One of the questions queried what made Adam different from his Euro World Cup counterparts. And Adam made an offhanded remark– Something to the effect that he was less regimented, less pampered, and had more fun. The best part of his statement was “I’m not Christophe Sauser. I don’t live with my mother and she doesn’t rub my feet every night.” Christophe Sauser did live with his mother in Switzerland. And he was the best rider in the World at the time. And at the time, he was also at the Sea Otter Classic. The day that article came off the press, I remember seeing Sauser walk past the Giant Factory Off-Road Team pits and give Adam a look that could boil water. I laughed out loud. Adam sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and said “oops.” We shared a good laugh.
That article captured a small slice of the spirit of Adam Craig’s career as a professional bike racer, and at the end of 2016, Adam’s career as a professional racer comes to a close. He’s a character that will be sorely missed on the race circuit by many, but especially by me.
Fourteen years ago, in 2002, Adam and I shared a three-bed hotel room in Chile with Barry Wicks while we represented
the United States at the Pan American Championship XC race. Adam and I had been friendly adversaries that season, often fighting each other for the last spot in the top Ten at NORBA National Series events. In those days, I was sporting a Black Butte Porter jersey astride a swoopy and strange Mrazek bike, and he–much younger–rode for DEVO, John Kemp’s powerhouse development team. Adam was “the least talented rider on the Team” Kemp once told me–and he wasn’t kidding. Riders like Walker Ferguson, Matt Kelly, Matt Gerkan, Ryder Hesjedal, and Jess Swiggers filled their roster. And many of these guys rode to sensational results in Adam’s three years on the team. Adam, still a U23 rider, was consistently very good, but he wasn’t winning international competitions outright like some of these guys. Someone at Giant saw his potential though. And when they called late in 2002, offering a livable wage to ride for their Factory Off-Road Team, Adam accepted. His new Giant NRS showed up just before leaving for Pan Am Champs.
Three weeks after signing, and after a fantastic seven days spent in Chile eating empañadas, drinking Fanta, and trying to ride to Argentina through the Andes mountains–not to mention racing–AC, Barry and I had become good friends. As we left the airport in Santiago, Adam told me his new boss at Giant was looking for another rider for the following season. He gave me Steve Westover’s number, we boarded our plane for home, and the rest, as they say, is…. Adam and Carl’s Giant Team for Fun. We’ve been teammates ever since.
From the beginning, we have had a symbiotic relationship. He helped me get onto the team. I showed him that he would like the taste of beer if he just kept trying it.. He convinced me to get backcountry ski gear. I convinced him to move to Bend. He lent me his snowmobile twice. And I destroyed it–twice. I got my loan originator’s license, found him a house, and wrote him a loan. In bike racing as well, we’ve been good for each other. We’ve got many common views about bike racing, from training to bike setup and line selection. Over time, we developed our own particular MTB racing World View together. A postulate that some pursuits outside of cycling can truly improve a bike racer. And a belief that goals do not necessarily need to be set to be met. Without Adam’s friendship I would see things differently today. And without my influence, he would be changed as well.
In addition to racing bikes together, AC and I race a rally car occasionally. Many of the well-practiced skills that make us competitive bike racers transfer to racing cars. And we’re both positive that rally racing translates to better bike racing–likely because that lets us rationalize something we want to do anyway. Adam has always played the part of Co-Driver on the AC/CD Rally Team, and he is a great one, despite a relative lack of experience. Co-drivers often come from a background of accounting, engineering, or bookkeeping rather than racing. But AC manages the (confusing to me) time cards and pace notes with aplomb–in addition to bringing things to the table that no other co-driver can. Like being able to help make pace notes with the keen eye of a professional racer. And the ability and willingness to help troubleshoot and fix a limping Wheels of Teal ™. And a preternatural sense of direction. And the calm, cool, even keeled demeanor on Race Day that only comes from a lifetime of race days. And his Dad, Harvey, who joins my Old Man in our service area. Our Dads make a formidable pit crew that is nearly unbeatable. At least in terms of snacking and napping abilities–and their patience and love for their Driver and Co-Driver.
Strangely, its some of our hardest days in the car that I most enjoy reminiscing about. Like the day we had a massive and dangerous fuel leak inside the cockpit, but fixed and overcame it. Or the day Adam was 3 seconds late with a pace note and we crashed end-over-end in 5th gear, totally annihilating the Wheels of Teal. Or the time the brakes failed and ended our race. Or the times the brakes failed and scared the shit out of us, but we pressed on regardless.
At the rallies, AC and I have a tradition of racing with an apple in the car. Later in the day when we’re bored and sitting in the car awaiting a delayed stage start, I’ll ask “Want half an apple?” in my best Mainah accent. And then AC will say “sure” and we will spend 10 minutes taking turns trying to twist the apple in half–as Harvey does–with his bare hands. We’ve even succeeded once or twice. But probably once. We’ve got some toughening up to do yet.
