd and Jeremiah more than they've beaten me at World Cup," he said. "I finished 30th in the World Cup standings last year and missed two races, so I'm sure I can be in the top 25. It's just a matter of if I'm the top American, which I'm pretty confident about." Already a champion Craig brings impressive credentials to his pursuit of an Olympic berth - he's the three-time reigning U.S. U-23 (age 23 and under) cross-country champion, and is considered one of the rising stars in the sport.
"He's really our brightest prospect in a lot of ways," said Craig Undem, a former national-level rider based in Seattle, Wash., who serves as Craig's coach. "He's in a very elite category of guys who can do something at the world level, a very talented and gifted mountain biker."
World-class mountain biking is a grueling sport, with races lasting more than two hours over courses that range from gravel roads that place an emphasis on speed to twisting mountainside odysseys where the enemies are as much the gnarled tree roots, immovable boulders and steep descents as they are rival riders.
The more technical the course, the more it is to Craig's liking. "I definitely like the more challenging courses, probably because I grew up riding in Maine," said Craig, who spends much of the spring and summer biking in the region or cross-training through such activities as white-water kayaking at Gulf Hagas.
"The riding here is super. One place I like is the bog in Bangor. I hadn't ridden there all winter, but I just went for a ride there the other day, and it's very challenging riding. It's given me a big advantage on technical courses."
One area Craig is working to improve is at the beginning of races, a mass exodus from the starting line that provides its own set of challenges, as the elite battle through the pack to get to the front first.
"I'm a slow starter and a strong finisher," said Craig. "I need to start faster and then be attacking and be an antagonist in the race rather than just kind of being defensive. As I'm getting older I'm learning how to race more aggressively."
"You try to integrate the start into your training," added Undem, "but you have to be careful because you know you have to go another two hours after the start and you really have to be 100 percent committed to the hole shot." Those who have followed Craig's progress suggest that his success stems from several factors, among them his strength and tenacity.
"Adam's biggest strength is on the physical side, where he has the ability to work hard, train hard and do the necessary work to be prepared," said Undem. "Adam's a very tough character. He has a very strong mental makeup. To reach the highest level of a sport in which the athlete has to endure so much pain, you need the mental toughness to keep going and convince your body to do more than you might think you can."
Craig's physical strength - he's 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, slightly bigger than the average rider - and mental toughness come into play not only during races, but within the loneliness of preparation.
"If you're training 25 hours a week and the weather is bad, you've still got to go out and train every day," said Craig, a member of the Giant/Izumi Pearl team who also has sponsorship from Smith Fiber Optics. "With all the travel and associated things that go with riding, keeping your body in tip-top form takes a lot of dedication and mental toughness to get you through it."
The road to Athens
Craig grew up in small-town Maine playing youth baseball and soccer, ski racing, running track - and riding a bike. "I've been riding bikes in the dirt since I learned to ride," he said, "just riding around the dooryard, and through trails in the woods around the house. We always had land with trails on it."
Craig got his first mountain bike at age 12, and soon began competing in races at Hermon Mountain. By 15 he was racing in the expert class - the highest level in the junior ranks - and in 1998 he placed second in the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, or NORBA, junior nationals at Mount Snow in Vermont to earn a berth on the U.S. team for the junior world championships.
Craig spent the last four years at the U-23 level, becoming the U.S. cross-country champion in 2001, 2002 and 2003 while beginning to travel the world for international competitions. "I've stepped up the training every year and done a little more, but I'm in it for the long haul," he said. "I'm still in the baby-steps program because I've seen some guys who committed a lot early on burn out after a few years. They reached their full potential, but couldn't hack all the associated things to stay at that level."
Craig's ascent within the mountain biking ranks has not been without disappointment, particularly during the last year. He was considered one of the top contenders to win the U-23 division at the 2003 World Mountain Biking Championships in Lugano, Switzerland, last September - but never got to race.
A new UCI policy enacted in 2003 requires the top 100 riders in the world to undergo mandatory medical monitoring twice a year, but some of the U.S. riders - including Craig and Wells - were not notified of the policy until after the deadline for the first of the two annual tests had passed.
"Your federation is informed about the tests, and they tell you when to take it, but they didn't tell us to take the first test. They told us in July to take the second test, which we all did," Craig said. "We were told we'd be OK taking just the one test, but when we got to the worlds they told us we couldn't race.
"It was my worst nightmare."
Craig took some time off after the Lugano setback to regroup, bypassing his typical fall schedule of cyclo-cross - an event for which Craig is a two-time U.S. U-23 champion.
Cyclo-cross combines riding speed with steeplechase-style skills, as riders are required to dismount and clear barriers at various points along the course. "What happened at the world championships was a real blow psychologically to Adam," said Undem. "It was good for him to get off his bike for a while after that and get his head back together."
Craig's 2004 season got off to a slow start due to Achilles tendinitis, which kept him off the bike completely from mid-February until March 8. "That was my first real injury," said Craig, who competed in his first race of the year March 21 in Puerto Rico. Craig went on to compete at the Pan American championships in Banos, Ecuador, last month, where he fell victim to mechanical problems and placed 30th.
After spending some time with family in Corinth, he left for Greece early this week, and then will move on to the World Cup races throughout Europe before returning to North America in late June for the final two races in Canada. "The first race in Madrid is in a city park, and it's dead flat, the longest climb is 30 seconds and it's all on gravel roads and walking paths," said Craig. "Two weeks later we'll be racing in Scotland, and there they've got this really rocky, steep, rooty trail that they've built down the side of this mountain.
"All of the races are hard; they're just hard in different ways."
Craig hopes the misfortune of recent months - at least the extra rest he got as a result - will help him as he begins a stretch of seven races in seven weeks that he hopes will lead back to Athens for the Olympic cross country race on Aug. 28. "Adam comes in stronger and fresher than the other guys he's competing against who have been racing since February," said Undem.
"He's a bit of an underdog, but if he pulls off some great races in the next month he'll be in great position to go to the Olympics.
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