Worst Mistakes of the Pros

The best stories are often about the times when things didn’t go the way we planned. The more things go wrong, the better the story is when we tell our friends about it years later. We tend to learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. We asked some top-name riders and legends of the sport to tell us about their worst mountain bike mistakes.

STEPHEN ETTINGER /  Multi-time national champion

I came into the 2014 season as the U.S. national champion, prepared to defend my 2013 title and show off the stars-and-stripes all year. I was racing for BMC at the time, and our tire sponsor, Continental, didn’t have a lightweight tubeless tire casing, so we used latex tubes, which was the norm on our team at the time, even for Absalon. I had a big stack of them that spent a winter in my cold, uninsulated garage in Bozeman, Montana, after the 2013 season. The latex became very fragile instead of remaining the pliable, strong material that makes for a great tube. I could have easily tossed the tubes out and gotten a fresh batch of tubes from our service course for my domestic races, but I didn’t think anything of it and instead spent the entire season getting one flat after another. I was unable to defend my U.S. championship because of two flat tires in the first half of the race and also blew out two tires at marathon championships. It was a little oversight that cost me a lot over the course of the season.

JOSH CARLSON /  EWS star

At round two of the inaugural 2013 Enduro World Series held in Val D’Allos, France, I misread the upcoming section of trail.  As I looked ahead, I noticed the trail dipped down into the grass and popped out on the other side. The trail was slightly turning to the right at the end of a super-high-speed section of grassy trail. As I fully committed to the straight line around the corner, the trail disappeared into a blown-out section of rocks and tree stumps. I couldn’t come to a complete stop, and I had to jump over the tree stump. Unfortunately, there was no trail on the other side of the tree stump. It was a 15-foot drop into a minefield of microwave-sized rocks. During the winter or spring melt, an avalanche had taken out the majority of the hillside and taken the old trail with it, forcing a re-route of the trail—a re-route that I didn’t notice until it was too late.

I landed in the boulder field with a massive “thud” and broke my elbow, two ribs, shoulder and almost my left femur. Luckily, the femur was intact and my upper body took most of the impact. Making the mistake of trying to jump over the tree stump took me out for the entire 2013 Enduro World Series season and was by far one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made.

Another smaller but funnier mistake that I make all the time is applying chamois cream before applying sunscreen. Not ideal! Of course, I wipe my hands immediately afterwards, but it’s still a super-annoying mistake to make. There have been times when I have made the mistake of confusing the two and applied the chamois cream to the wrong cheeks!

THOMAS FRISCHKNECHT /  1996 Olympic silver medalist

My worst mistake of my cycling career was at the Olympics in Sydney 2000. With a 1 1/2-minute solo lead and three laps to go, it looked like I could win this race. Then I lost my water bottle while I wanted to drink. Instead of stopping to get my bottle, I continued racing, which was a fatal mistake. With long laps and only one feed zone back then, paired with hot weather conditions, I was starting to dehydrate and got cramps. On the last lap I dropped from first to sixth place. Bummer.

GEORGIA GOULD /  2012 Olympic bronze medalist

Probably my worst mistake was eating salmon for lunch before a night race. I thought I was safe with the “eat three hours before the race” rule, but no! Needless to say, I recommend not eating salmon on race day—or at least wait until after the race [laughs].

CHARLIE KELLY /  Mountain bike pioneer

In 1978 my friends Joe Breeze, Wende Cragg and I took our shiny new off-road bikes that Joe had built on our first real expedition. This was the first time we had ventured off our familiar local trails close to civilization and ridden into real wilderness where 911 doesn’t get you help. We rode in Mineral King, which is at the south end of Sequoia National Park. Don’t take your bike there now; there are laws governing bicycle use that did not exist before anyone ever took a bicycle there.

Joe had mapped out an ambitious ride on one of our last days of a week-long stay at a cabin his family owned. I always defer to Joe in map reading. He has an unerring sense of direction, and if one of us is wrong, in my experience it is always me.

The ride took a lot longer than anticipated. Once you are “out there” and the sun goes down, well, you’re still out there but now it’s dark too. There are no options or bailout routes. You just keep moving, mostly feeling for the trail, fortunately with a pretty good moon. Then sometime after midnight you finally find the cabin, exhausted, starving, bonked and maybe with a strained friendship.

You go to sleep with your clothes on. After you wake up around noon the next day, you wait 40 more years for somebody to ask you to tell the story.

PAYSON McELVEEN /  2017 U.S. marathon champion

I raced the Mongolia Bike Challenge in 2016; it was a bit of a leap of faith. Adventure is what I was seeking, but I knew there’d likely be some unexpected plot twists along the way. After five of six stages, I had a solid lead of 5 minutes, 30 seconds going into the final stage, which was a time trial. Whenever traveling abroad, I make a point of learning and experiencing as much of the culture as possible. The evening of Stage 5, I decided to try a local beverage during dinner—fermented yak milk. Within a couple of hours my stomach started feeling pretty upset. The discomfort built, and I spent the entire night awake, making trips to the bathroom and fighting debilitating stomach cramps. A fever started to set in too. By the next morning, I was so depleted and exhausted that I had to sit on the floor of the bathroom while waiting in line. I think my competitors thought I was just saving my energy for the final stage. With the TT only being 18 miles, a 5:30 advantage on GC is a sizable cushion, but in this case, I didn’t have a clue how I was going to get myself around the course, let alone defend my lead. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine flying halfway around the world and fighting across the mountains of Mongolia for five days and hundreds of miles only to hand over the win in the final 18 miles. I hemorrhaged all kinds of time and dug so deep that I saw mostly white for the final kilometer, but I hung on to the GC win by seconds. As uncomfortable as that experience was, the 35 hours of international flights home was worse. The stomach issues didn’t subside for a couple of days, and I can honestly say those 35 hours of travel made up the longest day and a half of my life. Just as I sat in the bathroom line in Mongolia, I sat in immigration and TSA lines all the way home. All of that said, I’d go back to Mongolia and race this event again—maybe minus the fermented yak milk. To this day, winning that race is my proudest cycling achievement because of how deep I had to dig. 