All this goofing around has led many to question AC’s method at the height of his XC career. Some thought that Adam wasn’t focused enough–that he could have been better with more structure, and less extracurricular horseplay. And on any particular weekend, they might have been right. But over the course of his incredible career, Adam’s devotion to balancing work and play has served him incredibly well. His more talented contemporaries on the DEVO team were more structured and more focused–but nearly all of them were burnt out and done racing by their early 20s. Did kayaking and skiing and rally car racing and motorbiking and reasonable amounts of beer drinking make Adam faster in the long run? I like to think so, because I’m a believer in the method. Regardless, after all these years, and all his successes, it would be hard to argue that he should have done things differently.
A brief palmarés:
Short Track National Champ
From World Cup XC podiums to Super D championships, Adam’s versatility on a bicycle is the stuff of legend and neo-pro fantasy. But travel to Europe is exhausting. And by 2010 the World Cup courses had become more contrived and the allure of World Cup travel was wearing thin. Even in my limited time on the WC circuit, the language barriers, cramped hotel rooms, lousy weather, and general “Euro Struggling” became tiresome. And the excitement of international travel is quickly snuffed by repeated trips to the same venues so far from home.
After several years of competing in Europe at the highest level, Adam was ready for a change. And the timing of the Enduro movement couldn’t have been better. What started out in America as “Super Downhill”–a format that Adam and I dominated Nationally for years, turned into the nascent American Enduro scene. In a matter of months, Super D disappeared and was supplanted by Enduro and a wild rush of popular interest in this newly discovered (for Americans) race discipline. Much like Super D, the races varied widely and at the whim of the race promotor. Some were a little pedally, and some were a lot. And AC and I had good success, racing to top results regionally and nationally.
But as Enduro matured and became more homogenized, promotors heard only from downhillers complaining about pedaling, and adjusted the courses accordingly. Stages were shortened to avoid uphills or flat sections. And the slim advantages AC and I would gain there were neutralized. I was no longer competitive. But Adam was. AC reinvented himself as an athlete. After a couple of years of work, his stance on a longer travel bike became almost unrecognizable to me. He was riding a Reign like a downhiller, not like an XC racer on a bigger bike. I was surprised at his newfound skill set. However well practiced it was, I couldn’t help feeling a bit jealous.
Adam is one of those people that appears to be good at everything. And he kind of is. Last winter when Tina and I were ice skating on our pond, I invited AC to come wobble around with us. He showed up, laced up, and proceeded to skate around us like we were Bambi on ice. He looked like a freshly retired NHL player–effortless, powerful, balanced. I asked him how he learned to skate so well. And in classic AC style, he shrugged and said “I grew up in Maine, Carl.”
To suggest that AC’s talent is God given is to discount skills wrested from the long winters and hard knocks of growing up in rural Maine. He was riding a snowmobile to school when most of us were waiting for a bus. But even as a Mainer he showed early talent managing apices and grip. Adam was crowned Maine’s Skimeister twice in high school–an award given the best all-around skier in each class with nordic and alpine combined. Clearly a good place to start for an aspiring cyclist.
But there are things Adam does not excel at. Like any ball sport. Or whistling a tune. Oh, he can whistle alright, but he’s got the tonal range of a piano with one key. And he’s kind of accident prone. But not like a normal person. He doesn’t crash when it’s steep and slippery and scary. His crashes come on the double track after those sections. When he’s trying to open a beer with both hands and hits a stone in the road (as he did on the final lap of SS Worlds in 2007–a race he still won). Or after he’s dropped a cliff in the backcountry and he’s just traversing back to the skin track. When Adam’s mind isn’t on something, he can be laughably clumsy. He’s the only adult I’ve ever seen make the two sides of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and then wholly miss at slapping them together–each piece coming to rest wet-side-down on the kitchen floor.
While I’m picking on Adam I might as well mention that tactically, he’s not amazing. It’s hard to come off as a tactical genius when your sprint is as weak as Adam’s (I’m starting to enjoy this) but his weak sprint isn’t entirely to blame. Adam is great on a bike because he pushes himself to his limits, not by merit of reading his opposition and exploiting a weakness. Case in point: Short Track National champs in Granby, CO 2009. Adam misread the laps-to-go cards and attacked, thinking he had two laps remaining–when he had four–and opened a gap off the front. When he came around for what he thought was the finish and heard “two laps to go” he thought he’d have to quit, he was so spent. But instead, he kept his head down and kept pedaling. And his strength and his technical prowess proved enough for him to win anyways. Now I’m not saying I haven’t made dumb mistakes reading the lap boards. I have made those mistakes. I just never won a National Championship because of them. Because I’m no Adam Craig.
Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t his equal at times. At at one point and for a few years, I had an almost Older Brother-like ability to beat Adam in down-to-the-wire, mano-a-mano finishes. When it came down to the final turn, I always won. And it annoyed Adam more and more. And it was Awesome. However, in that same period, Adam beat me to 3 National Championship titles by a scant 15 seconds combined in races that didn’t come down to a sprint. He won these races by riding balls-to-the wall and solo. Wisely leveraging the talents at his disposal to avoid close finishes. “So who’s the tactical genius now?” Adam might have asked. Good point, Adam. Good point…
After a couple years of transition away from World Cup travel and Olympic XC style racing, AC led the Giant Factory Off-Road Team’s charge into the newly formed Enduro World Series. The Enduro movement was the biggest thing to happen to Mountain Biking in a decade, and AC was one of America’s best hopes for success in this Euro-centric sport. It was soon apparent that he was quick, and occasionally, he was even a contender. In 2013 he rode his way to 4th at the Crankworx EWS, a career best. But racing the EWS series was akin to falling from the frying pan into the fire for Adam. It meant more travel to Europe with more time devoted to each event. More practice, more danger, and more commitment required to ride at his limit. With race wins decided by tenths of a second, Adam found it wasn’t harder work that was needed to move up the rankings. It was taking bigger risks. After all, enduro is a numbers game. It’s more practice on less known terrain and with a less forgiving bike than pure DH. And people get broken off every race weekend. Adam is not stupid. These were risks he was having increasing trouble rationalizing. And racing at 10/11ths for upper-mid-pack finishes was becoming decreasingly rewarding, more tiring and more and more draining emotionally. By the start of 2016, Adam knew he needed a rest from racing full time. He announced that this year would be his last.
So it’s the end of an era. And as solemn as this may be to the outsider or the fan, I’m rather proud of him for retiring. It takes courage to go into the unknown. And Adam is doing just that. He’s been training and racing for 20 years or more, and I’d say racing is all he knows–but that would be overstating things. The same breadth of activities and relationships that have arguably kept AC in the game so long now show promise in a new chapter opening up for Adam. He intends to keep working for Giant in some capacity, and they’ll be happy to keep him. Adam is a valuable asset for helping to shape Giant’s products. He’s knowledgeable, reasonable, and well written. And he’s keenly aware of trends in the MTB world–what works, what doesn’t, and why. But to stay on top of these things means continuing to do a lot of riding. And maybe a little racing. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t show up to the occasional race in 2017 for “product testing” and proceed to dismantle every serious-assed pro that shows up. Possibly while wearing a denim vest and a mustache that not even his mother could love.
Outside of those rare occasions, he will be pursuing other things. Probably manly and cool things. To start, he’d like to get more immersed in all aspects of trail building. From digging, to planning, to working with land owners. In trail building, AC could use his incredible strength and his innate creativity to leave a lasting mark. Much as he has in his career as a professional MTB racer. But whatever AC sets his mind to in writing this next chapter, I believe he’ll find success at it–as long as he keeps the focus soft, the goals unwritten, and his fun-to-work ratio intact.
A lot of successful racers have their own customary race-winning finish line salutes. Some give the “I’m #1 finger”. Others point at a sponsors name on their jersey or to the Good Lord above. Contador shoots imaginary pistols. Adam has two customary finish line flourishes: a finishing wheelie, often one-handed, and a more telling finish line shrug. When Adam shrugs, there’s usually a sheepish grin on his lips. This move doesn’t say “I’m number one” or give credit to a higher power. What Adam seems to say is something like “I guess that all worked out.” I never liked this finish line shrug. I always wished that he would own his victory more–kiss his bicep or cop a rolling Heisman Trophy pose, or some other showy display of self adulation. Instead, Adam would vanquish some of the best riders on Earth, sometimes with incredible panache, and then roll across the finish line–and–shrug? But now I find it somewhat fitting. AC trained hard, ate salads, and took naps. He took his job as a racer seriously. But he added so much other stuff to his plate. Fun stuff in a kayak or on a motor bike that nobody else was doing in the weeks or months prior to a big event. For Adam, winning–whether despite, or because of these things–didn’t prove his worth to the World. For Adam, it only rationalized his approach to racing. Each win was a validation of his Racing World View–that a life well lived was a boon to performance–instead of a hindrance to it. An ideology bigger than Adam, and even more powerful and more lasting.
Late in the 2007 season at the World Championships in Fort William, Scotland, Adam and I were pre-riding the track the day before our big race. We were nearing the end of our final practice lap and doing an opener–riding at race pace–up a false flat climb on a road of wet gravel lined by rain-soaked grass. Considering our speed, we were both surprised when a rider shot past us on the right. It was Christophe Sauser. As he passed, Christophe stopped pedaling–just for a moment– and looked over his shoulder at us. ”Maybe tonight you rub my feet, Adam.” he said in his Swiss accent. Then he shifted up a gear and effortlessly accelerated away. Adam opened his mouth to speak, and blurted out half of an apology. But Sauser was already out of ear shot.