Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bro, Do You Even Lift?

That's a picture of me racing my mountain bike during the 1998 Nationals at Deer Valley.  I was competing in a class that doesn't exist any longer, at least not by the same title.  It was my first year racing "Jr. X," or junior expert, a class that was the top billing for riders under the age of 18.  You weren't considered a pro as a Jr. X racer, both at the national and world level, a rule that famously prompted Anne-Caroline Chausson (the greatest female downhill racer ever) to refuse accepting her junior world champion jersey after her time easily bested the entire pro women's field by a considerable margin.

I had been racing cross-country mountain bikes since I was 13 or 14, and started racing downhill in 1997.  I won two junior state championships (one in Utah and one in Nevada), but was never able to convert to a competitive pro as an adult.  In fact, I never even made it out of the expert category once I hit 19.  Between chafing at constantly losing races and developing a new love for off-road motorcycle riding, my downhill mountain bike career ended, appropriately enough, after a particularly vicious crash back at Deer Valley in 2005.  I wrapped up the state series that summer and sold my downhill bike that October, and that was that.

Among other little league, high school and collegiate athletic pursuits (ranging from baseball to wrestling to cross-country running to swimming), I picked up a keen interest in two sports in which I have yet to compete: rallycross auto racing and the American motocross/supercross series.  These events, much like my own beloved mountain bike racing, played out over the course of several months.  They featured individual races over a season that made up the scoring elements of an overall championship.

Motocross also has an annual international one-race (two motos, but let's not get cloudy) world championship event, the Motocross des Nations, but America is so historically dominant at the event as to render it little more than a spectacle for drunken, Old Glory-hat wearing purists that it's hardly worth mentioning as being in the same league as prestige of an overall outdoor or Supercross championship.  Competing in the MXdN is a feather in a rider's cap, for sure, but being named to the team is an accolade for already-champs.

There's not a lot of apples-to-apples comparisons between professional basketball and motocross racing, but there is one: the goal to win a championship.  Much like in the NBA, motocross racers don't have to win every single moto in order to take home the number one plate at season's end.  You do have to compete among the best racers all year, and winning individual races certainly helps with your point total.  But it's not imperative to be the best all the time (Ricky Carmichael-era races being the exception to this rule).

Perhaps what's more important in motocross is starting with young talent.  Motocross features two classes of races, based on engine displacement.  While some guys stick around in the smaller class (250cc) for the bulk of their careers, the class is universally considered a proving ground for young riders who wish to race with the elite in the 450cc category.  Every year, factory and non-factory teams alike bet huge sums on money and a season's worth of potential crow-eating on young guns who are expected to qualify for and race in every moto.

You don't have to be at all familiar with the sport to anticipate that, just like in basketball or football or life, not everybody gets to hoist a trophy.  While the new kids almost universally excel on paper in some area or another, it takes coaching, training, testing, grit and luck for the best to eventually shine through and graduate to the 450 starting gate.  Having the advice and savvy of an old vet in the truck next to you all year doesn't hurt, either.

This is a very long-winded, roundabout way to get to my point.  Not everybody wins, and it takes a long time for one motocross racer to become dominant season after season.  It really only happens once in a generation of riders.  For every McGrath, Carmichael or Villopoto, there are dozens of Emigs, Henrys, Stewarts, Buttons, Windhams and Millsaps.  It takes something more than raw talent and time in the saddle to craft a champion.

The Jazz had what should have been a two or three-championship team in the 1990s, but fell short.  After an absurdly brief interval, Utah was back in the national title spotlight, even if it was as a dark horse team.  Despite giving extended run to Deron Williams and a host of other still-young players (Stockton and Malone were in their late thirties, you'll remember, during their championship runs), that team failed to materialize into something both grand and stable.

Four years after a Western Conference appearance, that team was almost completely dismantled, with a few key remaining pieces left.  Much like in the world of motorcycle production, it's difficult to re-build your stock bikes every year simply to attempt to make a finest machine on the market for practical and economic reasons.  The Jazz, in their previous two seasons, were riding out the previous generation's frame and engine while the new bits were in prototyping and the small-bore racers were ironing out the kinks.

Right now, we're seeing a whole new enchilada.  A new team led by new players, with effectively a new front office and coaching staff.  Only the last name on the checks remains the same from 2007.  Not everything is working perfectly, but signs of a subtly effective frame and strong engine are beginning to show through.  The racers are fast but impatient and unpolished.

Perhaps, looking strictly at numbers, this Utah Jazz team is making some big mistakes as it prepares for the future.  But as I learned racing mountain bikes, racing (and winning) as a young man doesn't always translate to a career as a champ.  Sometimes it's sportsmanship and drive, not conclusions drawn from stats, that ends up making the difference.  And that can be hard to guarantee in advance.

But hey, all I ever did was race.  Even being a guy with a doctorate, I could be wrong.  Probably because there's no peer-reviewed journals on things with two wheels.