NED OVEREND /  1990 UCI world champion

Over-hydrating at the 1993 Mount Snow, Vermont, NORBA series race. It was in the ’90s with 90-percent humidity, record heat and humidity for the mountains of Vermont. I was coming from Colorado, and the humidity in the east was a big shock to my system. I was focused on being well-hydrated the morning of the race. As soon as I woke up, I started putting down the fluids. I was drinking a combination of a diluted sports drink and some plain water. I remember feeling a little sluggish during my warm-up. The race started on a fire road heading straight up the ski hill, and I was struggling right away. My stomach was killing me. I could hear the fluids sloshing around in there. I had a wicked stomachache and was dropped immediately. That was one of the few races in my career that I didn’t finish, and it was a big disappointment because the NORBA national series races were a major goal for me. I learned from that experience to be more careful and not drink more than my stomach can absorb before a race.

HANS REY /  Trials-adventure specialist

The story that pops into my mind was at the 1991 Il Ciocco Downhill MTB World Championships. I’m not sure if I was nervous or scatterbrained; however, back in those days, I’d also do a bit of downhill and slalom racing besides my trials competitions. I was doing the qualification for the Downhill World Championships (my goal was to end up in the top half of the field and to beat all the women—if I could). I didn’t used to take downhill racing too seriously back in those days. For example, I wouldn’t warm up because I was afraid I would exhaust myself. I remember races when I would reach for my water bottle to take a sip. The courses were not very technical back then. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t unusual to have a 30-second uphill section in the racecourse. 

So, I was about to start my qualifying run for the World Championships. It was a cloudy and foggy day. The top of the mountain was all of a sudden engulfed in fog, and it was hard to see. When my start time came up, I completely forgot to put my goggles on. Two turns into the race, I realized my mistake, because rain and wet fog were hitting my face. I had no choice but to stop and put my goggles on and continue my race run. Needless to say, I didn’t qualify that year. Lesson learned.

LEA DAVISON / Multi-time national champion

It was in the early years of the Little Bellas, and we were playing water-balloon relay at the end of the session with the girls. All of the parents were crowded around, watching and waiting to pick up their daughters. My sister Sabra and I were the anchor leg of our teams, and we were in a dead heat. The water balloon was handed to me, and I was carrying it in my right hand (rear brake) with my left hand on the bars. Since my sister and I are very competitive, we were sprinting to the line for the win, and then I had to stop suddenly before I hit my team of Little Bellas. I only had my front brake to work with, so I braked really hard. I locked up the front brake and went flying over my handlebars into a bunch of Little Bellas. I literally landed on the girls in front of all the parents. Don’t worry, I’m a professional and an Olympian. Luckily, no one got hurt, but it’s definitely my most embarrassing moment.

GEOFF KABUSH / Canadian MTB legend

I find it hard to think of my worst mistakes, because I see them all as learning opportunities over the years. I can think of a few incidents in my junior years that stick out, though. One in particular was at a Canada Cup race back in the day when I raced both XC and DH in a packed weekend. It was mandatory to do at least one DH practice run before the race, but because of the XC race and travel, I only had time to squeeze one run in before the race. Unfortunately, I flatted during my one practice run and cut out of the course, missing the last high-speed section down the ski hill to the finish. Back then, I was racing a hardtail with a 2-inch-travel fork, and during my race run I entered the last high-speed section a little ragged. It was so bumpy I couldn’t grab my rim brakes as I hurtled towards an unknown-to-me massive roller jump in the ski run that I couldn’t see until the last moment. It was one of those few moments I felt like I might die on a bike, as I hit the jump full speed and sent it flying through the air. I touched down, finally, down course in some shrubs, somehow stayed on my bike, rode it out huck-a-buck through a water bar, made it back on course, and crossed the finish line. I actually ended up winning, but I was mostly just shaking in shock and disbelief that I had survived somehow. With my friends, who watched the whole thing trackside, we paced out and measured my flight through the air. We estimated 42 feet, and I’m not sure I’ve flown so far since. Lucky for me, it was just a close call, as it could have easily ended in disaster that day. 

KATERINA NASH /  5-time olympian

When I first got into mountain biking, I wasn’t part of a big team, and needless to say, I didn’t have much stuff. One day I went to warm up for the race but had a spectacular crash right into a muddy puddle. I was completely covered with mud before that race even started. I was a teenager at the time and was upset about how filthy I looked. I only had one cycling kit back then and nothing to change into. My teammate offered his kit to me to use for the race. I actually can’t remember if I did take him up on the offer or not, but rumor has it that I was quite upset and possibly crying a little bit heading to the start. Well, some 20-plus years went by, and I had just finished fifth at the Rio Olympics when I ran into the same old teammate, who is now coaching the Czech national track team. It didn’t take much time for him to bring the story up and tease me about how little Katerina was crying about being dirty at a mountain bike race. I’m still not sure whether it was the crashing or the crying that was the mistake [laughs]. I’ve come a long way and don’t mind the mud at all these days, but I still prefer to go to the start line clean. Luckily, my Clif Pro team gives me enough kits to make it to the start line without mud all over me.


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