INTERVIEW with Nat Ross
We asked some athletes, customers and friends of Effetto Mariposa to tell us how they live their passion for cycling. We will meet 12 guests who will tell us about their experiences, their skills and how much they love the two wheels world. Today it’s the turn of Nat Ross, an MTB Legend in the hall of fame of the sport.
Nat Ross is not just an athlete who has won dozens of 24 hours races, cross-country, marathon, stage races and triathlon. In addition to all the incredible amount of results, he observes the spirit of those who, in America in the 90s, created what is now a sport practiced and loved by millions of people, mountain biking. With over ten seasons in the legendary team of Gary Fisher, Nat was the first to ride a bike with 29″ wheels and his philosophy of mountain biking as a 360 degree lifestyle is still an inspiration to understand this discipline as fun beyond performance… to really capture its soul.
We chatted with him on the way back from one of his Colorado trainings.
You have a biochemistry degree but life has bring you to cycling: how did you started?
“I have always had a deep passion for science and the outdoors. The human body has fascinated me and learning about the body and its capabilities intrigued me enough to pursue studying it at the University. I briefly put my studies to work when I was a Brew master at Breckenridge Brewery in the 90’s. I can assure you that my Bio-Chem background contributed towards adopting the mountain bike lifestyle of enjoying a nice beer after a long ride.”
You are a pioneer of MTB. How was the movement at the beginnings?
“Mountain Biking has always had soul. It is biking at its purest form. In the beginning the sport was such a niche. Not very many people had mountain bikes and there were not very many places that we all rode.”
How can you describe the adrenaline of riding an early ‘90 MTB?
“Wow! Can you say FUN! We were all exploring on bikes in the forest. Most of the early 90’s was cross-country focused with traditional handmade bikes. The sport had two major hubs and I grew up in one of them. I had always heard how great the trails were in Marin County, California when those first riders had come to Colorado to ride with us. They had a lot of flavor and personalities and were a blast to ride with. We always would take them climbing for hours and make them suffer, but as you can imagine they would easily show us a few things or two on the bike ride.”
A description we find of you is “multi-talented athletic”: because you were a pro skier, so you make also triathlon… we see now also in the pro world that multidiscipline is good (I think about Mathieu VDP with Ciclocross or Peter Sagan with MTB) but the sport directors are often insisting in only one discipline… why to play different sports is so important for you?
“Most athletes focus on one discipline or sport and that is just fine for them. It takes a lot of dedication and commitment on their end and I respect their desire to excel. However, for athletes like myself, pushing your body and perfecting the movement at the highest levels has great rewards when you can master more than one skillset. Training takes complete dedication and at the top level takes up a lot of time. When you truly enjoy pushing your body to the limit and mastering movement it is refreshing to be able to separate seasons and sports. For example, the sports I participated in involve similar muscle groups and have a lot of common elements, especially when racing. For some top athletes like myself it is often necessary to split time between passions to stay healthy and motivated. In endurance sports when I competed many athletes skied and rode. Those were the ones to watch out for as often you could peak at the correct time in each season and avoid injury. I called skiing one of my secret weapons…”
Do you often go skiing? Do you make tricks also with the ski?
“I do ski as much as possible still, however these days I do not go upside down anymore nor do I spend any time in terrain parks or on the jumps. I do enjoy skiing fast still, but I prefer to ski in the backcountry. Overnights and Hut trips are always top on my list. My favorite is still Dawn Patrol mornings when I ski with my dog and friends starting very early in the dark and peaking when the sun comes up. Nowadays, I prefer powder skiing and Snowcat adventures or Heli Skiing. Cross country skiing is how I stay fit in the winter if people really want to know how I am still fast on the bike.”
You are in the MTB hall of fame… but what is your favorite discipline?
“I do enjoy Enduro although I can tell I’m getting older and do not want to hurt myself. Most days I ride XC. Secretly, STXC is a way to keep strong and fast without putting too much time into riding. I can be found riding my e-bike in Northwest Arkansas (Bentonville) quite a bit. I ride a Specialized Levo and it is truly amazing. E-biking is an equalizer and I’m able to share my sport with others that are less fit or do not have the opportunity to ride as much as me. You will see me more and more on the e-bike for the gravity stuff as well. I’m getting more comfortable in the air on my e-bike and they sure can hold up to high speeds on the downhills.”
What is your relation with the bike now? Still super competitive or much fun?
“I will never stop being competitive. That drive still is in my DNA so I can be found racing still. I still hold my elite license and race my e-bike every chance I get. Also, gravel is my new thing. I love to explore and riding my gravel bike brings me back to the early days of the mtb where I used to explore every chance I got. Gravel is my new jam…”
About tech: you was one of the first riding 29” wheels… how did it come the idea of such big wheels?
“I love tech and can talk tech for hours. When I raced, I did not share those tips with my competitors and made them find out the extra benefits on their own.
