By Clark Fair
Shawn Schooley’s e-mail account in April contained a surprise message: “Congratulations! You’ve qualified for the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships at Granby, Colorado.”
Schooley, a 35-year-old partner with his father in Kasilof Plumbing and Heating, was incredulous.
And he was thrilled, if only he could be sure that the announcement was true. He navigated to the Web site of USA Cycling to check the organization’s official list of qualifiers, and there he spotted his name.
He knew that he must have qualified as a result of his top-10 finish in the downhill mountain biking event at the Fluid Ride Cup Series at Mount Hood in Oregon last September. At the time, he had known that the cup series featured national-level racing, but he had no idea it functioned as a regional qualifying event.
Then it occurred to him that perhaps his 14-year-old son, Jacob, had also qualified for nationals. After all, Jacob had also raced in the cup series and finished in the top 10 in his age group. Shawn scanned the junior-level qualifiers list and found Jacob’s name. They both were in.
With Shawn’s wife, Krista, the Schooleys began making plans to attend the mid-July championships. They purchased plane tickets and began bicycle upgrades.
Downhill mountain bike racing differs from all other types of bike racing. In some ways, it is more akin to downhill skiing than it is to ordinary mountain biking.
These “gravity races” are typically held at ski resorts, and the courses are carved out of the same slopes, weaving in and out of alpine woods, through boulder fields and across meadows, along cliffs and over difficult, soaring jumps.
According to Schooley, on straight stretches riders may accelerate to as fast as 60 mph, although tougher terrain may also dictate speeds closer to 10 to 20 mph. Consequently, the bikes used by downhill racers must be specialized, and as light as possible while remaining extraordinarily sturdy.
The Schooleys’ first move was selling off Jacob’s more traditional mountain bike and passing the father’s bike to the son. Jacob now rides the black Intense M-3 that Shawn used to qualify at Mount Hood, while Shawn himself just completed a black, custom-built Ironhorse Sunday/World Cup bike. Each bike, with its many specialized components, cost about $6,500.
Downhill mountain bikes are designed with “downhill” in mind. Whereas a standard cross-country mountain bike might weigh between 20 and 35 pounds, the Schooleys’ bikes weigh about 40 pounds each. When Shawn raced in the 2006 and 2007 Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, Calif., he rode a bike that weighed about 47 pounds.
Downhill bikes also are not endowed with the “granny gears” that enable cross-country bikes to more easily handle ascents. The Schooleys’ bikes have only nine gears — nine rings on the back, one in the front — specifically designed for powering downhill.
Other key differences between cross-country and downhill mountain bikes include: suspension travel (the distance that the wheels can move vertically within the bike frame), the “geometry angles” (the actual layout of the bike to hold a rider more securely while on a steep incline), and the wheel base (the distance between the center hubs of the front and rear wheels). Downhill bikes will have twice the suspension travel, more sharply angled forks and seat posts, and a longer wheel base.
By the time mid-July arrives, Shawn and Jacob will have habituated themselves to their new rides, will have “stickered up” their bikes and helmets with emblems of their sponsor, Fuel Clothing, and will have packaged their bikes for the flight to Colorado.
In Granby, their primary pre-race task, according to Shawn, will be learning the course. “In your practice days you have up to the race, you have to memorize that course,” he said. “I mean, you have to be able to sit at the top and see every rock and every corner and every bump. A lot of times the night before a race, I’ll dream about the course, even.
“I can still remember every rock and rut on that course from last year. You have to be able to memorize it, and you have to have your line. At any certain section, there’ll be multiple options to get through that section quickest. You need to find out what will conserve your momentum. Memorize the course and choose the best lines. Get all of that dialed in.”
Knowing the course allows a rider to focus on the moment while racing and to make the fewest possible mistakes. Racers are timed individually on runs, like downhill skiers; after a series of runs, the fastest time wins. Usually, riders descend a course of one to two miles involving a drop of 1,000 to 2,000 vertical feet.
At nationals, the downhill riders race only once — no elimination heats, no multiple runs — just one shot to give it their best.
“With me, a lot of it is about the drive for perfection, personal perfection on a bicycle,” Shawn said. “A lot of times the difference between first place and 10th place will be less than a second. It’ll get down to hundredths, thousandths, of seconds. That’s why the perfect run is so important.”
On race day, Shawn and Jacob will suit up like motocross riders. Each will encase himself in a motocross-style jersey, a full motocross helmet and goggles, knee and shin pads, a neck brace and body armor — a chest plate, a shoulder-biceps-elbow-spinal guard and a kidney protector — and riding shoes with gripping soles, like a climber’s footwear, to avoid slippage on the pedals.
Because of his skill level and experience, Shawn rides in Category One (formerly known as the Expert Class), while Jacob is already competing in Category Two (formerly the Sport Class). Category Three is for beginning racers, and there is a professional class called Elite Pro, made up of “factory riders,” racers so successful that they compete year-round and are salaried by their bike-making sponsors.
Both Schooleys crave the notion of becoming Elite Pro someday. In the meantime, they are focusing on their goals at nationals. Shawn would like to earn a top-10 finish, but he said he would be pleased to wind up in the top 20. Jacob said he is shooting for a place in the top 25, and is hoping to qualify for the Junior World Cup.
Jacob also has his eyes on a BMX race later this summer in Fairbanks. Each year, a five-race BMX-racing series is held in Fairbanks, and each of the past two summers the Schooleys traveled north to allow Jacob to compete in the final event. Both times he won the race in his age bracket, and this year he’d like to go for the “three-peat.”
BMX races are held in low, hilly areas and involve much more pedaling than do downhill races. The key, the Schooleys say, is staying low and maintaining maximum speed. Several riders compete in elimination heats that narrow the field to a final race that takes less than one minute, so technique, focus and endurance is crucial.
Jacob’s BMX riding earned him a spot in the BMX national championships, but he learned that he’d qualified only two weeks before the event itself, and the Schooleys couldn’t arrange the trip on such short notice.
Shawn, too, honed some of his biking skills as a BMX rider, and he also rode motocross locally when he was a teenager. Despite all of that seat time, however, he said he has never been seriously injured while racing. With some chagrin, he admitted that he did break his arm one winter while fooling around, doing tricks with a bike in his garage.
Ultimately, according to the Schooleys, they would like to work with up-and-coming youth, especially riders, in this area.
“I’d like to start a BMX track and a bike park here,” Shawn said.
In a warehouse setting, he said he also envisions an indoor skate park, a place for kids to go, a chance to offer them healthy alternatives.
And he is hoping that he and Jacob can provide positive examples of what can be accomplished even in a rural setting where snow is on the ground five to six months of the year.