Adam Craig’s road to London begins Saturday in south-central South Africa.
That’s where the 30-year-old Exeter native is set to start his quest for a second — and perhaps final — berth on the U.S. Olympic mountain biking team.
“I plan to move on to other aspects of mountain bike racing in 2013 and beyond,” said Craig in an email Friday from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, home of the International Cycling Union’s first World Cup race of the season.
“The Olympics as an experience don’t come with a particular sense of urgency, but actually riding strong there and being proud of my last season on the World Cup cross country circuit is definitely at the forefront of my brain — which is connected to my legs.”
Craig, who placed 29th in the men’s cross country event at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, is one of eight Americans eligible for what likely will be two spots on the U.S. men’s team for the 2012 London Games.
That qualifying chase kicks off in earnest this weekend in South Africa, the first of four UCI World Cup stops that will help determine who among American riders Craig, Jeremiah Bishop, Michael Broderick, Stephen Ettinger, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Spencer Paxson, Sam Schultz and Todd Wells will compete on the 2012 Olympic mountain bike course located just east of London at Hadleigh Farms in Essex, England, come Aug. 12.
“This year is the one we look forward to for the three years prior,” said Craig, now a resident of Bend, Ore. “The Olympics are the grandest stage of sport and an opportunity to compete there doesn’t come along every day — or year. So, it’s a big year for me, and everyone.”
The Pietermaritzburg race will be followed by World Cup stops in Houffalize, Belgium, on April 15, Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic, on May 13 and La Bresse, France, on May 20.
A U.S. rider who wins one of those events — which is unlikely — would earn a berth on the Olympic team, and a top-five finish in any of those races in conjunction with a solid overall World Cup ranking likely would garner the rider a trip to London.
Other criteria include selecting the top-ranked U.S. racer in the World Cup standings as of May 31, but only if that rider is in the top 15 overall, or USA Cycling may invoke discretionary criteria including recent history of strong international competition, medal capability, capability of enhancing future team performance and future medal capability.
“I’m in as good a shape as I’ve ever been in the middle of March, which may not be saying all that much,” said Craig. “But the foundation for a successful spring has been laid and I hope to use it as a means to two ends, making the team and having a proud showing at the Games.”
Craig, the U.S. national cross country champion in 2007 and 2008, currently is fifth among American riders in the UCI World Cup point rankings, trailing fellow 2008 Olympian Wells (15th overall), Sam Schultz (34th), Horgan-Kobelski (42nd) and Bishop (53rd) — though points and positions may be made up quickly with strong finishes in the coming races.
The top five national teams in the UCI Olympic Qualification Rankings each may send three riders to London, and with the United States currently ranked 10th it likely will have just two participants among the 50 starters in the race for gold.
“Realistically, it’s the same exact riders in contention as last time, myself, Todd Wells, JHK and Sam Schultz,” said Craig. “Although Todd may already be on injured reserve from a training crash on the course here in Pietermaritzburg on Wednesday. Luck is a fickle thing.”
Craig himself is due for a bit of better luck given that his last two years of competition have been hampered by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that required reconstructive surgery in early 2010.
“Since my knee injury in 2010 I haven’t felt the same — until now,” said Craig, a member of the Rabobank-Giant Off-Road Team. “[I’m] pretty sure I’m back at 100 percent and hope to have a similarly strong season as in 2008, albeit with a better showing in London than Beijing.
“A year ago I was struggling quite a lot just to race respectably on any level. I feel much stronger this year [and] much better about my chances, which I’d call pretty good. But you never know.”
Craig tuned up for his World Cup schedule with a seventh-place finish early this month at the Mellow Johnny’s Classic in Dripping Springs, Texas, the first event of the national Pro XCT racing series.
The Dexter Regional High School graduate was the fourth-fastest American in the race, trailing Wells, Schultz and Bishop.
Craig is expected to make his way back to the U.S. East Coast in early summer for World Cup stops at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, June 24 and at Windham Mountain, N.Y., on July 1.
“I’m older and wiser, and therefore should be faster [than in 2008],” said Craig. “But life is a complicated thing that only gets more so with age, so we’ll see how the balance of life and athletic advancement works out.”