All the riders in the early 2000’s used to tell me to go back to 26 inch wheels and quit riding “Wagon Wheels”. Of course, I did not listen to them and funny to see what wheel size they are riding now…
Gary Fisher had the original concept of the 29-inch wheel so it is all his vision that made the movement. Keith Bontrager was part of Trek back then just like Gary Fisher so I had all the best engineers, designers, and product gurus at my disposal. I had ridden Wes Willet’s town bikes in Crested Butte with 29 inch wheels and loved them. Gary told Travis Brown and I that he wanted us to try a new concept in 1999/2000. I was hooked on the wheels from the very first ride. My initial impression was that this was the future. In the beginning (early 2000’s) you can imagine that the wheel size had its challenges. The first year there were only several tires in the entire world that had tread or were even capable of handling high speeds on trails. Keith Bontrager made my first hoops (wheels) in his garage in Santa Cruz, CA. These wheels were fast but heavy. It took over three years to finally get the wheels light enough for World Cup racing. Unfortunately, the UCI did not accept the wheel size in the early 2000’s so manager, Gary and I had some good fights with UCI back in those years. I remember those two seasons well as I did not get to race many World Cups. That’s when I really started Marathon racing and Ultra-Endurance as the UCI did not let me start many races for over two years. In the end, shifting to Endurance set me up to be an early pioneer in that discipline as well, so it turned out even better for me that the UCI didn’t want to see progression in the tech side of the sport.”
And talking about tyres: what is your favorite Effetto Mariposa’s product? Can you tell us a ride/race when it changed your result?
“Everyone should ride with Tyreinvader. I use the 55’s in my Specialized bikes, in my carbon Crank Brothers wheels. My favourite tires are Pirelli Scorpions. The wheel is the most important contact patch that can enable the best performance.
I love riding low pressure and have the Tyreinvader and Caffélatex in my mountain bikes, e-bikes and gravel bikes. I don’t flat and can ride hard and fast to keep up with the young guns. Honestly, I prefer the contact with the dirt the most and the traction that the inserts provide.”
Which are your favorite places to ride in Colorado?
“I prefer to take my friends riding in Montezuma, Fruita, Gunnison-Crested Butte, Fraser Valley, Durango/Purgatory, Steamboat, Aspen-Snowmass, the top trails I recommend that are stand alone are the Epic Colorado Trail, Peaks Trail, Pipeline/ Kineo Mtn. and the Monarch Crest Trail.
Also, if you are able to make it to Colorado, I will harass you if you don’t make the time to ride Moab, UT as well. And if you are planning a trip to the US it would benefit you to also ride the OZ Trails in Bentonville, Arizona.”
A lot of big results come for you from endurance races. What do you think when you ride for 24 hours? Where do you find the strongness to ride such a hard type of race?
“Racing for 24 Hours is extremely tough. It takes focus and goals to keep one motivated. I typically raced on courses that were 10-20K each lap so I had my crew work off spreadsheets. That included bikes, equipment, drink, food, clothing etc. Each lap I would focus on what I needed to do to win. I would always start extremely fast (XC pace) and keep up with the teams for the first six hours. Once I got dark, I would settle in to my own pace. It takes a lot of preparation, but is rewarding once you realize you can push your body that hard.”
What would be the first tip that you would give to a biker that wishes to approach a 24 hour race?
“Do your first 24-hour race on a team with your friends. Start on a co-ed team so that you keep it fun. Camp and really soak up the energy. 24 Hour races have the spirit of mountain biking and always attract the right people. Be prepared to come home exhausted with lots of stories to tell.”
You also built “Tough Guy Productions”, what are your main works?
Do you like to film, it’s another your passion?
“I first got into film skiing in the X-Games and racing with a POV camera. POV stands for point of view (racers perspective). I also raced in the early days on the mtb with a camera in my fanny pack. Dave Weins used to race with a camera back then as well so you can always see how much the sport has progressed over the years when you see that early footage of XC racing from our perspective. Tough Guy Productions does not produce films anymore, but we do film a lot for others and host movie premieres etc. on the film side. TGP puts on a local town series now and makes sure to keep things fun. We do things like promote events, put on bike swaps, host movies, guide, coach, and mentor the next generation. In the US, we have NICA which is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. NICA is the next generation, so we do all we can in terms of trail stewardship and support for the student athletes.”
How it’s difficult to organize a race today?
“The race calendar is full these days and being a race promoter is challenging but rewarding. Some events are very successful, but it sure helps when Lance Armstrong comes to your event.”
With the Tough Guy Productions you say that you started “a new family-friendly style of racing”… in what way?
“Mountain Biking is a community. When families can attend, it’s the ultimate success story. We focus on the next generation of riders as opposed to ourselves. Young women are also key towards the sport growth. We make sure we have a fun atmosphere at our events. It’s not just about racing, it’s the culture and the fun environment that have people coming back for more.”
So, how about the next goals?
“I’m the promoter for one of the largest gravel events in the US this year that may or may not happen due to COVID. So, I hope to host events next year like the Big Sugar Gravel Race. Next season for me is always on my mind and I am planning some big things on e-bikes so stay tuned…See you on the dirt!”
Follow Nat on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nat__ross/