THE POINT OF QUALIFYING
To qualify for an XC World Cup is a dream. For Specialized employee, Alex Wild, that dream became reality this season. We sat down with Alex to walk through the process leading up to qualifying, and get his thoughts on his upcoming World Cup debut at Mont-Sainte-Anne.
He starts the season with a simple goal—earn one UCI point. To the uninitiated, it sounds small. Insignificant even. But to him, and to anyone who’s ever set foot in an XC race start corral, one point is the mountain equivalent of a beefy bouncer at a nightclub unhitching the red velvet rope and saying "you’re in." With one UCI point, he'll jump from the back-of-pack insanity of a randomly assigned start position and move closer to the front of the action. Far from the maddening crowd.
One. Single. Point. He didn't know it at this time, but this point will be worth so much more. This one point will be the stepping stone to his first ever World Cup berth.
FROM LITTLE THINGS, BIG THINGS GROW
Alex Wild is a patient man. Methodical. It takes a bit to rattle him, a trait that serves him well both on race day and in his day-to-day work. As Equipment Coordinator at Specialized, a role he’s held for almost two years, Wild’s responsibilities range from managing equipment photo shoots and helping out equipment teams (shoes, helmets, hard goods, etc.), to ensuring product is in the right place at the right time for events such as the annual Specialized Retailer Event. Right-place-right-time. It’s a theme that repeats itself in Alex Wild’s journey to qualifying for his first XCT World Cup race at Mont-Saint-Anne. But for this story to get to that start line, we must first look back. Back to when the NorCal High School Cycling League (a chapter of NICA) was in its infancy, where Alex Wild first raced a mountain bike for the Los Gatos High School team. It all began with a simple question.
“I just was like 'oh, can I go to the race?' and I borrowed a bike [and raced]. I think I came second to last?” Upon reflection, he confesses that it may have actually been last, but it’s not important to the story.
“I was hooked,” he says. “I mean I got last, but I had a blast.”
He kept on having a blast, and from those little NICA seeds grew a hungry young racer. As he entered his twenties, the gears started turning both figuratively and literally for Alex—was it time to take racing more seriously? With no guidance on what to do or how to approach moving ahead in the sport and improving, Alex Wild did the only thing he could think of: he got a coach.
“I didn't really have a road map on how to become a pro cyclist,” he says. “Each year I learned something new. […] I'm always just interested in seeing where that ceiling is, you know? Every year I see improvements, numbers-wise, so what motivates me is that improvement year-over-year, and to see where that ceiling is.”
It’s been three years since Alex Wild hired a coach, which brings us to 2016, the season where numbers mean everything. Beginning, most logically, with the number one.
By mid-season, there’s been a series of unlucky events—a few mechanicals; a race that’s thick and slick with mud, yielding some slippery crashes and no points. Hey, that’s racing. But it’s not all disappointments. Amongst the frustration, there’s one confidence-boosting, breakout result. Sixth place. He’s stoked with sixth, but still no UCI point. That point is elusive. A vapor. That point might as well be on the moon. He redoubles his effort. He throws down.
One. Single. Point. He would kill for it.
The points allocation structure for XC races is pretty simple. UCI races are rated C3, C2, C1, or HC, and this rating determines how deep down the field points are awarded for placing. For example, the top five finishers in a C3 get points, whereas the top twenty-five get points in an HC race. It’s all about getting good results, but especially in the races that can benefit your points tally.
“There’s normally seven or eight people per row [in the start corral], and they call you up by your UCI world rankings,” explains Alex. “Once they run out of [riders with] UCI points, then it's just random. So, you could be at the very back of the pack of a 70-man race with everyone fighting for that first piece of single track. […] If you have one UCI point, you go from 70th to 30th—it’s like you've jumped those 40 people already at the start of the race.”
At the first race of the XC season—Bonelli Park—Alex got his best result ever, sixth place. And here’s where the rating matters. Since Bonelli was a C3 and he’d finished outside the top five, it meant no points. It may have been a mental boost, but it didn’t get him the start position he craved.
“That was a breakout result for me and built my confidence,” he says, “because last year, my best result was 30th. To get 6th at a pro-XCT race and ride with, and actually beat some of my idols […], to be racing with the people you read about in magazines is a very humbling experience, you know? I felt like I belonged, which was a new feeling. Just to know that I belonged at the front of the race was big.”
So, it was back to points hunting. He set his sights on two HC races—the second Bonelli Park race and the Sea Otter Classic. Bonelli XC #2 turned out to be “Super muddy and just crazy. I crashed three times just from sliding out from mud,” and Wild wrote it off as “Eh, just not my day.” Sea Otter didn’t go his way either (after a bad start and fighting back to 17th place, he flatted and finished out of the points), and he now found himself at the end of the first half of the season still starving for that one UCI point. But with the season split into two—a short break over May before ramping up again in June—Alex still had some time to refocus his efforts.
Alex Wild, Mr. Positive
You know things are never gonna go 100% to plan. If I get a flat or I get pushed onto the gravel or I’m not where I want to be at a certain time of the race, [I know to] just keep pushing through because anything can happen in a race.
Finally, he gets it. That elusive point. He gets it at Marathon Nationals. From this moment on, it is as if the door of the UCI Points Armory has been left ajar. Points tumble his way. Another race, another 30 points. The dream barely whispered in his mind at the start of the season is shouting. He has qualified for his first World Cup.
One. Single. Point. It is the lightning rod. It helps him storm past the bouncer and his velvet rope, right on back to the VIP room to his first World Cup at Mont-Sainte-Anne.
WELCOME TO THE SHOW
Alex Wild has an uncanny knack of being able to describe his races with great detail. He can discuss what happened and on what corner, where he thinks he gained and where he lost. At Marathon Nationals, he went in with a goal of getting in the top five to ensure points—a lofty goal for sure. Even he admits it “was a little iffy going in.”
