John Bilderbeck, '00, has been known to chase down mountain bikers on campus and staple flyers to their locked bikes. He isn't impounding the bikes or ticketing speeders but recruiting riders for Stanford's mountain biking team, which he captained for two years.
His sales pitch? Pump your legs so fast that the muscles burn as you push up a steep hill. Then race, heart pounding, down a steep, winding trail, jerking the handlebars left, right, left, to avoid crashing on tree roots or rocks. Repeat that drill until you can cover 25 miles in an hour and a half, coated with dust and mud, possibly scraped or bruised. Or worse. Team member David Pierce broke his collarbone last year when he flew over the handlebars during a race.
"You are really going at the limit of what you can do and how fast you can react," says Darius Contractor, '02, the team's current captain, about the tempting thrills of mountain biking.
Cycling has a long history at Stanford, and individual mountain bikers have been entering national competitions since the mid-1990s. But mountain biking took off as a club sport in 1997 when Patty Ciesla, '99, organized a small group of road racers who wanted to ride in mountain competitions.
The events are roughly modeled on skiing, with slalom, cross-country and down-hill races. Men and women compete separately, but the points each group earns make up a combined team score. Races typically begin with a steep climb where riders go all-out to get into good positions before a couple dozen get to the narrower, downhill trails.
This year, a core group of about 25 men and women are racing. They train from one to four hours daily, riding road bikes to build endurance and practicing maneuvers that enable them to race along tight, steep trails.
"There is this great misconception that people just go out on mountains--that it's not a serious sport," says Erin Kassoy, '98, MS '00. "In fact, a lot of people . . . train really hard on the road to get in shape and then go out on mountain bikes to get technical skills."
In 1998 and 1999, Cardinal mountain bikers finished second to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in the Western Collegiate Cycling Conference and sixth nationally. This fall, the team suffered from the timing of the nationals, which were held just after classes started in October--and the fact that Stanford had only two women competing. They finished tenth overall, out of 40 teams. The University of Colorado at Boulder, the sport's dominant team, won the national competition for the fourth year in a row.
"My goal is to develop and promote the mountain biking team so that we will eventually win the collegiate championship," says coach Charles Lai, an avid cyclist. "I'm encouraged by the fact that although Stanford cross-country and women's basketball weren't competitive in the past, both teams are now national powerhouses. And there's no reason why the mountain bike team can't achieve the same success."
A graduate of the University of Utah, Lai says Stanford cyclists may not have the snow-covered peaks looming behind the campus he enjoyed as a student, but there are plenty of steep climbs, single-track trails and fire roads in the area for training. Lai takes time off every Thursday afternoon from his job as president of Creation Engine, an academic software firm, to meet prospective team members at Roble gym and lead a ride. "Cyclists can put in a lot of road mileage year-round," he adds.
As it happens, mountain bikes were invented in the Bay Area--by Specialized, which introduced the inexpensive, mass-produced "Stump Jumper" in 1981. But that local history is only part of what draws students to the sport today, according to veteran team members.
"There is a cool camaraderie," Bilderbeck tells would-be competitors. "Normally, it would seem like an individual sport, but you . . . conquer the race course and then you can talk about it with your team. That's what gets people to race--the camaraderie."