Although he's been an emerging talent and familiar name in domestic cross country racing it's fair to say Stephen Ettinger exploded on the scene in 2013. After some quality finishes in the early season, Ettinger shocked the U.S. mountain bike crowd with a second place finish at marathon national championships. Just a few weeks later he improved on that finish executing a late race pass on Todd Wells to reach the pinnacle of domestic racing and claim the cross country national title in Pennsylvania.
Despite being a national champion at 24, Ettinger claims to be a relatively slow developer, which begs the question, "Where will he go from here?"
MTB Race News - Whoís the first person you called after winning the national
Stephen Ettinger - To be honest, not sureÖ It was either my girlfriend Corrine,
or my coach Jason Jablonski most likely. My parents were at the race, waiting
as I crossed the finish line, so I didnít have to make that callÖ just went
straight to the hugging and high-fives.
MTB Race News - How did you get your start mountain biking?
SE - I started riding as a kid with my dad. It was very
non-competitive, we just went out and cruised up some of the canyons near our
home in Washington and along the orchard canals. I was probably no older than
five when I really started riding I guess. I did my first few kids/beginner
races when I was ten or twelve, and from there it just kinda snowballed. But
even with such an early start, I didnít take this seriously until I was
probably 17 or 18.
MTB Race News - Who were your favorite riders growing up?
SE - I really wasnít very well versed in the cycling culture
growing upÖ There was no Velonews floating around our house or anything, so the
people I looked up to were guys who I knew racing locally in the Pacific
Northwest. I was a huge Roland Green fan, but I was unable to conceive what
doping was at that time. There were others too, Kevin-Bradford Parish was a
strong rider in the PNW, and so was my coach Jason Jablonski. I definitely had
Adam Craig, Todd Wells and JHK posters on my wall in middle school and into
MTB Race News - Did you expect to be winning a national championship at
SE - When I came into the Elite ranks in 2012, fresh off a U23
win the previous year, my coach and I sat down and laid out a plan that sounded
like this; Ďhere are the goals that we are working toward over the next four
yearsÖ London Olympics maybe, then we think National Championships, top 10
finishes at the World Cup and at least one National Championship title before
Rio Olympics in 2016í.
Obviously London didnít come together, but I was riding
at the same level in 2012 as the other Americans in the World Cup (maybe
Schultz was going a little better than the rest of us), and they ended up
taking Toddís experience over my youth for London. So the long answer is yes, I
knew I was at the right level, and it was a target, but obviously things have
to come together for it to work out regardless of how old you are.
MTB Race News - Tell us about the BMC Development Team. The team seems to
be hitting itís stride in 2013.
SE - Last year I think they retooled the team a bit after a 2011
season where Chloe and I did so well in that environment. They are focusing on
bringing up younger riders, juniors and young U23ís and its obviously working
well. They scored two more National Championships this year, and Iím sure more
to come. It was super exciting for me personally to see Kerry win his U23 title
this year, because I know how hard heís worked for it, and because heís just
one of the most down to earth guys racing in the US right now. The program is
full of good kids who are hard working, and not full of egos. Iím proud to be a
graduate of it, and wouldnít be where I am if it werenít for their initial
investment in me.
MTB Race News - What did BMC see in you early on that made them want to
you on their team?
SE - To be honest thatís probably a better question for Ben
Turner, who ran the Devo Team in 2011. I was doing a lot with the US National
Team at that point, and as I understand it, when BMC decided they wanted to do
the MTB Development Team they reached out to some of us who were in the USAC
Development pipeline. Jack Hinkins, Kerry Werner, and myself were a few of the
guys who were taking the most seriously at the time and with the most room to
grow. None of us had even remotely the level of support they were able to
provide at the time, and their investment seems to have paid off.
MTB Race News - Do you think other teams will start to copy the BMC
teamís format now that you guys are producing such impressive results?
SE - I hope other companies do decide to jump into the
development sceneÖ Obviously the BMC Development Team worked for me, and itís
working for others. I signed onto the World Cup team in 2012 and moved to
Europe, and now I am winning elite titles. I think Specialized has done some of
that with Howard Grotts and Trek with Russell Finsterwald. And there are other
programs out there, Specialized-Whole Athlete, Rocky Mountain Devo, and
Trek/Bear Development for example, but I donít think any of them are as focused
and provide the level of support that BMC has. I donít think any teams on the
MTB have the resources for the Ďfeeder programí framework that you find on the
road, but itís something thatís proven to work; kids want to race, and if you
can give them the ability to train without having to spend 40 hours a week in a
coffee shop in order to fund their racing, impressive things can happen very
MTB Race News - What do you imagine will happen with domestic MTB racing
in 2014 in regards to UCI rule 1.2.019? What do you think is the best possible
outcome for our sport?
