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Interview with NUE Series Promoter Ryan O'Dell

Posted by: Matt Williams |May 14, 2014 2:13 AM

Over the last eight years, the National Ultra Endurance Series (NUE) has grown from linking a handful of niche 100 mile mountain bike races into what is perhaps the biggest mountain bike series in the US, at least in terms of participation. Last season, every NUE race with a field limit sold out prior to race day.

MTBRacenews recently checked in the NUE Series co-founder and promoter Ryan O'Dell, who was kind enough to take the time to chat with us about how the series started, what has made it so successful, and where he sees it heading in the future.


MTBRacenews.com: For those folks that don't know you, you're the series director for the NUE Series and you also promote the Mohican 100 and a number of other races in Ohio. How did you get into promoting mountain bike races?

Ryan O'Dell: In the early nineties, probably like many who are reading this article, I used to throw my steel frame Schwinn 10 speed mountain bike, complete with big balloon tires and steel rims, in the trunk and high tail it out to Mohican Wilderness to blaze a few laps and stretch my legs on the weekend, or at least it felt like I was blazin’ on that 30lb behemoth. I had to true the rims after every ride. heh

It was on one of those weekend rides that I met Derek Cuthbertson of Cuthbertson Racing. They were holding an XC race on my stomping grounds and I became hooked. Racing, for me, was a way to challenge myself and I also enjoyed the camaraderie and stories we shared over post-race brews. Often, we would pile into a van with a cooler full of beer and energy drinks, heading out to two other old school Ohio trails at Velo-Z in Zanesville and Vulture’s Knob in Wooster.

At times, I assisted Derek with some of the races then, later, when he began focusing on his growing family and could no longer hold races, I began directing races at Mohican Wilderness. Sometime later, Mohican Wilderness joined with our two other favorite venues, and the Mid-Ohio Mountain Bike Championship Series (MOMBC) was born. Within a few years, the MOMBC race series expanded to become the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship (OMBC), a 12 race series that now includes the Mohican MTB100 in Loudonville.

Eight years ago, NUE was born as a collaboration with, then, Cannondale racer, Garth Prosser, Chris Scott of Shenandoah Mountain Touring, and Rick Plite who directs the Lumberjack 100. The purpose was to tie together the few 100 mile races that existed back then. Since then, NUE has evolved as a way to bring together the best 100 mile endurance races in the US and as an alternative race series for endurance minded riders who prefer long epic days in the saddle vs riding around in circles.

MTBRacenews.com: Ohio may not be the first place folks think of when they think about epic mountain biking, but the Mohican 100 features some pretty amazing singletrack. Can you describe Ohio mountain biking to people who have never been?

Ryan O'Dell: Often, cyclists who have never been here view Ohio as flat land. While that may be true of the western portion of the state, the hills of the Appalachians extend up through the heart of Ohio all the way to Cleveland with elevation gains of about 350 feet. Formed by receding glaciers, Ohio has steeps, and even some rocky terrain, combined with flowing singletrack. The 24 mile trail constructed within the 5000 acre Mohican State Forest winds its way around a steep gorge that offers riders the feeling of riding in the mountains without gasping for thin air. It took our small Mohican/Malabar Bike Club two years to get the permissions and three long hard years of effort to construct but it stands as one of the top destinations for mountain bikers coming to Ohio.

Other uniquely cool courses have been established near lakes at Alum Creek, Westbranch, Dillon, and Eastfork State Parks. Nearly all of them are well marked with plenty of nearby lodging, camping and restaurants. The variety is surprising and I would encourage anyone traveling through Ohio to check out what we have to offer.

MTBRacenews.com: The NUE Series has grown every year. What's been the secret to the success of the series?

Ryan O'Dell: I cannot imagine why anyone would not be tempted to embark on a single day epic adventure, traversing the best backcountry trails in the US?! NUE courses are well marked and managed, there is encouragement and support every 20 miles or so, and it is likely that most of your cycling buddies are already there.

