By Sue George, Mountain Bike Editor
Defending National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series champions Jeff Schalk and Cheryl Sornson are wrestling with their 2009 season plans after losing their sponsors when Trek and Volkswagen terminated its partnership and ended the longstanding Trek / VW team which had sponsored both riders in previous years.
Men's overall winner Schalk is still working on sponsorship possibilities for 2009. Nonetheless, he is planning to defend his title. The NUE kicks off April 25 with the Cohutta 100 in Tennessee and stops in Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Virginia on its way to a September 12 finale in California.
"My focus will be more or less the same as last year," said Schalk, who moved to Maryland after living in Virginia and California. "My priority is the NUE series and the BC Bike Race, assuming I can go race with [former teammate] Chris [Eatough] again this year. The NUEs are what I've made my name in, so I'll continue to focus on them."
In 2008, Schalk won the Cohutta 100, Mohican 100, Lumberjack 100, Wilderness 101 and the Tahoe Sierra 100.
"In between, I'll do a few national series races like the Pro Cross Country Tour. In the past I've liked to do as many of those as I can," said Schalk to Cyclingnews. "Or maybe I'll just do the US Cup East. It largely depends on what support I get."
As for the 100 mile NUE series, Schalk learned a valuable lesson racing last year. "Last year - I felt kind of invincible when I started winning. Then I went to the BC Bike Race, and I gave a ton of energy to overcome mechanicals. It all caught up with me soon after. I won the Wilderness 101, but then I was completely exhausted.
"I had gone too hard thinking I could win everything. I will save myself this year for the 100 milers." He aims to race six or seven of them at a minimum, and maybe even all eight. "I'll focus on the ones with more climbing like Cohutta and Shenandoah because that's what I'm good at, but all have equal importance in the series and a win is a win in the overall," he said, before adding, "I think the chances of winning any of them are fair."
To make ends meet while he figures out future sponsorship, Schalk, a former full-time structural engineer, has been picking up some non-cycling professional contract work this fall and early winter. "As of now I'm training full time. I've done a little side work in engineering like I used to do structural engineering like building design. If I don't get enough sponsorship, I'll have to start doing more of that."
As a school counselor, women's winner Sornson never relied on her Trek / VW sponsorship to pay the bills, but it helped her with race equipment and travel expenses. Without the support, she's unsure about her future racing the series.
"It's kinda of a bummer. I had just gotten into a groove," said Sornson, a former cross country racing pro before her more recent endurance racing endeavors. "I don't know what to expect without any sponsors. With last year's sponsorship on the factory team and with my winnings, I about broke even."
Her wins came at the Lumberjack 100, the Wilderness 101, the Shenandoah Mountain 100 and the Tahoe Sierra 100.
Sornson, a wife and mother, is reluctant to bankroll full participation in the series. "It's hard, having a family, to take to major money out of the budget to go race."
She has inquired about other sponsorship options, but found out that those making the decisions are interested in younger riders, nearer to the beginning of their career and with more long term potential. "I don't know what I want to do. Maybe I will race regionally with my old team or with my local shop. Hopefully something will come through - it's hard to be motivated (without sponsorship)."
She has yet to make a decision about racing the full NUE series. "I still haven't decided. In some ways, I can be satisfied - it was fun and good- and in other ways, I don't want to have to contest it," she said. "In any case, it is a fun experience to share with others and that makes me want to go do it again."
"I think if I do it, it will be a smaller attack. I raced seven rounds last year. I think this year I could do about four," she said before noting the main advantage of not having sponsorship. "I don't have the pressure. Now I can decide to race the series if it's exciting. Of course, I'll always ride. I still enjoy riding hours and hours for some reason. But if I'm not motivated, I won't go compete if I don't have to."
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.