By Ernie Clark of the Bangor Daily News
DEXTER & EXETER - He had largely removed the element of surprise with his performances throughout the spring and early summer.
Still, Tuesday afternoon's announcement that he had been selected to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Mountain Bike Team was quite satisfying to Exeter native Adam Craig.
"This has been my goal for the last four years," said the 26-year-old Craig from his home in Bend, Ore. "I pretty much knew this was the situation for the last month or so, but I'm glad that it's come to fruition."
Craig is one of two men named to the U.S. Olympic Team, along with Todd Wells of Durango, Colo.
Wells automatically qualified by earning the highest cumulative placing among American riders in his best three 2008 International Cycling Union World Cup events this spring.
Craig earned the final U.S. berth as a discretionary selection of USA Cycling.
Craig was the only American other than Wells to record a top-10 finish in a World Cup race this season, placing eighth at Offenburg, Germany. Additionally, Craig was the only other U.S. rider to place in the top 20 of four World Cup races, adding a 15th-place finish in Houffalize, Belgium and two 16th-place efforts at Vallnord, Andorra, and Fort William, Scotland.
"I've been super happy with my spring," said Craig. "It was exactly the kind of season I wanted. I had some races when I raced up front battling for a podium finish, and the rest of the time I raced well enough to make the U.S. team, hopefully with enough left in reserve to have a good run in Beijing."
In five World Cup races and the recent UCI World Championships at Val di Sole, Italy, Craig was the top American once, the second-fastest U.S. rider behind Wells four times and third once behind Wells and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, the two riders who represented the United States in the 2004 Summer Games at Athens, Greece.
That consistency, particularly Craig's ability to defeat his biggest challenger for the second U.S. spot, Horgan-Kobelski, throughout the spring, left Tuesday's Olympic announcement as largely a formality for Craig.
"Adam had a good spring, a solid spring," said Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling's mountain bike and cyclo-cross manager. "It wasn't his best spring, but with the performances he had he did what he needed to do: earn the discretionary selection over other four riders we considered.
"We're excited to have both Todd and him on the team."
The 2008 Olympic men's mountain biking race will be held Saturday, Aug. 23, on the Laoshan Mountain Bike Course located just outside Beijing. Craig describes the 4.6-kilometer course as more of a speed course than a route that emphasizes technical skills such as coping with the roots and rocks Craig grew up traversing across as a fledgling mountain biker in Eastern Maine.
"It's a power course," he said. "You'll see who is the strongest at 40-second climbs but it's fair, there's really not that much about it to separate the people who grew up in Maine from the people who grew up in Belgium."
Craig was among 47 elite riders from around the world who tested the Beijing course during a race last September, but just eight riders finished the 10-lap race, most victims of poor air quality.
"It was less than ideal," said Craig. "Hopefully they'll do some things to alleviate the situation, and hopefully I'll be better able to adjust to the climate when we get over there this time. I hope it rains."
Craig, a graduate of Dexter Regional High School, was a top junior mountain biker regionally before bursting onto the elite men's scene in 2004, when he joined the World Cup circuit full time and challenged for an Olympic berth but fell short.
Since then the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Craig has gained full sponsor support from Giant Bicycles and settled in comfortably among the world's best mountain bikers.
Craig was the top American in the final UCI World Cup point standings in 2006 and 2007, and ranks second to Wells among U.S. riders so far this season, with Wells ranked 11th worldwide and Craig 16th.
Craig also has 11 top-10 finishes overall in World Cup races since the start of the 2004 season.
It's a competitive background that leaves Gullickson, for one, optimistic about the chances of both U.S. representatives in Beijing.
"Both Todd and Adam are super-talented riders," he said, "and both are quite determined not to be just participants at the Olympics but to go over there and make a statement."
Gullickson added that since the Olympic mountain biking field is generally smaller than a World Cup entry list — 50 riders from 32 countries will compete in Beijing, compared to more than 100 for most World Cup races — that the chances for a U.S. medal breakthrough, while not great, do exist with this year's duo of Craig and Wells.
"Both guys know what they have to do to get a top-three spot," Gullickson said, "and both are very willing to focus on that for the next few months."
Ironically, much of Craig's pre-Olympic training will take place on the East Coast. After resting over the Fourth of July, Craig plans to fly east next week, initially to compete in a National Mountain Bike Series event at Windham, N.Y., on July 12-13.
Then he'll head to Mount Snow in Vermont — site of some of his earliest triumphs as a junior rider a decade ago — the following weekend where he is the defending men's cross country and Super D champion at the National Mountain Biking Championships.
Craig then will resume his World Cup schedule with back-to-back events in Quebec, at Mont-Sainte-Anne northeast of Quebec City July 27 and at Bromont east of Montreal on Aug. 3.
"It should be a pretty good preparation for China," Craig said. "It will be hot and humid."
Craig, Wells and Georgia Gould, the first of two U.S. women's mountain bikers to be selected for the Olympic team, then will head to San Francisco on Aug. 4 before leaving for the island of Jeju, just off the coast of South Korea, for a pre-Olympic training camp.
Craig expects to arrive at the Olympic Village on Aug. 20, with a couple of days of training on the Olympic course preceding the chase for the gold on the 23rd, the next-to-last day of the Beijing Games.
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