World champion Jaroslav Kulhavy is the kind of elite athlete who lets his legs do the talking. Even after a stellar 2011 World Cup season, the Czech pro mountain biker is relatively unknown in English-speaking media. Cyclingnews' Sue George checked in with Kulhavy to find out more about the mysterious man who dominated the last cross country World Cup season just a few weeks before he will begin his 2012 season.
Kulhavy won his first World Cup in Windham, New York, at the end of 2010. Soon thereafter, he became almost unstoppable. In 2011, he won five of seven cross country World Cups, clinched the overall World Cup title and then capped off his near perfect season with a world championship title.
Kulhavy, 26, lives in Usti nad Orlici in the Czech Republic. It's a small town, the same one where he grew up. However, he doesn't get to spend quite as much time at home as he prefers, especially since becoming world champion.
"The main change in my life is that I have increasingly less time. I have many events for sponsors and media. Many people want something from me," said Kulhavy. "Very often I have to go to Prague, and it's time consuming. It is challenging due to the training."
"Most of my time goes to training and regeneration (after training). Training is the most important thing. When it ends, I can do other things. Everything is governed by training."
When Kulhavy won his first World Cup one and a half years ago, his career took off. It gave him confidence and also got him more attention. "[The World Cup win] is when I knew that I can be the best. This gave me mental strength and motivation to work."
"The next positive thing was my [then] new team. I rode Specialized years ago, but as part of a small Czech team. The Specialized Racing team is a top professional team. It was a big step forward." He began racing with the Specialized Factory team at the beginning of 2011.
Kulhavy also credited his success in part to his 29er mountain bike. He dominated all kinds of World Cup tracks last season on his Specialized Epic 29er full suspension bike. He was the first to win a World Cup on a 29er, and it wasn't until he started crushing his competition that many of the other top riders on the World Cup circuit started taking 29ers more seriously.
When asked why it took so long for 29ers to catch on among the World Cup pros, he said, "I think that most riders are afraid to make a change. They are conservative. Maybe it is because they do not have 29" bikes that are as good?" said Kulhavy. "Specialized is the furthest in development, so it is possible that other brands of 29" bikes are not as good as their 26" versions. If they do not have the perfect, complete bike (geometry, weight, stiff wheels, tires), they might not want to risk racing it."
If anyone had any doubts about the suitability of 29ers for World Cup races, they will likely be gone after Kulhavy's quiet and steady domination of the 2011 season. On a rainy September day in Champery, Switzerland, he took on former world champions Julien Absalon, Jose Antonio Hermida and Nino Schurter and came out on top with his first elite Worlds title.
Kulhavy pointed to the Worlds race as his best of the season. "I had had a perfect season, and all the Swiss riders and the others wanted to defeat me. The rainbow jersey was my dream throughout my whole career."
When he's not training, travelling and racing, Kulhavy said he likes to sleep, hang out with friends, have fun, eat good food, drive cars and relax. "Cycling is a very hard sport, so I like to relax. I'm building a house right now - it's my hobby."
Kulhavy began racing his bike when he was 11 years old.
"We rode with my friends on BMX bikes around our town and tried to overcome various obstacles," he said. "I had many falls. After this stage, I got my first cross country bike and started racing."
Before he started cycling, Kulhavy tried some other sports: swimming, karate and basketball.
While racing as a junior, he was on the Czech national cyclo-cross team. He also rode on the track, but "just for training", and he raced on the road several times per year.
The Olympic year
Coming into 2012 as the world champion and the World Cup champion puts Kulhavy in the hot spot as a favorite for an Olympic gold medal. Given that 2011 was so successful, he is planning only minimal changes to his plan for this season.
"My preparation for 2012 is the same as previously. The only change is more training time in Mallorca. I hope that will make my preparation superior. My first race will be in Cyprus - it is a tradition." Kulhavy will again race the Cyprus Sunshine Cup, which starts in mid-February.
Unlike some of the other top World Cup contenders, Kulhavy will not participate in the eight-day Cape Epic mountain bike stage race. It's an event he has never done.
"I would like to join in on the Cape Epic, but the Olympic race is more important, and I don't want to make changes in my preparation. I hope that I'll be on the start line in Capetown soon."
"The most important race is the Olympics, and then Worlds and World Cups. If need be, I can change my race program in favor of the Olympics. After the Olympics, I'll concentrate on the defense of my world title."
As in 2011, Kulhavy will be part of the powerful Specialized Racing team in 2012. "My team is very important for me. These guys are professionals, and I can learn something from them. I need a good environment for my work, and the Specialized team is on the top level. I'm glad that I helped this team be best in the world."
When asked on what type of cross country course he does excel, Kulhavy said, "I like fast and technical courses, and I don't like a course with too many corners and steep climbs. I am tall [ He is 187 cm - Ed.], so I have problems in slow corners."
In 2012, the UCI is formally introducing the cross country eliminator (XCE) discipline to several of the European World Cups, and it will be a world championships event in 2012 for the first time.
"I think that is very dynamic and interesting discipline for spectators. It is a big chance for young riders, which can be in contact with the best mountain bike riders. The eliminator brings other sponsors for our sport, and it's good," he said.
Last year, many of the top cross country racers sat out the few associated eliminator races, but Kulhavy is keeping an open mind.
"I probably will race in (the) eliminator, if it is after the cross country race. I think it will be an amazing race at the end of the season."
Looking ahead: To go to the road or not?
Rumors circulated during this off-season that Kulhavy would make the switch to road racing after this Olympic mountain bike season. Were he to do so, he would not be the first high profile mountain biker to take the paved career path. Cadel Evans may be the best known former mountain bike racer; he won the Tour de France in 2011. Prior to his suspension, another former mountain biker, Floyd Landis, was considered the winner of the 2006 Tour de France.
When asked about his future road racing plans, Kulhavy said, "I still don't know. This is a complex issue. My (mountain bike team) contract ends this year, but I want to stay with Specialized bikes. It is too early to say anything, but road cycling was my dream always. It certainly would depend on many aspects like the competition program and others. Now the Olympics is important."
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