SE - I think a lot depends on whoís elected for UCI president at
the end of September. I donít personally know either McQuaid or Cookson, but
from what Iíve read and heard through the grapevine, Cookson is more likely to
give federations a little more flexibility to run things how they see fit
within their respective countries. So ideal situation is that Cookson gets
elected and this becomes a non-issue really quickly. Despite what people want
to believe, USAC and the people running it arenít out to control the sport and
These are bright people, whoíd be working in the private sector
making way more money and having way more influence if thatís what they were
after. People like Steve Johnson and Sean Petty love cycling and want to
contribute to the Olympic movement and thatís why they work at USAC. Thatís not
to say they are infallible however. Assuming Cookson does get elected, the next
step is for USAC to build a strong domestic calendar/series (whatever you want
to call it), which allows the top domestic pros to earn UCI points and provides
a platform for younger riders to develop in. These races are about quality, not
quantity, and use good venues and technology (like the live streaming in
Missoula) to attract sponsors and bring money into the sport. Maybe we also bring
another World Cup to a new venue like Catamount, Vermont. Then, we have a load
of other good events, think TSE, Whiskey 50, Leadville, and Iceman that are
allowed to do their thing.
Regardless of whether or not those promoters choose
to sanction with USAC, it would behoove everyone to work together in order
insure that races are scheduled and formatted in a way so they donít conflict
with other high quality domestic events or World Cups. We have to close this
divide between pro-USAC/UCI and anti-USAC/UCIÖ it doesnít serve anyone. Both
sides need to budge a little bit so that we have one strong sport, instead of
two or three smaller camps that struggle to thrive on their own. That means
USAC offering more flexible insurance/sanctioning rules and promoters
recognizing that working within the USAC framework to some degree can (in my
opinion) broaden the appeal of their races.
MTB Race News - Finish this sentence: USA Cycling could improve domestic
mountain bike racing if they ___________________.
SE - Helped to build a quality, UCI-sanctioned calendar/series,
that focused on the XCO discipline and uses technology and good venues to
broaden the appeal to sponsors.
MTB Race News - You have had several close battles with US racing legend
Todd Wells this summer finally beating him at XC national championships. Do you
feel like youíre in his head now?
SE - I donít know whether I am in his head or notÖ I think Todd
and I both have a lot of mutual respect, but weíre in very different points in
our careers. I donít know that I pose a threat to Todd per-say; heís done a lot
in his career and I think for any older rider, it becomes inevitable that
younger riders will eventually rise to the top. Itíll happen to me someday. So
more than anything, I think Iíve proved to everyone, including Todd, that I can
be one of the best on any given day. Todd probably takes an attack by me a lot
more seriously now than he did two years ago, but whether or not Iím "in his
headĒ, youíd have to ask him.
MTB Race News - Where do you go from here? Whatís the next goal you want
SE - Right now I just want to take this as it comes, and open the
doors that I find myself at. Obvious Iíd like to be able to defend this
National Championship, and although Rio is still three years away, thatís what
Iím working towards now. Iím looking forward to racing the World Cup again next
year, although it was good to be at home (and winning) more this season.
than anything I want to just have fun and enjoy the process. Thatís always been
my motivation. I donít do this because I feel like I have something to prove or
a story to write. Hopefully I can race at a high level, travel, make friends
and hopefully enough money so that when I inevitably go to graduate or med
school, I can come out the other side debt free. It seems like a good thing to
be doing at this point in my life, so Iím gonna keep rolling until I feel
compelled to do something else. I am looking forward and focusing on becoming
more involved in youth cycling however, because I feel like I am in a unique
position to share this sport I love so much with kids, and get them excited
about being healthy and playing outside.
MTB Race News - The shorter punchy climbs and rocky terrain of the
Pennsylvania nationals course seemed like a departure from the long-climbing,
high-altitude locales of past years. Did you feel like that was an advantage
SE - Actually, I was intimidated by the track in PA. Although
Iíve become a lot stronger technically and learned to enjoy that kind of riding
since the days of Mount Snow, I definitely didnít feel like it was a course I
was going to thrive on. Iíve always seen myself as a pretty skinny climber,
whoís got next to zero fast twitch muscleÖ so I thought it was going to be a
good course for someone like Todd who grew up riding that kind of terrain. I
definitely surprised myself a bit when I was able to both out climb and out
descend Todd during the second half of the race. I definitely think I had the
right bike for the day too, and that helped. My BMC FS01 rode like a trailbike
on the descents and climbed like a wizard. Having confidence in your material
and mechanic helps a lot.
