Adam Craig’s commute to work this week was far from standard fare.
After leaving his home base in Bend, Ore., he flew to Washington, D.C., where he caught a connecting flight to the office — Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, home to the first stop on the 2009 International Cycling Union (UCI) World Cup cross country mountain bike series.
But while global travel will remain a major part of the Exeter native’s career path as he competes on both the national and international circuits, to some degree the pressure is off in 2009.
After devoting the last two years to successfully earning a berth on the U.S. Olympic Team, Craig can focus on his sport this year without the omnipresence of Olympic qualification casting peril over every rock or tree root he encounters during a race.
“I feel like at this point I’m settled in with what I’m doing,” said Craig, the 27-year-old leader of the Giant Mountain Bike Team. “It feels good not to have that pressure of having to be at 100 percent every time out. It’s pretty sweet.”
Not that there aren’t Olympic implications with races three years out from the next Summer Olympics, set for London in 2012.
International cycling officials for the first time are now using a four-year cycle to determine how many riders each country can qualify for the next Olympics, as opposed to a two-year cycle that was utilized in the past.
The top five countries in the national standings between 2009 and 2012 will be able to send three riders to the next Olympics, while other countries will be limited to just two riders.
“I’ll have to respect the four-year nation’s ranking cycle for the [U.S.] team, so I want to stay in top form,” said Craig.
That’s because in the back of his mind, Craig wants to maximize his own chances for representing the United States in London, for his first Olympic experience in Beijing last August never really got started.
As the starting gun sounded, Craig tried to lock into his pedals, but his brand new U.S. team shoes slipped out of the pedal clip several times.
By the time he finally got going, the competition was gone.
Craig said the shoes he wore at the Olympics featured state-of-the-art carbon-fiber soles that while lightweight didn’t provide the grip he usually has on his pedals.
Typically he would customize such shoes by rubberizing the soles or adding tape to provide a better grip, but in this instance there was no chance to make the needed changes, and disappointment followed.
“I just couldn’t get going,” said Craig. “It was a rookie move.”
The quirky nature of his poor performance in Beijing has made that race a little easier to forget, though Craig did use the off-season to get away from the sport.
“I didn’t expect the Olympics to be a life-altering experience unless we came back with a medal, and that certainly didn’t happen,” he said. “But it’s been good to decompress, and now I’m looking forward to getting back into racing.”
Craig already competed in two major events before leaving for South Africa. He placed 11th in the Pan American Mountain Bike Championships at Santiago, Chile, three weeks ago before finishing fifth in the inaugural event of the U.S. Cycling Pro Cross Country Mountain Bike Tour at Fontana, Calif., on March 28.
The U.S. Pro XC Tour marks the latest of several efforts to establish a top-flight national mountain bike circuit, and Craig plans to lend his support by competing in all but one of the tour’s cross country races this year.
“I do want to do more of the U.S. Cup events and focus more on domestic races,” he said. “They needed some fresh blood with the tour, and there was some really good energy at Fontana.”
The U.S. Pro XC Tour also is UCI-sanctioned, meaning riders can earn points toward the World Cup standings.
Craig currently is ranked ninth worldwide heading into Sunday’s World Cup opener.