They are so sweet, Birmingham’s top ranked morning show – hosted by a couple of legendary NFL football players – dedicated 15 minutes to the park this morning during prime time. Indeed they are so epic, Conrad “the Caveman” Stoltz said after 20 years of racing around the world, “this course is my favorite of all.”
“Of the 20-mile mountain bike course 18-miles of it is pure singletrack spiked with adrenaline, a seemingly never-ending twisty path through the forest, down rocks, and around trees,” explained Stoltz to the morning show guys.
Of course the mainstream sports media was more interested in hearing how Stoltz got the “Caveman” moniker. “Well, I’m 6-foot-3, 180 pounds and that’s pretty big for an endurance athlete. Plus, I can sleep anywhere, eat anything, and I break stuff,” laughed Conrad as he played right along.
The message that really came through in the interview, however, was how Stoltz’ career-path has been more about living the lifestyle than winning or losing (although two Olympics, five World Titles and hundreds of race victories don’t hurt).
“When we talk to kids and adults alike it’s not so much about becoming an elite athlete, it’s about being fit and healthy and enjoying the outdoors. Not everyone can be an Olympian, but they can feel good about themselves and be healthy and enjoy the nature around them, it’s a great lifestyle. And when you’re lucky enough to live where Mother Nature is at its finest like here at Oak Mountain, that’s a gift that shouldn’t be ignored,” said Stoltz.
Stoltz is the favorite to win Sunday’s race, among a packed pro-field that includes 11 of the top 12 men in the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series rankings as well as the top five elite females.
The Caveman has won the last four races here in Alabama. The reason is simple, a technical and tough bike course that plays right into his strengths.
“I really have to thank BUMP for designing such an excellent bike course. This course suits me better than any other course ever made,” said Stoltz after his win last year.
BUMP stands for Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, and they have spent more than 100,000 hours in design and construction of new trails over the past 20 years in conjunction with the efforts of Oak Mountain Superintendent Michael Jeffreys to make this trail system what it is today. They also host one of the nation’s greatest mountain bike races – the BUMPnGRIND – which will celebrate its 17th year on June 4-5. See some POV video from the course here.
Stoltz’s most formidable opponent on Sunday is American Josiah Middaugh, who defeated the Caveman at the first race of the season in Nevada and is arguably the fastest trail runner in XTERRA. Middaugh is a great biker too, and if he can come off the bike within striking distance of Stoltz he’s capable of chasing him down. Middaugh was second to Stoltz here in each of the last two seasons.
The “local” favorite is Craig Evans from Tennessee, who is usually the first racer out of the swim and leads the bike here during the first several miles. Should he be able to pin the bike anything is possible, and he has twice finished 3rd here (last year and in ’08).
American Seth Wealing was recently second overall (Top American) at the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship in Spain and is racing as fast as he ever has. Other serious contenders for the overall title include XTERRA South Africa Champion Dan Hugo who was second to Stoltz in Santa Cruz last Sunday, 2005 XTERRA World Champion Nicolas Lebrun, and third-ranked Series pro Branden Rakita.
In the women’s race Melanie McQuaid has emerged as the front runner in 2011. She won the first two races of the season convincingly and also the ITU Cross Tri World Championship in April.
The three-time XTERRA World Champ won here in 2009 and back in 2006, while Shonny Vanlandingham took the title in 2008 and last year. Both are great mountain bikers and this course suits them well. It might just come down to who has the best fitness on raceday.
Christine “Big Fish” Jeffrey will be the first woman (maybe even first overall) out of the swim and her bike has gotten better and better since she started mountain biking in 2007. Jeffrey uses Birmingham as her winter training grounds and has spent her fair share of time out on this course – which could make a difference come raceday.
Both the men’s and women’s race include several pros that could take the crown on any given day, and the action is sure to be as hot as a sizzling summer day in the South (a high of 89-degrees is forecast for Sunday). Link to last year’s race video.
XTERRA Southeast Championship Professional Start List
The professionals competing on Sunday are among the best mountain bikers and triathletes on the planet.
Rank = Current rank in 2011 XTERRA U.S. Pro Series (after 3)
NR = Not ranked in 2011 XTERRA U.S. Pro Series
Men‘s Rank – Name – Age, Hometown
1 – Conrad Stoltz – 37, Stellenbosch, South Africa
2 – Josiah Middaugh – 32, Vail, Colorado
3 – Seth Wealing – 32, Boulder, Colorado
4 – Branden Rakita – 30, Manitou Springs, Colorado
5 – Trevor Glavin – 31, San Diego, California
6 – Craig Evans – 33, Hendersonville, Tennessee
7 – Cody Waite – 32, Lakewood, Colorado
8 – Nicolas Lebrun -38, Digne, France
9 - Shiloh Mielke – 31, Durango, Colorado
11 - Dan Hugo – 25, Stellenbosch, South Africa
12 – Adam Wirth – 32, Boise, Idaho
14 – Jason Michalak – 33, Lakewood, Colorado
15 – Damian Gonzalez – 34, Stockton, California
17 – Patrick Valentine – 25, Colorado Springs, Colorado
NR – Matt Boobar – 38, Stratton Mountain, Vermont
Women‘s Rank – Name – Age, Hometown
1 – Melanie McQuaid – 37, Victoria, B.C., Canada
2 – Shonny Vanlandingham – 41, Durango, Colorado
3 – Christine Jeffrey – 38, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
4 – Emma Garrard – 29, Park City, Utah
5 – Suzie Snyder – 29, Fredericksburg, Virginia
7 – Tracy Thelen – 31, Colorado Springs, Colorado
8 – Caroline Colonna – 46, Taos, New Mexico
10 – Renata Bucher – 33. Lucerne, Switzerland