By GLENN JORDAN - GEORGETOWN -- Michael Patrick, an experienced mountain bike racer from Connecticut, crept up on the leader during a recent race at Reid State Park. This was his chance, he knew, to challenge Adam Craig. "Come on, Michael!"
The cheer came from a spectator. Patrick heard it. So did Craig, who quickly turned his attention back to the trail.
"He looked back and then, poof, he disappeared," Patrick said later, still amazed. "Before I knew it he had 30 seconds on me."
What's more, Craig, a 22-year-old graduate of Dexter High School, was riding a bicycle with a single gear and no suspension, a high-tech version of the bike kids once pedaled to the local ballfield with a baseball glove looped over a handlebar.
"And he still dusted the field," said John Kilber, shaking his head.
Kilber is both a racer and organizer of mountain biking races in Maine. "We think we're fast guys," Kilber said, "but he's really fast. He's on a different level."
The eight-race Adam Craig Junior Mountain Bike Series concluded recently . . . with many of its participants not knowing Craig from Adam. After cutting his teeth on the rocks and roots of Maine, Craig now races out west and in Europe, where he was the top American in a recent World Cup race in Austria.
He may not be the best mountain biker in the country, but if there's a three-man race to determine who is, Craig will be invited. He is the country's leading espoir (under-23) rider and a prime candidate to represent the United States next summer at the Athens Olympics.
Nevertheless, "even the local riders don't know who he is anymore," said Kilber. "It's not a visible sport, and he's beyond our series."
Craig shrugged off the lack of notoriety. He hunkered down at a picnic table, wearing navy blue spandex shorts and shirt, flip flops and sunglasses pushed above his neat black hair, as three dozen beginning mountain bikers negotiated twists and turns, roots and rocks, and plenty of mud.
"It gets kind of frustrating sometimes," he said. "But I'm not really in it for the (high) profile. We're Americans and we love ball and stick sports, and that's what's going to be in the media. I'm still enjoying what I'm doing."
Craig grew up in Exeter, a few miles north of Bangor, and started riding mountain bikes at 12 because the guys at the local bike shop were into it. He played baseball and soccer and ran track, and skied downhill and cross country through high school. He was a two-time Class C skimeister - the Nordic and Alpine combined champion - and still hits the slopes in winter.
"I'd like to pursue Nordic ski racing a little bit," said Craig, who also dabbles in whitewater kayaking, "but it doesn't blend too well. That would be stressing the body a lot."
As a high school junior, Craig dropped all other sports but skiing to focus on mountain biking, which made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996.
In the fall of 1999, Craig took up residence at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and remained there through the spring of 2001. After one year at the University of Maine in Orono, during which he won an NCAA mountain biking title, he decided to see whether he could pedal for a living.
A bicycle manufacturer, Giant, offered him to a two-year contract. So Craig put his geology major on indefinite hold and followed his dream.
"My salary isn't that much money," Craig said, "but they pay for absolutely everything associated with racing, so the salary is pretty much money in my pocket. My philosophy is, riding is working and recovering is working, so I'm pretty much working all the time. I'm doing the same thing I've been doing for the past five years, but finally, with some financial security."
Craig's race schedule this season included events in Germany, Scotland, Vermont, Quebec, Colorado, British Columbia and Idaho. Earlier this month, as the season was winding down, he traveled to Switzerland for the World Mountain Bike Championships . . . and was told he could not compete.
Seems the sport's governing body, with the Olympics a year away, was cracking down on previously lax policies, such as twice-yearly mandatory medical testing, which helps guard against blood doping. Craig, who didn't receive word until early July he was supposed to have undergone a spring medical, is all for the monitoring.
"It's great they have that program, because it makes it harder for the cheaters to cheat," he said. "I'd do a blood test once a month if that's what they think they need to do."
Instead of medaling, and possibly winning, the under-23 event at Worlds (he finished 14th a year ago), Craig was a spectator. The following week in Austria (inexplicably, the riders from a dozen nations who also fell victim to the stringent Worlds policy all were free to ride at the ensuing World Cup event), Craig started from the rear, but passed each of the previous week's medalists.
"That was good for me to know, that I had the form I needed to get a title," Craig said. "I learned a lot in the last couple weeks. I didn't seek out that (medical) information because I didn't know I needed to, but when you get right down to it, it's my responsibility."
In Austria he finished 23rd in the elite (all ages) category, and was the U-23 runner-up. Current world rankings list Craig at 76th, the third American behind Todd Wells of Durango, Colo. (62nd), and Jeremy Horgan-Kobleski of Boulder, Colo. (45th).
As long as the United States finishes between sixth and 15th in team rankings this year, as seems likely, two U.S. riders will compete in Athens.
"Adam is an elite rider, one of the top Americans," said Matt Cramer, the national mountain bike development director. "With his progression and his fitness and his racing ability, he's shown he has a legitimate shot for the team next year."
A typical mountain bike race consists of multiple laps of a 5- to 10-mile course over varied terrain. You might have a long climb up a dirt road followed by a descent along a narrow single track, like a hiking trail. A typical international race lasts more than two hours.
Craig is known as a strong technical rider. At a chiseled 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Craig may not climb as quickly as smaller, lighter riders, but he makes up for it in other areas.
"A good technical rider means being able to ride rocky, rooty, muddy terrain," Cramer said. "You don't think descending takes a lot out of you, but it does."
Off the bike, Craig appears devoid of pretense. He speaks with rising intonation, which makes each statement seem matter-of-fact.
"He's a laid-back guy," said budding professional Andrew Freye, 19, of Winthrop. "He's given me a lot of advice and training trips. I'm always asking him what I can do better, because he's the best. He's a big role model."
Craig has a few more races, in Seattle and Portland, Ore., before his season ends. He has a friend in New Zealand and a wealth of frequent flier miles, so he plans on entering the Australian national championships in November. Come January, he'll begin training anew, with his eyes on Athens.
"I'm very happy with this year," he said. "I met all the goals I had the option of meeting."
The frustration of being forced to watch the year's biggest race won't go away, but Craig knows exactly what to do with it.
"I've got some new motivation for my next goal," he said. "That's where it's all getting channeled."
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