By Ernie Clark of the Bangor Daily News: DEXTER -Adam Craig’s relationship with travel and terrain transcends his current occupation as an Olympic mountain biker.
Life in rural Maine draws most kids to explore the great outdoors early in life, and the 26-year-old Exeter native was no exception.
"Even when he was little, he’d jump off the deck and slide down to the frog pond and onto the stream nearby," said Craig’s mother, Patricia Craig.
Such spontaneous flirtations with speed soon were followed by more sophisticated means of transit, such as driving his dad’s jitterbug in the woods — a skill acquired at age 10.
Later, Craig discovered downhill ski racing and through that sport gained an introduction to the mountains that eventually fueled a passion for maneuvering around roots, rocks and other obstacles as fast as possible on a bicycle.
Today, few on the globe are faster on a mountain bike than the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Craig, who is one of two Americans who will compete in the men’s cross-country mountain bike race at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
"Adam has great bike-handling ability," said Carl Decker, one of Craig’s colleagues on the Giant Mountain Bike Team and a fellow resident of Bend, Ore. "He’s a really gifted rider, especially on descents. He has a unique understanding of how fast he can go downhill without riding too fast and crashing very often.
"He’s also really strong. He’s not a huge guy, but he breaks drivetrain components that nobody else breaks.
"Plus his cardiovascular is strong. He’s the complete package."
It’s that package — along with some strong recent efforts that include winning his second straight national championship last month — that leaves the 1999 graduate of Dexter Regional High School in an optimistic frame of mind heading into the biggest two hours of his competitive life on Aug. 23.
"This is the first year I’ve ridden in the elite group from the start at a few of the World Cup races," he said. "Before this year my good races have always been come-from-behind efforts. To be riding at the front in races now shows me that if I’m strong and fit and fresh as I usually am, somehow at the end of August I should be right there."
A rapid uphill climb
Craig has nearly a decade of elite mountain biking already behind him as he approaches his Olympic debut.
He competed in his first world championship at age 17 in 1998 at Mont Saint-Anne, Quebec, which along with Mount Snow in West Dover, Vt., considered one of his home courses on the World Cup and national bike tours.
In reality his biking career began long before that.
"When he first rode down Cadillac Mountain by himself at age 10, that was scary to me," said Patricia Craig, head of the art department at Hampden Academy. "Adam rode down and [his father] Harvey rode down, but I stayed at the top. I waited to drive down because I didn’t want to pass them. Plus, if I had driven down and seen them racing I knew I’d freak out."
From Adam Craig’s scenic introduction to the sport came a rapid ascent up the mountain-biking ranks.
In 1999, just after graduating from Dexter — where he went for his final three years after spending his freshman year at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, which had a ski team — Craig won his first junior national championship.
That led to an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he spent the better part of two full seasons training between races. It was there the notion of being an Olympian one day first crossed Craig’s mind.
"It’s like, ‘We’re at the Olympic Training Center, that’s probably because they think maybe I’ll go to the Olympics someday,’" he said. "At that point I was realistic, but I also knew that I was racing pretty well, and even then I could see that I’d have my best races at some of the bigger events like the junior world championships. In ’98 or ’99 I raced up [beyond my age level], and I thought maybe it would work out someday."
Craig won the first of three consecutive under-23 national cross-country championships in 2001, but that fall he returned home and enrolled at the University of Maine while continuing his mountain-biking career on the weekends.
It represented a crossroads of sorts for Craig, who had to decide between concentrating on his education toward starting a career in the working world or making mountain biking his working world.
His performances that year — including his second straight U23 national championship — made that decision rather easy.
"When I graduated high school and moved out to Colorado Springs to the Olympic Training Center, I think that was the turning point of thinking that I was going to do this full time and see if I can make a go of it," he said.
"There were a couple of years of still working with Harvey in the winter, pounding nails or whatever and going to school before it panned out, but going to school and not training at all that spring and kayaking a bunch somehow made me really fast."
Craig turned pro in 2002, and quickly attracted the interest of a corporate sponsor in Giant Bicycles, another step toward confirming his status as a rising star in his sport.
He won his third straight national title in 2003, then moved out of the U23 ranks just in time for his first Olympic quest a year later.
Craig was the youngest of several contenders for two berths on the U.S. team, but a mechanical failure during the first World Cup race of the year was the first step in what Craig describes as "death by a hundred cuts" that ultimately prevented him from earning a trip to Athens.