MTB Race News - Nationals and the Pro XCT series made a sweep through
east and Midwest this summer. Those venues featured technically challenging
courses with shorter climbs and much lower altitude. What was your opinion of
this type of racecourse?
SE - I absolutely love those kinds of tracks. I think Nationals,
Wisco and Catamount were three of the best events on the calendar. Hereís how I
see itÖ If Iím going to race, I want to be on a track that encourages that to
happen. I want to be rubbing elbows, attacking from a group and I want the loop
and venue to be small enough so fans can get excited about it. I want a
cerebral element to it. Thatís why I love racing XC in Europe. If I want to go
for a fun ride, Iíll go find a big
alpine loop with long climbs and exciting descents, but I donít think thatís
conducive to the most fun racing. Those
east coast venues (and Missoula) were near population centers, people came out
to watch and they were challenging enough to create separation, but not so much
that youíd spend the day out riding by yourself. They were good for the riders,
sponsors and fans.
MTB Race News - Like most young talented mountain bike racers I am sure
you had offers to race on the road. Why did you decide to stay on the dirt?
SE - I actually have not had offers to make a transition to the
road. I was never a standout talent (or at least never saw myself as one), so I
didnít grab headlines and the attention of road directors. I guess Iím partly a
product of hard work and partly a product of attrition. I do love road racing
though, I like the long days and I like the tactical and cerebral parts of road
racing. I think often times road racing is more intellectually stimulating than
MTB racing. But, Iíve never really pursued a transition either, and I think
thatís because I have good friends on the MTB, and enjoy being part of a smaller,
slightly less competitive community. I guess I just like racing bikes, and Iím
not to particular as to how that happens, just so long as it doesnít interfere
with ski season (sorry CX, but I wont be racing much of you anytime soon).
MTB Race News - For the first time ever there is a large group of young
male MTB racers poised to overtake the domestic racing scene. Itís fair to say,
in just a few years, riders like you, Russell Finsterwald, Kerry Werner, Keegan
Swenson, Howard Grotts, and a few others will be dominating US racing. Why is
this happening now?
SE - I think itís a testament to Marc Gullickson and the USAC
Development program that heís put together the past five years. When he took
over that roll, the program focused on 3-4 athletes each year, fully funding
them as a professional team. It wasnít necessarily performance based.
To my knowledge, Colin Cares is the only guy
still racing who was a product of that. Thereís kind of a lost generation you might
say. Everyone else burnt out or tried to switch to road racing. Marc takes
dozens of kids, both male and female, junior and U23, to dozens of events
around the World each year. He gives those kids repeated opportunities, and he
looks not necessarily for immediate results, but progression. Kids like Howard
and Keegan were in that talented group that performed immediately, but Kerry
and myself were not. It took time, but he allowed us to progress, gradually
giving us bigger opportunities. Itís working across the board for his
development program. It took four years for me to finally break through in
Europe and I wouldnít have been picked up by BMC Mountainbike Racing if I
didnít have the international results that I was able to finally achieve. I
imagine Keegan wouldnít have been picked up by Cannondale Factory Racing if he
hadnít been given the opportunity to race the World Cups as a Junior. Once we
are nested into that professional setting, the rest is up to hard work, but
Marc gave a lot of us the opportunity and helped lay the groundwork.
MTB Race News - What type of trail is your favorite? For example fast,
technical, rocky, flowÖ Whatís your favorite trail in the US?
SE - OoftaÖ My favorite trails are above tree line, and wide open.
Then they usually descend into the forest and things slow down and get more
technicalÖ So right now my favorite trail is probably Curly Lake, in the
Tabacco Root Mtns west of Bozeman. Porcupine trail from Ramshorn Lake down by
Big Sky is also something amazing. Both just have a lot of everything. They are
two of those rides once-a-year rides, both relentless and crazy fun. Back home
in Washington, Tronsen Ridge and Devils Gultch still strike a chord for meÖ
they are pretty special. I think Central Washington has some of the best
singletrack in the world, but only a few of us seem to know about it.