An interview with Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, May 2, 2005
The last time we talked to Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, in 2003, he was just coming off his second elite-level mountain bike season, a season in which he added an US cross country national championship to his collection of numerous collegiate cross country, U23 cross country and short track, and elite short track national championships.
He comes across as a comfortable and laid-back athlete; easy-going about his sport and his racing. His goals for 2003 were to defend the national championship and do whatever it was going to take to qualify for the 2004 Olympic team.
Since then, he's achieved everything he set out to do - taking consecutive national championships in both '03 and '04, and making the 2004 Athens Olympic cross country team after half a season chasing UCI points (part of the US selection criteria) across the world.
"I think USA Cycling needs to recognise their obligation to drive the sport" - Jeremy Horgan Kobelski and the need for greater promotion of MTB racing in the US
Cyclingnews' Steve Medcroft caught up with JHK (as he's known) at his home in Boulder, Colorado. On a new team and now engaged to long-time girlfriend, he had just returned from a rain-soaked mountain-bike training ride with fellow former Olympian and Trek team pro Travis Brown.
Cyclingnews: I'd like to start with your run to make the U.S. mountain-bike Olympic team for Athens. You had it locked up early didn't you?
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski: I really didn't. I know a lot of other people said they thought I had it in the bag a month before and stuff like that - but to me, honestly, I never felt like I was safe. I was on pins and needles the whole time; I was most nervous for the last race before selection, which was in Calgary (July 2-4, 2004), when I was finally awarded the spot.
CN: It must have been a big relief to finally put that behind you and focus on the race itself?
JHK: It felt like the biggest weight came off my shoulders after Calgary. I had just ended a really intense bit of racing. I had just come back from Europe, and had been on the road for more than two months chasing UCI and World Cup points.
CN: How was the Olympic race?
JHK: It was the experience of a lifetime. It was worth everything I had to do to get there; all the sacrifices and being away from home. It was incredible.
CN: Did you go to Greece early?
JHK: We went over early but stayed away from Athens until a week and a half before the race and had a training camp somewhere else; because the training and the weather was really good but living in Athens, where the race was, would have made it hard to focus.
CN: Were you able to spend time in the athlete's village?
JHK: Yeah. And that was the highlight of the whole experience for me. It was neat to be around the best athletes from every country in the world. There's this incredible mutual respect that came from everyone because we all knew what each other had to do to get there. It was amazing just to be around people like that all day. It goes way beyond cycling too. You meet athletes in every possible sport and we all shared the common bond of the hard work and dedication it took to get to the highest level.
CN: How did you feel about your race?
JHK: I was happy with it in the sense that it was an absolutely brutal race and I feel like, personally, I went harder and dug deeper than I ever have in any race. I left it all out there. On the other hand, I wasn't the most fit that I had been in all of 2004. And that was a product of the selection process; we were beat down by the time we got to the Olympics. If I would have had a better opportunity to prepare, I know I could have had a better race. But on that day, I gave it absolutely everything I had to give.
CN: What could have given you better time to prepare?
JHK: The problem is that, because selection was based on UCI points and World Cup standings, I had to travel all over the world and hit all these races to round out my ranking wherever possible. It was just such a huge effort. Racing hard every weekend for three or four months before a big race is not the best preparation. I just never had time to develop my fitness properly and peak for the Olympics. USA Cycling has since talked about changing the system and they definitely need to do it - something like naming an Olympic long team the year before the next Olympics. A long team would be comprised of basically everybody who has a legitimate shot at it; six or seven athletes. The results from a key set of world cups, appropriately spaced before the Olympics itself, where you're racing against the world's best competitors, would be used to determine the final team. It's the way most other countries do it.
CN: Since your Olympic experience, you've taken a working role within USA Cycling. What is it?
