The garage at Adam Craig’s west Bend home is bursting with more than 10 mountain bikes and six motorcycles. Mounted atop the car in the driveway is a kayak.
This has been Craig’s home base for the past six years. He can leave directly from his house on long training rides along the many mountain bike trails west of town.
Finally, the trail has led him to the Olympics.
Craig will compete Aug. 23 in the men’s mountain bike race at the Beijing Games. He is scheduled to leave Bend on Monday for Jeju, an island off the southern coast of South Korea, for more training and preparation with other members of the U.S. Olympic mountain bike team. Craig plans to arrive in Beijing on Aug. 20, in part to avoid the air pollution of the massive city for as long as possible.
The 26-year-old appeared relaxed and comfortable Wednesday in the living room of his house, which he shares with three other avid mountain bikers from his home state of Maine.
The current U.S. cross-country mountain biking champion, Craig said he likes his chances of winning a medal in Beijing, although he knows he is not a favorite. No U.S. rider has claimed a medal since mountain biking became an Olympic sport in 1996.
The sport is typically dominated by Europeans, but Craig hopes to buck that trend. He said about a dozen riders have a chance to medal, and he includes himself in that mix.
“When any of those guys are having good days, they’re podium contenders,” Craig said. “I’ve been top five at the last two World Cups, and I’ve been closer to the current Olympic champion, Julien Absalon (of France), than I have in a while, so I feel like my chances (to medal) are as good as any.”
After winning his second consecutive U.S. Championship in West Dover, Vt., on July 19, Craig went on to claim two top-five World Cup placings in Canada. He was fourth on July 27 in Mont-Saint-Anne, Quebec, 5 minutes and 17 seconds behind winner Absalon. This past Sunday, Craig finished third in another World Cup race in Bromont, Quebec, just 3:46 behind Absalon.
Craig appears to be peaking at just the right time.
“I definitely believe Adam can get a medal,” Bart Bowen of Bend, Craig’s coach, said Wednesday. “He’s had some great races the last two weeks, and his form has continued to improve.”
While most World Cup mountain bike races are staged in Europe, European riders will have to travel to the Olympics. That can only help Craig, who is accustomed to frequent travel: He has been home just 14 days since he began competing on the World Cup circuit on April 19.
“In China, the playing field is leveled,” Bowen said. “Everyone’s traveling, and it’s a little bit fairer. Adam’s definitely got a chance.”
The Laoshan Mountain Bike Course in Beijing is 4.6 kilometers long, and features several steep climbs and descents for the Olympic field of 50 riders. Craig is at his best on technical courses with precipitous ascents and plenty of rhythm changes.
“Adam is one of the best technical riders in the world,” Bowen said. “If it was rooty, rocky and wet, his chances would improve even more.”
Said Craig: “It’s not an ideal course for me, but it’s better for me than it is for a lot of people.”
Craig is one of just four mountain bikers representing the United States in Beijing. Todd Wells, of Durango, Colo., is the other men’s rider. The U.S. women’s competitors are Mary McConneloug, of Fairfax, Calif., and Georgia Gould, of Fort Collins, Colo.
Wells was an automatic selection to the Olympic team, based on this season’s World Cup finishes. Craig was a discretionary selection, but he has been gearing his racing and training to be in his best shape for the Olympics.
“I didn’t peak to qualify, which was the plan, and I’m glad it didn’t backfire on me,” Craig said. “Now, I’m exactly where I wanted to be, still reasonably fresh.”
Craig and the other U.S. riders plan to stay in condominiums in Jeju before making a short flight to Beijing on Aug. 20. Staying in Jeju allows them to train on quiet roads and to relax — it also keeps them away from Beijing’s choking pollution.
“Being in the Olympic Village that whole time would be a challenging environment,” Craig said. “But it will be awesome to check out and be a part of for a few days. I’ll be basically training inside if there’s any air-quality concerns.”
Craig said he is not too disappointed about missing today’s opening ceremonies, because he plans to enjoy the closing ceremonies in a “more relaxed environment,” his racing completed.
Away from the air
Bowen, a former professional cyclist, has raced in China before and said he has experienced the debilitating effects of the pollution.
“We don’t want (Craig) riding around three or four days before,” Bowen said. “It’s really sad, because you’re at this great event, but (the riders’) best bet is to stay in the hotel room and wait for the race. A couple good rainy days would be awesome.”
Aside from the pollution, the other hot topic leading up to the Beijing Games has been China’s human-rights record, and the political and social unrest stemming from China’s rule of the Himalayan region of Tibet.
Craig does not plan to be particularly outspoken about such issues while in China, but he said he will not hold back if prompted.
“If someone asks me a question that piques my interest, and I feel I can contribute something to the greater world community, then I’ll answer it, but I’m not going to seek it out,” Craig said. “We’ve got plenty of stuff going on, and I’m just going there as an athlete, focused on a pretty important sporting event.”
Since returning to Bend from the East Coast on Monday, Craig has spent some of his time back home kayaking on the Deschutes River. A skilled kayaker, he frequently runs challenging areas like Benham and Dillon falls. Paddling gives the 5-foot-11-inch, 165-pound Craig a solid workout for his core and upper body, which helps in mountain biking, particularly on courses with steep climbs.
“Kayaking is pretty important,” Craig said. “That course (in Beijing) is so physical, that I think someone like myself who has more core and upper-body strength has an advantage because it’s so much steep, out-of-the-saddle climbing. I’m making it a priority to go boating this week just because it’s such good exercise for that.”
While riding as fast as he can in Beijing is Craig’s primary goal, he also wants to use the Olympics as an opportunity to promote the sport of mountain biking. He knows that sports like gymnastics, swimming, basketball, and track and field will capture the largest television audiences, but he hopes to help put mountain biking on the map.
There is probably no better way to do that than to win a medal. After all, a big reason why Americans watch those other sports is that U.S. athletes tend to excel at them.
“I don’t want to just be an Olympian,” Craig said. “I want to get it out there that America’s got some decent mountain bike talent right now. And hopefully, we can inspire another generation to keep that going.”