"That year I considered myself a good choice for the team, but I knew in the public eye I was a long shot," he said. "To not make it was a bummer, but it wasn’t that big a deal. I also stood on a World Cup podium that fall, so I wasn’t that bothered."
Indeed, 2004 was not a total loss for Craig — far from it.
He scored his first top-10 finish in a World Cup event at Mont Sainte-Anne and capped off the season by placing fifth at the World Cup finals in Livigno, Italy — the first American man to score a podium finish in a World Cup race since 1995.
"Getting that World Cup podium in Livigno right after the Olympics, I knew that would keep him motivated," said Patricia Craig.
The road to Beijing
The three seasons between Olympic years saw Craig continue to improve while being among the busiest of the world’s elite riders.
He had six top-10 World Cup finishes in 2005 and 2006 as well as top-25 efforts in the world championships both years.
The 2007 season marked Craig’s second straight as the top American in the final World Cup points. He also won the gold medal at the Pan American Games in Brazil, then returned to Mount Snow to score a breakthrough victory in the men’s elite cross-country race at the U.S. national championships.
"He seems to spread himself really thin, and that was something I was concerned with," said Decker. "But he just showed over and over that he could do it."
This year there was little mystery surrounding Craig’s motivation — to earn an Olympic berth.
Ultimately, there was little mystery in the competition. Craig consistently ran first or second among six U.S. candidates for two Olympic spots in the World Cup races that served as a primary measuring stick for selection.
"This has been my goal for the last four years," said Craig after the July 1 announcement that he and Todd Wells would represent the United States in Beijing. "I pretty much knew this was the situation for the last month or so, but I’m glad that it’s come to fruition."
Craig’s Olympic anticipation certainly has not slowed him since then.
Despite adjusting his training regimen to prepare for the specifics of the Olympic course, he successfully defended his U.S. championship at Mount Snow in mid-July.
"I was lucky to just squeak in and win nationals on semitired legs from training that week, and that was part of the plan, too, because definitely everything’s been prioritized for the Games," Craig said. "I was kind of nervous all week knowing I was a little tired and still hoping I could pull it out."
Craig followed that up the next weekend by matching his career-best World Cup finish with a fourth at Mont Sainte-Anne. A week later, he established a new personal standard with a third-place finish at Bromont, Quebec.
Now his attention has turned fully to Beijing, a land of Olympic trepidation and opportunity.
Craig was among approximately 50 elite riders from around the world invited to test the Beijing mountain-bike course last summer — but fewer than 10 finished the race after succumbing to subpar air quality.
Air quality concerns remain among all Olympians, but mountain-biking organizers have made other changes in the aftermath of that test run.
"They’ve extended the course to 6 kilometers and attempted to make it more technical, with more jumps, more rock sections and more twisty-turny stuff, so, hopefully, it will be more of a test of our mountain-biking skills," said Craig. "But the course is really kind of irrelevant because everyone’s going to be fit and fast, and races are won on the uphills and there’s a whole bunch of them out there."
While Craig has competed for several years now against the best mountain bikers in the world, the stage for the Olympic race sets it apart from the rest.
"It’s a notch higher for sure, just like in every sport," he said. "For athletes personally, we face the same challenge in the world championships once a year, but we all acknowledge that the public eye is focused on summer sport once every four years and that’s at the Olympic Games. Everyone acknowledges that’s where you need to be and where you have to have your 200 percent game face on and not just your 110 percent."
Craig is hopeful his best 200 percent will be enough to help elevate in the American sports consciousness a sport whose hotbeds are such European Alpine centers as Switzerland and France.
"The Olympic race is a little more distilled, so there’s not as much weird stuff happening as there is when you have 270 starters at a European World Cup," said Decker. "At the Olympics there are only 30 or 40 in the race, so you’re not going to get stuck behind a crowd at the start.
"I wouldn’t bet everything on Adam winning a medal," he added. "But I wouldn’t bet everything against him, either."
As for Craig, he’s confident but not putting added pressure on himself by quantifying any Olympic expectations.
Still, there is a dream to be realized.
"I’m still trying to stay away from that actual goals thing," said Craig. "I feel like if I’m having the kind of day I’m pretty sure I can have, I should be in contention for a medal. It would be nice to get one of those.
"My mom’s already looked up what they look like on the Internet. She says they look real nice."
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