The future is all down

Life is looking up for mountain bike racer Alex Willie

Tom Winter | Boulder Weekly

Alex Willie might just be the best bike racer you’ve never heard of. He’s fast, damn fast, and he’s headed for the big time, with sponsorships from some of the best brands in cycling, including Intense Cycles, Fox Racing, MRP, Troy Lee Designs and Schwalbe Tires.

But first he has to finish two finals and wrap up his year at Lyons High School. Fame will have to wait.

I’m talking school, bike riding and commitment with Willie as we traverse the Bitterbrush trail at Hall Ranch. A cold front is moving through the area, and low clouds wrap around the rugged mesa above us. It’s been raining and the landscape is awash in the colors of spring: delicate shades of green punctuated by tiny wildflowers.

“I’ve seen a lot of rattlesnakes out here,” Willie says. “I’m really scared of snakes. They freak me out.”

“Freaked out” isn’t a term that you’d use to describe Willie. He’s got a confident and engaging personality and a curious mind. He converses comfortably on a wide variety of topics, from sponsorship obligations to the challenges of doing homework in cramped coach seats on cross-country flights to how he’s been blessed with mentors and coaches who’ve influenced and guided him. As the conversation drifts, it’s obvious that the kid is smart, smarter than the average bear. And his grades prove it. He’s a 3.8 GPA student who takes honors classes, an accomplishment that becomes even more impressive when you consider that Willie is one of the best young downhill bike racers in North America and is on the cusp of a career as a pro bike racer. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be representing the USA at the 2012 World Championships in Leogang-Saalfelden, Austria, later this summer.

Willie is a product of Boulder-based Singletrack Mountain Bike Adventures (SMBA). The youth-focused organization is the oldest independent junior mountain bike program in Colorado, and works with young athletes of all abilities and motivation levels. And for those who get serious, like Willie, it offers high-level coaching and the support to take it to the next level. Alumni include Joey Schuster, who took sixth place at the National Championships in 2010 at the age of 19, and Colin Cares, a pro cross-country racer who rides for Kendal/Tomac.

With programs that range from the casual to the serious, SMBA provides everything from basic skills instruction and trail etiquette to full-on race support. The vibe is casual and fun, allowing kids to build confidence and learn the skills that provide a foundation for the pressure cooker environment of big-time racing if and when they decide to ride in that direction. It was in this incubator that Willie was able to develop his talent.

“I saw some people riding in North Dakota, thought it looked fun,” Willie recalls of his modest start in mountain biking. “I started on Marshall Mesa in Boulder on a bike from Target, then got a better bike and my mom found SMBA. I did one of their weeklong camps and that was when I got really into it. I had a great coach and from there on I was riding pretty seriously.”

Willie, like most neophytes, started out cross-country riding, on dirt roads and simple singletrack trails. But as his skill set evolved and he got bigger and stronger he began to experiment with racing and other disciplines in the sport.

“I was riding with the summer team on SMBA, and my coaches recommended that I sign up for a race,” Willie says of his first taste of competitive mountain biking. “I did a cross-country race and won it.” He laughs. “You get hooked when you win stuff. Then I transitioned to full downhill. That was a big jump — get the gear, and the bike. Once you make that jump, you’re pretty committed.”

Committed is a good word to describe the mindset of downhill mountain bike racers. The discipline was born in the mid-1970s in Fairfax, Calif., when a group of cyclists started timed races down a fire road. The choice of equipment was simple: single-speed bikes with “coaster” brakes. The need for the brakes to be “repacked” with grease after each run due to overheating led the course to be dubbed “Repack Road.” As the sport of mountain biking evolved, so did downhill (DH), with bikes borrowing technology from motocross dirt bike racing, including full suspensions, disk brakes and other advances. With better technology, the speed of the descents and the level of course difficulty increased. Large jumps, gaps and other obstacles have raised the bar.

Today, DH races are top-to-bottom tests of speed on insanely rugged courses where crashes can be career-ending. Riders use specialized safety equipment, including body armor and full-face helmets, and a few seconds can be all that separates a podium spot from an anonymous finish in the pack.

“Downhill racing is pretty different from any other sport,” says Willie. “Your entire Thursday through Sunday at an event comes down to a three-minute run on Sunday.”

Because of the single opportunity to clinch a good finish on race day, Willie takes a cerebral approach to racing.

“You memorize the whole course,” he says. “You visualize everything until Sunday and then you try to forget about everything. You want a good balance for giving it your all but not crashing. A big side of it is mental, maybe 70 percent or so.”

It’s an approach that seems to work for the 17-year-old. Willie currently sits in first in the overall standings in the Jr. Pro category for riders 18 and under and has a fistful of impressive results since January, including sixth at the Pro GRT Gravity Open in Roxbury, N.Y., a fourth at New Jersey’s Mountain Creek Classic and a fifth at the Northwest Cup in Port Angeles, Wash.

With a spot in the World Championships at stake, Willie admits that he’s less concerned with winning individual races and is looking for the kind of consistency that leads to winning the overall title. Particularly since he’s all too familiar with how a crash can kill a year, after a spill at Keystone in 2011 left him with two pins in his wrist and a shortened season.

“Not many Americans get the chance to go,” Willie says of the 2012 World Championships, which will be held from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9. “Only six or seven will be on the team. I’m going for first overall in downhill, to get an automatic spot.”

Willie’s approach is garnering kudos from the staff at SMBA.

“He’s a really smart rider and extremely technical,” says Jessie Vogt, SMBA coach and team director.

Vogt would know. A former national champion rider herself, she went on to race in three World Championships.

“He’s definitely on the right track to securing a spot for the world’s team,” says Vogt. “His chances are really good.”

As we wrap up our time on the Bitterbrush trail, Willie admits that he’s pretty fast, but he’s more interested in talking about everyone who has helped him (“SMBA and Lee McCormack, one of my coaches, I have a lot of success because of him”), sharing pointers about other great rides in the area (“See that mesa over there, there’s a great trail that goes up there”) and giving props to his mom (“She’s a trail runner and she understands what I’m doing and has been really supportive”).

An honors student who is one of the best bike racers in North America, humble enough to credit his success to others and loves his mom? The kid is a champ already.