JHK: I was elected to both the NORBA Board of Trustees and the USA Cycling Board of Directors; the athlete representative on both. It's a four-year term. What I'm supposed to do is bring the athletes perspective to the table when we're talking about policy. We've talked about the Olympics selection process and what could be done to improve it. On the NORBA side, we've been dealing a lot with the technical support stuff (recent challenges to the American self-support standard where racers in NORBA-sanctioned events are barred from receiving technical assistance). I'm also around to get feedback from other athletes; if they have concerns, they can bring them to me. I can't guarantee anything will happen but I'm there to get it in front of the right people.
CN: What are the issues that athletes want to talk to you about?
JHK: The biggest issue on the mountain bike side right now is the lack of quality UCI sanctioned races in the US. It makes it difficult for all of us to compete on a level playing field when we go to Europe because we don't have the UCI points to get good start positions. That goes back to the Olympics selection too. If there were more UCI races within the US, we wouldn't have had such a crazy travel and racing schedule. So, the biggest concern at the elite level, myself included, is that we need to get more promoters to see the value in sanctioning their races with the UCI. Right now, promoters don't have a lot of reasons to UCI sanction their races beyond an obligation to the professional racer - it just introduces a whole new set of rules for them to follow while not bringing them a lot in return. So they need help getting motivated to do it. I think USA Cycling needs to recognise their obligation to drive the sport and provide that motivation. They've started by offering things like matching prize lists with the promoters, but more can be done.
CN: How has the landscape of mountain biking changed in the past couple of years.
JHK: I think it has changed a lot. There are definitely different people at the front of the races. (Geoff) Kabush has made a huge splash and he's probably going to keep up the impressive streak he started in the first couple of NORBA races. Adam Craig and Ryan Trebon are guys that weren't up there quite so much two years ago and are now consistent faces on the podium. It's a young group as well. I also like what's happening on the international scene - I was in the top ten in the UCI ranking most of last year and Adam Craig got that Podium in Livigno [Italy - site of the 2004 World Cup finals in early September].
CN: There have been venue changes too. How do you like the courses you're racing now?
JHK: I'm all for change in that arena too. It's a shame we can't hold onto every classic, traditional venue - I think it's a shame there won't be a race at Big Bear this year, for example - but I think we'll always be racing in Vermont. It's great to see Mammoth back on the circuit hosting the one-day national championships. And Park City, which is back on the calendar this year, was a staple of the series for a long time. NORBA has also realised that it's okay to decouple cross country racing from the gravity series and bring races, like Texas or Arizona, into new parts of the country. The more regions we visit, the more it becomes a truly national series.
CN: Is prize money back on the scene? (US racers contested a national series almost completely without professional prize money in 2004)
JHK: Some, which is fortunate. As a professional, I would like to see prize money at all the races and I think that a promoter misses the boat a little when they don't offer it. It's not just about the money a racer can make - prize money adds to the prestige of the event in a lot of ways. Promoters thrive when attendance to their races, especially amateur attendance, is high. I think that seeing the pros get handed a check at the end of races means something to amateur racers. It shows the promoter's dedication to the sport and to their event. A lot of promoters understand this. Lisa Nye-Salladin for example, who was promoter for the Tapatio Springs race and who helped with the Waco race last year, put together a terrific awards ceremony. Some promoters don't understand it.
CN: It's interesting to see the difference between the seemingly big-ticket sport of mountain biking and the quirky winter sport of cyclocross. I went to cyclocross races this winter where only fifteen riders showed up but because it was a sanctioned event, everyone got a payday (due to UCI requirements about how deep payouts run for the elite class riders).
JHK: Right. That's one of my big frustrations. And I don't want to bash anybody, but it's kind of crazy to me that the promoters of these big national events can't pull it together; but I can go to a local race in Colorado and there will be prize money. I'm pretty good friends with Todd Wells and he talks about the cyclocross racing he does throughout the year and says the prize money is terrific.
CN: Where is the pressure going to come from to change? Is it USA Cycling's role? The athlete's role? The team and sponsors?
