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U.S. Bikers Trail World

By Russell Max Simon
Journal Northern Bureau
    ANGEL FIRE— As Lance Armstrong dominates the greatest cycling race in the world in Europe, few Americans could claim similar honors at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup this weekend.
    A host of recognizable European flags adorned the program for what is one of the biggest sporting events to hit New Mexico this year— but almost equally noticeable was the absence of the stars and stripes.
    Although Armstrong has dominated the Tour de France for the past six years, American champions are hard to come by in mountain biking. Only one American woman placed in the top 10 in the Downhill competition Saturday— Kathy Pruitt. On the men's side the results were even worse: the top American, Kyle Strait, placed 21st.
    So what happened? Some racers tearing down the slopes at Angel Fire had a long list of reasons the United States isn't churning out champion mountain bikers, from not enough financial support to different terrain to weak marketing.
    "They're just all about bikes over there," said American Leana Gerrard, speaking of the immense popularity the sport enjoys in Europe.
    Gerrard, 19, recalled a race in France last year that was broadcast live on nine television stations.
    "The best you get over here is the Outdoor Life Network," she said. "The Europeans just ride gnarly courses every day."
    April Lawyer, who was called a "poster child for downhill racing" by one racer, has been in the sport for 10 years. She said mountain biking in the United States, for women in particular, is in a period of decline.
    "There used to be a lot of girls who were good. But now you go to the amateur races and they're not getting a lot of support," Lawyer said.
    According to Lawyer, who placed 13th in the Downhill and was the next-highest American finisher after Pruitt, about three years ago a huge influx of Australians came into the sport and started sucking up sponsorships in the United States.
    The Aussies were willing to ride for less money, she said, and what's worse, they began outperforming the Americans.
    One of those Australian riders is Jared Graves, who finished second in the men's Downhill with a time of 4 minutes, 34.26 seconds. That was a bit more than two-tenths of a second behind the No. 1 one finisher, South African Greg Minnaar. Minnaar and Graves completed the course, about two miles long with a vertical drop of 1,729 feet, nearly five seconds ahead of the third-place finisher.
    Graves, with a shrug of his shoulders, said he didn't know why Americans weren't more of a force in mountain biking. The lack of financial support that many other racers cited just didn't add up, he said.
    "It's all excuses. Everyone who's come from Australia to make a name for themselves had no money. We all ate Ramen noodles nonstop," Graves said.
    Minnaar, the first-place finisher in the Downhill and overall leader after six races, said he thought the problem was not enough competition in America.
    "They don't have enough World Cups. In Europe there are three or four a year, and they each have 400 people. There's only one in the United States, and it's got about 70," Minnaar said.
    The United States was nowhere to be found in the top 20 in the overall standings after the Downhill, while Australia dominated the event with eight racers in the pile. New Zealand, South Africa, France and Great Britain rounded out the standings.
    The top 20 on the girls side read like a who's who list of European heavyweights, with France and Great Britain each putting five racers in and Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands placing riders as well.