With the Nationals course split into two, two-hour loops, he describes how he stayed with “the first five wheels, using as little energy as possible.” What happened next could have ruffled his composure, but in true Alex Wild style, it didn’t. Close to the end of the lap, he crashed and lost contact. The chase began.
“I was like ‘OK, just keep at this pace. Don't get too excited and just ride your race.’ And then, probably about three hours in, I found 5th place and he looked like he was hurting pretty hard on the climbs. I was like ‘OK, so maybe we can do this?’ I overtook 5th place and I actually ended up finishing 5th. I got my one UCI point.”
After hearing the blow-by-blow of several “I would’ve murdered to get one UCI point” race stories, the next sentence is delivered rather off-handedly, almost as an afterthought.
“And then, at Missoula I got 7th and that actually gave me 30 points.”
From 1 point to 31. Since a rider only needs 20 points to qualify for a World Cup, this was a very big deal, a fact not lost on Alex.
“At the beginning of the season, I would've killed for that one point I got at Marathon Nationals, and now I'm sitting here with 31 points,” he says. “And then at National Championships just last weekend, I got 6th, so that’s 40 more points, so now I'm sitting with 71 UCI points.
“It's rolled into a dream season where you know at the beginning I was a nobody with no call-up, and now at most of the races in the U.S., I'll be in the first two rows. It's kind of a rad experience, but kind of surreal. And like just like [sic] an experience I’ll never forget.”
“Sixth doesn't sound great to somebody un-attuned to the world,” says Alex, talking later about the race that got him his one point (Marathon Nationals), “but to put it in perspective, the five people that beat me all ride bikes for a living. Like, all they do is ride. They're getting paid […] to ride bikes.”
Which brings up an interesting question: How do you balance the rigors of training at such a competitive level with the demands of a full-time job? For Alex, it’s another case of right place, right time. Working at Specialized, where everyone lives and breathes bikes, is a definite advantage. With a little thing called the Specialized Lunch Ride—a dedicated hour or so in the middle of the day to spin the legs and ride—Alex has time to get his training in without affecting his work. With no trails easily accessible, most of his rides are on the road, and with a prescribed power routine, the lunch ride helps him stay on track.
“I don't really have to do very many break-of-dawn rides. For the majority of my training rides, I can just do them at lunch, so that's a huge benefit,” he says. “Just being in this environment [helps]. You know, everybody loves bikes, and we're all competitive. […] Every body pushes you here.
“Before I worked here, 100% of my riding was on my own. It's nice to have a whole group of people that I can do endurance rides with. […] To have people strong enough to keep up with you so that you can ride with them and chat makes it a lot more enjoyable.”
He gets his head in the game. In his mind, he sees it all. He sees the start corral and him in it. The race begins, and he sees himself hammering off the line. He visualizes himself chasing down his idols, tussling with them, beating them. His mind right, he downs a double espresso and warms up. He heads to the line.
It’s all been leading to this. This is going to be epic.
ENTER THE LADY
It’s a week prior to Alex Wild’s first World Cup race, Mont-Sainte-Anne, which he chose for his World Cup debut simply because “It's close. It's the cheapest one to get to, and it's a great course.”
It seems everything has been leading up to this, and the relief of finally getting enough points to qualify for a World Cup must surely be tempered with a range of emotions? Excitement mixed with anxiety, perhaps? He seems calm—almost too calm.
“I always put pressure on myself to do well, but I don't feel any outside pressure,” he says. “For me, I'm going for experience. […] It's a completely new mindset, right? Like I just got used to being on the first two rows of a pro XCT and then now I’m ranked 430 in the world. It sounds good when you're in the U.S., but when everybody else who's ranked in the world shows up to a World Cup, it's like you're going back to the back row. Number 1 in the world's there, Number 2 in the world's there. All the guys with 2,000 UCI points.”
And then, there’s Alex.
It also helps his nerves that while at the race, he’ll have the support of S-Racing. With the logistical and race-support pressure taken off his shoulders, Alex is free to simply focus on getting ready for the race. It’s all about the right preparation, settling nerves, believing in your ability, and not being intimidated by the competition.
“You visualize it in your head and then it becomes easier to do, you know? Like you visualize yourself at the front, and you visualize yourself attacking people like Howard Grotts, because that can be a huge mental block, right? It's nice to say that everybody who beats you does it for a job, but that's not something you should be afraid of. You can respect your competition […] and their accomplishments, but when it comes down to racing, you need to be comfortable thinking that you're faster than they are.”
Since he will be spending time with Specialized athletes and S-Racing, he also sees the experience as an opportunity to do what he loves best—learning where he can improve.
“It'll just be such a rad experience, right? It's cool to hang out with those guys and pick their brains [about] how they do things and how they train. You know, maybe they walk the course differently than I do? Maybe they're looking for something that I've never looked for before? How do they push through when it's hurting really bad—how do they mentally get through that stuff? What are these things that I can be improving upon? Every year I'm looking for something that helps give you that edge.” He pauses a little before adding, “I found espresso this year.” He laughs. “It's fantastic.”
“I've never been to a World Cup,” say Wild, “so I really don't know what to expect, atmosphere-wise. I don't know, just pinning the World Cup number on and lining up in the corral and seeing all these guys I've seen on TV before, but probably never raced against, and just testing myself against the best in the world. [I’m going to] just go and be a sponge.” He smiles. “You know, live the dream for a weekend.”
Alex Wild will be racing his trusty Epic FSR for his World Cup debut on August 7th, 2016. “The course is gnarly, there’s [sic] lots of rocks and roots and traction will be key.”