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Rider Interview: XC National Champ Stephen Ettinger

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |November 27, 2013 3:06 PM
Rider Interview with BMC Racer and XC National Champion Stephen Ettinger

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?"

Read our full interview with Stephen below:

MTB Race News - Whoís the first person you called after winning the national championship?

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 high school.


MTB Race News -  Did you expect to be winning a national championship at 24?

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 quickly.


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 grab money. 

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 to achieve?

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. 

More 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 for you?

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. 

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