New Zealand’s Carl Jones makes North American debut at 2016 Keystone Big Mountain Enduro
2016 Keystone Big Mountain Enduro
What: A two-day enduro race for amateur and professional riders on the trails at Keystone, part of the nation-wide Big Mountain Enduro series with a prize purse of $45,000 split between six races
When: Saturday and Sunday, July 9-10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Where: Keystone Bike Park
The bike park will be closed to the public both days of racing, with a special public twilight session from 5-7 p.m. on Saturday only. The gondola is open to foot passengers (no bike haul) with a scenic lift ticket ($20 and up), and spectators are welcome to hike the course from the top or bottom. For more info, see the BME website at www.bigmountainenduro.com.
The London Olympics are still a touchy topic for Carl Jones.
In 2011, when the New Zealand native was the top-ranked cross-country (XC) mountain biker in his country, he figured he was a shoe-in for a spot on the Olympic team. He was 24 years old, in the best shape of his life, and, after facing most of the Olympic field on the UCI World Cup circuit in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, he knew what to expect at the 2012 Games.
That is, until politics got in the way. The New Zealand selection committee was already dedicated to a small crop of up-and-coming riders — guys who were too young to compete in 2012 but could maybe medal in 2016 — and so, with his Olympic hopes hanging in the balance, the committee cut all support.
“A lot of dreams were crushed with XC, with the Olympic selections and all of that,” Jones says.
The worst was yet to come. Not only did Jones miss his shot at Olympic gold — his home country didn’t send a single rider to the Olympics that year. Instead, the powers that be at Cycling New Zealand, the country’s governing body for all things biking, took a risk and banked it all on Sam Gaze and Anton Cooper. The 20-year-olds have enjoyed success at the international level — the two traded back-to-back UCI World Championship titles in 2015 and 2016 — but Cooper is now sidelined with an injury, meaning Gaze is his country’s sole chance for MTB gold.
Where does that leave Jones, then? Happier, mellower and having more fun, he says. After the Olympic debacle, he left the XC world for the new and rapidly growing enduro scene.
“Enduro is way more fun and so I crossed over,” says Jones, who started racing the timed stage race format two years back. “I did alright in some local races and figured I’d give it a crack.”
“Alright” is an understatement. At the moment, Jones is the top-ranked enduro rider in New Zealand, which earned him an invite to compete at Enduro World Series (EWS) races across the world.
But first, he needed to test his rubber. He was born and raised in Rotorua, the “mountain bike Mecca” of New Zealand’s north island, and, although the riding there is some of the best in the world, it’s typically rooty, flowy and punchy — nothing like the brutal altitudes of the Rocky Mountains.
This weekend marks Jones’ North American enduro debut at the 2016 Keystone Big Mountain Enduro, where he faces off against a slew of guys he knows well from the EWS circuit: Jared Graves, Curtis Keene, Crunk Shox, Jeff Kendal Weed and current EWS world champ, Richie Rude. It’s an entirely new style of riding on entirely new terrain, but those are only minor concerns for a pro with more than a decade of elite riding under his belt. From here, he heads to Aspen in late July for the sole EWS stop on the Big Mountain Enduro Series, and then travels north of the border for the next EWS stop, Cranworx Whistler in mid-August.
Before his continental debut today — and just 10 days after arriving in the U.S. for the first time ever — the Summit Daily sports desk caught up Jones to talk about his XC career, his burgeoning enduro career and why he expects to do well on the Keystone climbs, altitude be damned.
Summit Daily News: You left competitive cross-country riding after getting snubbed for the 2012 Olympics. I didn’t realize XC was so political.
Carl Jones: In 2011, three of us had enough points to qualify for the Olympics. I was the No. 1 ranked at the time, but there were a few younger fellas who were better than me — guys who were stronger but too young for the Olympics — so they didn’t send anyone. They were too young to go and I guess I wasn’t what they wanted. They were focused on training those young guys to get out there now, for this Olympics.
SDN: So you took up enduro. What has the switch been like?
CJ: I’m still learning this sport, that’s for real. I always raced on a hard tail, so crossing over to the trail bike has been a big learning curve. I’m two years into it now, but I’m still not as brave as I could be I guess. Once I know a trail I can ride — it just takes a few practice runs.
SDN: Have you had much time to test out the Keystone stages yet?
CJ: I came up Saturday (July 2) and yesterday (July 7), then I’ll get out there tonight. These trails are completely different. The hill is so big and rough — just totally different. I’m not sure how good I’ll do because of the changes, but I like how different it is. We were used to groomed dirt and roots back in New Zealand. We don’t have any rocks out in Rotorua.
SDN: How about the competition? I’m guessing you’ve raced against most of the field before.
CJ: I’ve rode against quite a few of the top boys out in New Zealand. I know how fast they are and, really, I don’t think I’ll be as fast as they are up here. I took fifth at the Crankworx Enduro in Rotorua this March. I was leading all the way until I crashed in the third race. It would have been nice to get a good finish, but that’s alright.
SDN: This is your North American debut and you’ve never seen the terrain before. What’s your secret weapon?
CJ: Pedaling is my strength. There’s really only one pedaling stage here, and usually the longest stage suits me. I’m from sea level too, so being up here is kind of weird. I start huffing, getting my puff on.
SDN: What are you looking forward to with this enduro series? Anything making you nervous?
CJ: The different style of riding, learning things about myself. I haven’t played around at altitude much so I was real pumped to come up this high, see what it’s like. The highest I’d been before this was 1,000 feet lower than we are right here.
SDN: Without jinxing yourself, what’s your goal for the Keystone race?
CJ: Definitely a top-20, that’s for sure, but I’m just really not sure how things will go on this terrain. I know there are a lot of top riders out there — a bunch of guys I’ve seen before — and it’s great to see those people. They will be tough, that’s for sure, but it will be fun.
SDN: Looking far ahead, where do you hope enduro takes you?
CJ: I’m hoping it gets me a pro contract. I’ll try cracking it for the next few years, and if that doesn’t happen I guess I’ll have to grow up a bit (laughs). You have such a small window to get a contract and I think it all depends on me getting better as an enduro rider. I think I get better with every single race, and, when I’ve only been doing it for two years, I’m learning new things. Out here are some of the biggest jumps I’ve done in a long time. You have to man up and do those bigger jumps to do good, to compete.
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