JHK: I'm an advocate of the pressure coming from USA Cycling. I've proposed this and I'm going to lobby for it harder - I think that they're going to have to say 'as a condition of being sanctioned as a NORBA national series event, you have to provide prize money.'
CN: Last time we talked, you were in a comfortable, seemingly long-term deal as a member of the RLX Polo Sport team. How did your transition to Subaru Gary fisher come about?
JHK: We had a challenge with sponsorship. There were a lot of sponsors who committed resources to the team but we knew that Ralph Lauren wasn't going to re-sign as a title sponsor early on; maybe by the end of October. There were people that talked about filling that void, especially from within the industry, and some of them did commit substantial resources to doing a team, but it just wasn't enough to do it at the level where we were all comfortable. We didn't want to do it as a cut-rate program.
CN: How did you end up at Fisher?
JHK: I started talking with them at the end of the mountain bike season. I've always respected their program. I like their bikes. They're very professional. Fisher has a good presence in mountain biking and I felt like it was a good fit for me personally. They were interested in signing a top-level America rider, so I had been negotiating with them for a while, then both Ryder and Liam left for separate programs and I signed.
CN: You're strictly racing mountain bikes?
JHK: I'll be out there at some road races but just for fun. I'm not doing a split program on a road team like some of the other guys.
CN: That's almost unusual now isn't it?
JHK: It is. And I actually love road racing - I always felt like getting a crack at some European road racing would be fun but I don't think it's in the cards for me. Mountain biking is what I grew up doing and I've always seen myself as a mountain biker.
CN: We talked about the progression of the sport in different areas; what about the gear? What are the developments in technology that have you excited to ride?
JHK: Looking at some of the products that are coming out, it seems like a lot of companies are focusing on the cross country market - which has been pretty neglected for the last couple of years because of the popularity of free ride. I know that Rock Shox and SRAM products for '05/'06 have been heavily overhauled for example. We're starting to see full suspension becoming main stream in the cross country market. And although I think the manufacturers realise it's still a little bit too heavy to be ultra-competitive on a lot of courses against a good hard tail, guys on twenty-six pound full suspension bikes are starting to beat guys on twenty-two pound hard tails.
CN: What are you riding?
JHK: Still strictly hard tail.
CN: So what are you looking for in a full suspension bike that you feel is not quite there yet?
JHK: Pedaling efficiency and weight. In pedaling efficiency, a lot of strides have been made in the past few years with motion control suspension shocks. I just got back from a SRAM/Rock Shox meeting and we were riding their new stable-platform shocks (Rock Shox '05 Motion Control Damping System). And the stuff's incredible. It climbs so well but stays active which is important for the adoption of full suspension in cross country racing. As the weight drops off those bikes, I think you'll see people racing them almost exclusively. There's still a place for hard tails though. Take a course like Mammoth; 1,000 feet of climbing with relatively smooth descending. And short track is still the domain of the hard tail. But I think, by and large, and from personal experience seeing guys like Kabush in Tapatio Springs - winning on a brutal course where he was on a full suspension bike and I was on a hard tail fighting to stay with him because I was getting bounced all over the place - full suspension will become the norm. I'll be the last holdout I think. I'll always be drawn to my hard tails and I love them. But I'm starting to come around.
CN: What are your goals for 2005?
JHK: I would really like to win the NORBA series; I've yet to do it. I've been second a few times so I'll be hitting all the NORBA races with high priority. I definitely want to win in Mammoth (California, Sept 15-18) again; it's always been a special race for me and the fact that it's the national championships again makes me really want to repeat there. Internationally, there are a couple of races that suit mea lot that I would like to do well in. I've also put a pretty high priority on the World Cup at Angel Fire (New Mexico, July 9-10) although I hear rumours that it may not happen. And I'm shooting for Worlds in Livigno (Italy, Aug 24 - Sept 8); I got to ride that course last year in World Cup finals and I think I'm capable of being in the top ten there.