NUE is committed to all racers, including pro’s, who must play by the same rules. "No license is required” to race, simply enter and NUE ranks you nationally. EVERYONE who completes the series minimum of four races receives recognition and a prize package from our sponsors.

The $12,000 series cash purse also includes series wide complimentary entry for all four division winners next season plus the opportunity of a lifetime, an all-expense paid trip to Costa Rica in November to compete at the LaRuta de los Conquistadores, a 3 day stage race across the entire country from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Many racers now plan their family vacations around our events and why not? Every location is a mountain biker’s dream and NUE was born of passion by mountain bikers who were dissatisfied with the status quo of racing around in circles.

MTBRacenews.com: You've added a number of races to the Series over the last few years, what have been your goals in doing that?

Ryan O'Dell: A new location must have a great reputation among racers and a regional draw that fits with current series events to allow for strong competition. New events should not be in close proximity of existing venues or have race dates that conflict with nearby NUE Series Events. Our goal is an epic race that has a regional draw and consistent participation.

Additionally, since travel costs are often the primary consideration for racers, NUE has expanded to make it easier for racer’s to achieve the four race minimum required for a national ranking and awards.

MTBRacenews.com: For the first time, a few races have dropped from the series for 2014. What brought those changes about?

Ryan O'Dell: Sometimes the circumstances for a race director change. Syllamo’s Revenge is a great example. They have a very challenging and epic race course but their forestry permit reduced the number of racers they could allow to enter.

Due to limited numbers, we agreed it was in their best interest to focus on their 50 mile race instead of trying to include a 50 mile and 100 mile race. In other cases, a venue may not fulfill the conditions of their agreement. Several years ago, one venue stiffed the NUE Series on the year end awards contribution required by each race director. That is totally unacceptable since 100% of the race contributions from participating directors are awarded to NUE Series Champions.

MTBRacenews.com: You must have been playing close attention to the controversy over UCI/USA Cycling's (now postponed) decision to ban UCI Licensed riders from competing in non-sanctioned races. The UCI is set to make a decision this month on the future of that rule. What effect would it's enforcement have on the NUE Series? What's your take on it?

Ryan O'Dell: Yes, judging by social media buzz, it appears that everyone is paying attention. The controversy and hard feelings being stirred up by USAC’s decision to begin rigid enforcement of this this rule appeared outrageous to riders judging by the comments I’ve read.

Racers, including Pro racers, recognize that they should be free to make their own decisions about where they would like to race. As a result, many racers feel that USAC is acting like a school yard bully in their attempt to prevent UCI licensed racers from entering non USAC sanctioned events. Many of these non-sanctioned events actually pay out the kind of cash Pro level racers need to earn a living to support their families. Who is USAC to take choices away from racers and families like 2012 NUE Series Champion Jeremiah Bishop?

According to their website, USA Cycling states that their mission is to achieve sustained success in international cycling competition and grow competitive cycling in America while delivering an exceptional customer experience. I would argue that this action is in direct contradiction with their stated mission.

MTBRacenews.com: You specifically ban promoters in the NUE Series from sanctioning their races through USA Cycling. What's the reasoning behind that?

Ryan O'Dell: No one likes a bully. Instead of encouraging the NUE Series to join USAC by providing benefits that make sense to both our racers and participating race directors, many racers are upset that it appears that USAC is using UCI Rule 1.2.019 toward their own purpose, as a tactic, to force racers and race promoters to join USAC.

UCI is currently reviewing this rule and has delayed action for another year most likely because they recognize that, according to UCI presidential candidate Brian Cookson, "The overarching principle should be that people want to join your organization and want to participate in your events rather than trying to force people into that, which will always be problematic.”

In an interview with Cycling News, the UCI presidential candidate goes on to make the same point that that many NUE racers and directors would agree with, "You have to make people want to join your organization, not force them to join by threatening them with sanctions of some sort.” It is our hope that their decision will reflect this common sense statement.

