For the second year in a row, Ketchum's Bald Mountain and the Sun Valley Resort is host to the USA Cycling National Championships for cross-country mountain-biking—and this year, all four members of the cross-country mountain biking Olympic team will be here to rip the rollers before heading off to London.
"It's some of the best people in the country, and they'll be here," said local professional cyclist Rebecca Rusch. "All four were here last year, and they loved the venue."
Cyclists Todd Wells, Georgia Gould, Lea Davison and Sam Schultz are heading into town this week, following the Mountain Bike World Cup in Windham, New York.
After blasting through cross-country races on Baldy's 4-mile pro course and 1-mile short track course, the four will head to Europe, then London to compete against the best of the best in mountain biking worldwide.
For former local Georgia Gould, racing in Ketchum is different from racing anywhere else. Now living in Fort Collins, Colo., Gould got her start mountain biking in Ketchum where she lived from 1999 to 2005.
"I just was seeing lots of people out on the trails on mountain bikes, and I thought, huh, that seems like a great way to explore the area—much more than you can hiking," she said.
Once she got started, she was hooked by the incredible trail system. Her first race was the Galena Grinder in 2001—a race she won in her age class, racing the 9-mile course in just over 50 minutes.
"I'm pretty competitive," Gould said with a laugh. "I really enjoyed racing, so I just ended up upgrading. I kind of moved up pretty quick through the ranks."
Before she knew it, Gould was doing a local racing series and a regional series, placing well in each. She said she decided to go pro in 2004 just to see how she could compete with others in a national arena.
She did the entire NORBA National Off-road Mountain Bike Series in 2005 and placed ninth overall in both short track and cross-country.
But while she was living her dream of competing on a national level, Gould said it was difficult to balance her competitive racing with her job at Wrapcity in Ketchum and the other demands on her time. She knew something had to give.
"2005 was a great year for me, but it was also really hard," she said. "By the end of the season, I was like, I hope someone wants to sponsor me!"
In 2006, Gould was picked for the LUNA Women's Mountain Bike Team and won at the U.S. Mountain Bike National Championships—and she hasn't stopped winning since. She's the current reigning USA cross country mountain bike national champion, which she won last year in Ketchum. This year, she'll have another chance to win in front of a hometown crowd.
"To race in front of a hometown crowd was special," Gould said. "I don't feel it as pressure, not any more than the pressure I put on myself. I just use it as something to be motivated by."
Gould said she always enjoys coming back to her hometown, whether to relax or to race. And while she loves the trails here, she also loves that her job gives her the chance to experience all types of track across the world.
"Ketchum-Sun Valley has some of the best trails in the world," she said. "[As a pro biker,] you get to ride in places like this where it's dry and fast, and then you go places where it's wet and muddy and roots and rocks, and then you go and ride in the desert. To be one of the best riders in the world, you have to be able to deal with all of that."
Durango, Colo., mountain biker Todd Wells started off his Sun Valley visit with a complimentary tweet.
"Sun Valley is such an awesome town," he told his 5.577 followers on Monday. "Another picture-perfect day."
Wells said Monday that Sun Valley reminds him a bit of his hometown, though Fort Collins is larger and even more isolated—four or five hours from the nearest large city.
Wells said he got his start mountain biking when he graduated high school, though he'd been BMX biking since the age of five. He's now been mountain biking for almost 18 years, an interest piqued when he went off to college at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
"At the time I moved out there, all the top pros lived there," he said. "Going to school, they had a mountain biking course. It was great."
Wells said that in contrast to many of the newer cross-country race tracks, Sun Valley is more old-fashioned, which means a long, steep and sustained climb to the top of Baldy.
"I feel like the sport of mountain biking is becoming more of an explosive sport," he said, with shorter loops and shorter climbs. "Sun Valley is similar to the old style. It's a longer, more steady effort."
Though Wells said he had a shaky season, marred by an injury in March and a shift in training style, he's looking forward to competing in his third summer Olympics in August.
"I feel like this time in London, I've been there so I have the jitters out," he said. "If things go bad, it's not the end of the world."
Missoula native and pro biker Sam Schultz described Sun Valley as a kind of mountain-biking mecca—the kind of place he wishes Missoula would become in the future. With mountain bike-specific trails and an understanding of the industry, Schultz said Sun Valley has done quite a bit to build its reputation.
"It's super fun, flowy riding around there," he said. "Sun Valley is very forward-thinking with mountain-biking specific trails, and that has gotten you guys a good reputation."
Schultz said he began mountain biking in Missoula when he was 12, when his uncle introduced him to the sport. He did his first race when he was 13—and from then, he was hooked.
"I was definitely a little bit obsessed," he said with a laugh. He kept on racing, eventually turning pro after he turned 18 through the USA Cycling youth development team. He now alternates his time between road biking in Tucson and mountain biking in Missoula when he's not racing.
Schultz said this August would be his first trip to the Olympics. Admittedly nervous, he clarified that he was nervous "in a good way."
"Every time I think about the Olympics, I get goose bumps," he said. "It's kind of cool."
Jericho, Vt. native, Lea Davison said that while she hasn't always been mountain biking, she has always been athletic.
She was a junior in high school, "big into downhill ski racing and I also was running cross country," when she was persuaded to try mountain biking.
"A friend convinced me to stop running around in circles on the track and start mountain biking," she said—obviously, she loved it.
"I felt like I had been inadvertently training for this my whole life," she said. "It was a lot of fun."
Cross-country running gave her the endurance for the sport, but downhill skiing helped her understand certain techniques, body positioning and line choices, she said, making her almost a natural at the sport.
Vermont has an extensive trail network, combined with dirt roads that enable her to enjoy an "outstanding" amount of trails. As an East Coaster, she said she has to adjust her technique to the very different terrain in Sun Valley.
"It's a lot drier and rockier," she said of the local trails. "It's kind of the same basic techniques, but the riding style is different. You have to look out for the corners because they are loose and rocky. In Vermont, they are more tacky."
Like Schultz, Davison will be competing in her first Olympics. She said that rather than sightsee in London, she's looking forward to taking in the sights and sounds of the Olympic experience.
"I'm really excited to stay in the Athletes' Village and absorb everything about the experience," she said. "Buckingham Palace will always be there, but the Olympics won't."
Gould, Wells, Schultz and Davison will be welcomed to Sun Valley through a private VIP reception organized by the Wood River Bike Coalition, a local branch of the International Mountain Biking Association that works to build and maintain trails in the valley.
Kate Wutz: email@example.com