In the wayback machine today….I’m not sure why I’m sharing this, or maybe that I’ve never shared this, but it’s a “proposal” I wrote at the end of the 1998 race season, 22 years ago this Fall. It’s always good to look back and laugh, ha ha ha…
I had just finished my 5th season racing and my first for the new Ionic-Nema pro MTB team aside Pete Swenson, Nathan Schultz, and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski. At this time XC racing was a bit on the decline in the US, Few riders had paid contracts (like 5 maybe?) and sponsorship was down overall. Euros were coming over kicking our collective asses and only later did we find out that they were doping (for example, Jerome Chiotti admitted this fact and he was racing us at the Mercury Tour in Steamboat that year). So anyways, I found myself at a crossroads. I’d been racing full time since 1995 having worked my way up from sport, expert, semi-pro to pro in the span of 2 seasons. I did my first race in 1993 as a beginner (pic below, so glad i have that!).
Being an only child and with a dad that had greater expectations, I didn’t feel i had much time to prove that racing was a worthwhile career choice (paid the bills) so I gave myself 5 years to actually make some money at it before trying something else. Not the best plan of attack looking back, especially when you go from a partying college student to a full-time racer competing against the local Colorado pros like local pros Pete Webber and Travis Brown among many others. But time passes slower when you’re 25, and 30 years old feels really old. If I could start over and still wanted to try my hand at racing i’d give these words of advice: Take the long game. Fitness and experience don’t happen overnight and motivation only goes so far. Most are at it for many years before being competitive and getting a contract. Don’t put pressure on yourself to perform, finish every race you can, and just have fun with the new friends you meet and ride/train with since that’s what you’ll carry away from it when you’re old and gray. If you end up fast and getting a pro contract that’s awesome, but that shouldn’t be the only goal.
Below is what I wrote and thought was the future of mountain biking. It’s been interesting seeing some things come true, and others come out of nowhere like Enduro racing, and the near death of hardtails. Twenty-niners didn’t exist yet (as we know them so not counting Bruce Gordon and Wes Willits’ early bikes), and we all rode narrow bars, bar ends, and cantilever brakes still. Lately the social media blasts we get from “Influencers” including bikepackers and those who seem to be making a living off of sharing their words and photos — well that’s in the vein of what I was trying to sell the Trek’s and Fisher’s at the time (they were run as separate teams at the time). What my proposal said though didn’t stike a chord with the team managers that thought racing was the end all. I think it’s obvious now but racing isn’t mountain biking, it’s only a part of mountain biking. The experiences we get outside with friends in wild places is what it’s really all about. Exploring, learning, teaching, experiencing.
This proposal was my attempt at bringing in what I considered mountain biking to the racing scene – being a strong rider (and maybe racer) but not taking it too seriously. I wanted to create a more inclusive team atmosphere at events, not just be that person who warms up, races, and quickly leaves the venue to recover in the hotel room. I wanted to share the camaraderie racers feel.
I’ve never been a fashionista, but I’d always ridden and raced in baggy shorts, except for my time on the Moots team. It wasn’t for any other reason than it’s what i felt comfortable while riding bikes. I didn’t even know what a lycra chammy was until moving to Boulder in 1991 to go to college. I felt, and still feel, that lycra has it’s place (especially if you just like it) but it also can turn off a lot of potential riders and supporters of cycling. Road cyclists scared me, they and their uniforms were intimidating, “I don’t have that outfit and those types of sponsors so i don’t belong there.” Wearing baggies and a shirt shows anyone can ride a bike, and race if they want. It doesn’t matter what you wear or who your sponsor is, people can go fast wearing coveralls and doing so opens up the otherwise clique-ish world of cycling to a greater number of participants, from commuters to top racers. It’s not a fair comparison but just look at what the Repack riders wore. They were all road cyclists but didn’t wear those outfits while riding early mountain bikes. That was literally the example I saw while growing up on Tam.
I raced my first races in skate shorts with tighty-whiteies and a normal cotton t-shirt. I guess I stuck out but it’s just what I always wore to go mountain biking, i wasn’t trying to prove a point although later there was some of that in there when people didn’t take me seriously. I get why road cyclists want to be more aero and the lycra outfits do wick moisture better, but ‘who gives a crap about those things while mountain biking?!’ was my opinion at the time. There are so many options now that incorporate the best of both worlds, but back in 1999 there really wasn’t.
Chrome Clothing company started in the basement of a south Boulder home around 1994, can’t remember the year exactly, but as soon as i heard about them I reached out and asked if they’d “sponsor” me. They gave me some of their shorts and jerseys to ride in and i was smitten! They were onto something and i wanted to be a part of it — trying to incorporate the positive functional aspects of chammy shorts and wicking jerseys with something that was comfortable, looked good, and was looser fitting so you could ride and get coffee and not look like an alien had landed. I’d offer feedback and limited exposure to their goods in return for free gear. I was so hoping Moots would be cool with getting their name embroidered on some Chrome baggies but…no luck…and the draw towards actually getting a Titanium YBB made in Steamboat Springs proved my sellout point. So in 1995 I rode with the awesome group of people that made up the grassroots Moots team and travelled to the Norba Nationals and Colorado Off-Road Point Series races, as well as the local Cyclocross races in the Front Range. I had a good couple of years but never had a break through race other than doing well at some local cross races.
A friend in Boulder then created the Ionic-Nema team with his friend Eric who started Ionic Cycles in Boise, ID. Nema was out of L.A and Travis had connections to their company so we got a lot of the latest cool baggy shorts and jerseys as well as casual wear. We got some good sponsors to build up the bikes and had an incredible racing season. Pete and JHK went on to race the following years with Polo-Ralph Lauren and Nathan with Schwinn I believe. I did a couple of Montezuma’s Revenges riding a Spot, before they were sold, and then hung up the racing legs in 2003 for the most part.
So there’s my racing history. Didn’t expect this post to be about that, but it is kinda relevant and is the backstory to why i thought a “Freerider” Team in 1999 would work and why I was done with the normal XC race scene. That year also saw the the first Single Speed World Championships (SSWC) in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. That was probably the last nail in the coffin for my serious racing days! haha!
What a great story!! Thanks for sharing. As an old guy I appreciate how great the new and refreshing the sport was and how big it got only to retract over time.
Thanks for sharing your early passion for the sport!
Excellent story Whit! I haven’t heard of Ionic in a very long time. I thought those bikes were so cool! I was always into the smaller brands coming off my GT Karakoram. Everyone was into XC racing at that time as was I. It was “fun” at the time but I was only a mid-pack racer and enjoyed it to a point. Riding backcountry was the best and always will be compared to XC racing.