The reality is that the NUE Series, the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship Series (OMBC), and races like the Whiskey 50 are viewed by many as a refreshing alternative for racers who have become disillusioned by USAC and see no real value to paying their annual license fees. Racers, including many top level professional mountain bikers, are seeking fun, challenging, well run, grass roots based events that offer real rewards and opportunities without the added burden of fee’s and restrictions put on them at USAC sanctioned events.

I think most racers would agree with UCI’s Mr. Cookson that USAC (and UCI) must fully reject this kind of bullying of racers and non-sanctioned events and focus on what can be done to support racers and grow grass roots events like NUE. Until then, NUE will continue to reject USAC sanctioning of our events.

MTBRacenews.com: A number of NUE races include 50 mile or 100k options. Have you considered adding a 100k series to the NUE mix?

Ryan O'Dell: Yes. Whether those shorter distances become a distinct 100k NUE Series or are scored within the NUE series as a whole is currently under discussion.

NUE uses the top finishing times as a better gauge than a strict "100 miles” so there already several current NUE races are not a full 100 miles. The True Grit Epic, Grizzly 100, and Pierre’s Hole 100, for example, are less than the full 100 miles. However, their terrain and accumulated elevation make them equally as challenging as some of the full hundies.

MTBRacenews.com: What do you see as the most important aspects of a successful mountain bike race? What do you look for in potential NUE races?

Ryan O'Dell: A successful mountain bike race is a total experience that will include most or all of the elements that racers are looking for including a challenging and well-marked race course, a good vibe and welcoming atmosphere with smooth registration procedures, easy to understand directions, post-race festivities that include tasty food and quality brews to help celebrate the achievement along with timely post-race results and reporting.

The NUE Series is looking for events that already have a good regional draw. The questions we ask include: Is the course challenging without being over the top? Is it well managed? Does it have a good track record with racers? Is the race atmosphere fun? And finally, does it fit in well with the existing NUE race schedule?

MTBRacenews.com: Where do you see the NUE Series in 5 years?

Ryan O'Dell: Five years goes by so fast! It is still hard to believe we will be 11 years old in five years!

With the continued and emerging growth of NUE style endurance racing, we anticipate there will be many more quality events added to the schedule representing several new regions.

Since 2008, NUE has grown from just a handful of events to now 13 races in 13 different states nationwide. Many more races have requested to join and are now included on an official prospects list located on the NUE Schedule page of our website at www.nuemtb.com.

100% of what each race contributes to the overall cash purse is currently paid to NUE top finishers in addition to series-wide complimentary entry for division winners, so we anticipate that the cash purse will continue to grow in tandem as well.

However, NUE is focused on increasing the rewards for ALL NUE Series finishers who take the challenge and the hard effort it takes to complete the four race minimum. Every year, each of our growing number of sponsors contributes to a personalized prize package that is awarded to every NUE Series finisher in addition to prizes offered to every NUE race.

NUE will be sending online questionnaires to racers following each event beginning this season, both current and prospective events, with the intent of giving racers direct input in determining which races they like best and providing our directors with valuable information about areas we can improve, individually and collectively. Responses will be tallied and available online for all to see, including the NUE Advisory Board made up of participating race directors and NUE Champions.

Another very exciting focus at NUE is rewarding racers with opportunities. Last year, two NUE division winners, Cheryl Sornson and Gerry Pflug, received an all-expense paid trip to compete at the UCI LaRuta del los Conqustadores, www.adventurerace.com, in Costa Rica. This year, all four division winners will receive this award which includes airfare and perks like massage therapists, meals, lodging, and transfers following each stage.

NUE is currently working with our Squirt Lube sponsor on a possible South African adventure. Over the next five years, we hope to continue to grow and expand opportunities for all NUE races and racers so stay tuned for more good things to come your way from NUE.



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