There are no friends in a solo mountain bike race.
On a June morning last year, Kalan Beisel and Russell Finsterwald battled across the trails of Ute Valley Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., trading first and second spots as they raced in the Habanero Mountain Biking Omnium.
Finsterwald grabbed a late lead, but he took a wrong turn. Beisel didn’t follow him to point out the mistake. He kept racing down the course and was first across the finish line.
Then they were friends again.
“Russell’s a good friend … He’s one of my best training buddies,” Beisel told a reporter after the race.
So it goes for two of the region’s most promising young mountain bikers, both professional racers from Colorado Springs.
They took different paths here. Finsterwald, 20, has been racing since he was 12 and rides in competitions across the world. Thirty-year-old Beisel came to the sport late, and is just starting to emerge on the national scale.
It’s a love of the sport that keeps them riding and smiling, even when they’re battling for the finish line.
“I think it’s being able to cover a lot of ground so effectively. You can ride 100 miles in a day and see a lot of stuff. There’s nothing better than flying down a singletrack descent,” said Finsterwald.
Said Beisel, “You go fast riding a bike and it kind of makes you feel like a kid again. It just really makes you feel good.”
Both like winning.
They aren’t clear exactly how they met.
They were competing in a lot of the same races and Beisel says Finsterwald approached him as a senior racer.
“He looked up to me like I was the man. He said, ‘Hey Kalan, I’m from Colorado Springs. Do you want to come with me mountain biking?” said Beisel.
Said Finsterwald, “He was a little faster than me, so I was like, ‘Man I want to beat this guy.’”
Beisel, a 2000 graduate of Manitou Springs High School, was in his 20s before he took a spin on a mountain bike.
Friends got him into riding, and the rush of flying down steep rocky trails was addictive. His riding skills improved so quickly friends said he should race.
So he rode the King of the Rockies in Winter Park, in the “sport” category for beginners, and it was clear he didn’t belong there. He won the 25-mile race by 12 minutes.
“From there I got the taste of winning and I couldn’t stop,” he said.
He started training with coaches and found a sponsor with a local bike shop. It didn’t pay the bills, but he got free bikes. Now he rides on the Orbea Tuff Shed team and he makes more money, though he continues to work as a hairstylist at Kabeez Studio Salon.
“There’s not a lot of money in the sport of mountain biking. I’d be better off being a pro fisherman,” he said.
Beisel competes in races across the country, almost every week. Winners of a race in Arizona last month shared $30,000. When he came in second at the Voodoo Fire at Pueblo Reservoir recently, he won $300.
“It’s nice to walk away with more money than you came with,” he said.
Finsterwald got his first mountain bike from his aunt when he was 12. He won his first race, a beginner contest near Buena Vista, not long after.
“Since then I’ve never really stopped riding bikes. I’ve always been training for the next race, the next season,” he said.
He joined a junior cycling club, the Front Rangers, where he got professional coaching. His teachers at Coronado High School let his class work revolve around his racing.
He began competing in national races in 2009, then international races, and now, he said, “It seems like I’m only home one week a month.”
Here’s an example of his spring: He’s flying to Germany this week, with races in Switzerland and Germany, then off to the Czech Republic and France. He races for the Subaru Trek team.
“It’s not a great-paying job yet, but I’m able to make some money. Hopefully in the next few years that will change a bit,” he said.
In a sport without the tactics of road cycling — usually it boils down to “do I pace myself or go all-out from the start?” — he attributes his success to enthusiasm and dedication.
“A little bit of luck. It’s a lot of fun and it’s something I have a lot of passion for. I try to work as hard as possible to try to make it happen,” he said.
Just as their riding began on different paths, Beisel and Finsterwald are on different racing career paths.
Beisel knows the big sponsorships go to younger riders. He dreams of the day when he can be ranked among the top riders in the nation and make a living off it, but he’s also realistic. Most riders start to feel age set in by the late 30s.
Such is his love for riding, he’ll drop out of the “pro” category to keep riding if he has to. But he won’t stop.
“It’s just a really good, healthy lifestyle. And it keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “When I was 22, 23, the last thing I ever thought I would be is a professional cyclist. It was a life-changer. Regardless of what I was doing, it changed my life for the better.”
He’s met friends, such as Finsterwald, through the sport. And sometimes instead of competing against one another, they ride for the same team, like at last summer’s 24 Hours of Colorado Springs, which they won.
When not racing, they go fishing and camping and take long rides, comparing notes and ideas about riding.
Finsterwald took a semester of classes at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., and may enroll in the fall at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Because, he said, “You can only race so long, and once you are done it’s nice to have a fallback.”
But he has a lot of years of racing ahead of him, and the optimism of youth. He hopes to be ranked among the top riders in the world and compete in the 2016 or 2020 Olympics.
The pace of competition can be exhausting and certain races, such as a five-day race through 110-degree heat in Malaysia, can be brutal.
Sometimes he questions why he’s doing it. But it doesn’t take long to find an answer.
“When you finish it, you’re like, ‘Man, that was awesome.’”
Beisel has high aspirations for his friend.
“Over the years I’ve watched him progress. It used to be an easy win, to beat him. Now he’s smacking me around.”
“He’s got a lot of potential. He’s definitely one of those kids who can be among the best in the world if he keeps with it,” he said.
“I think 2016 is right up Russell’s alley.”
©2012 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)