Canada’s Melanie McQuaid and South Africa’s Conrad Stoltz highlight the pro field’s at this weekend’s Xterra East Championship in Richmond, Va.
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What have you done every June since 2001? Some might have a traditional summer vacation spot or a birthday celebration, but for three-time Xterra World Champion Melanie McQuaid it’s crushing it at the Xterra East Championship in Richmond, Virginia.
Since she emerged on the scene in 2001 the former World Cup mountain biker from Canada has been remarkably consistent, making her way to the podium every June for 11 consecutive years, including wins in 2004, 2008 and 2009 – and six runner-ups.
“I’ll tell you what, I don’t remember actually finishing all of those,” McQuaid said with a smile at the annual media day on Brown’s Island with the city skyline looming in the background. She was referring to some of the collapses at the line she’s experienced as a result of pushing the envelope in stifling heat.
While McQuaid might not remember it, age grouper David Karasik does – in fact, it’s one of his favorite memories. “I remember Melanie just melting after finishing in second place in 2007, and then being dragged to the medical tent, loved that.” To be clear, he loved it because of the effort.
McQuaid’s all-in, do-or-die type of racing has endeared her to fans for more than a decade, and you only have to look back to October for the most recent example when she collapsed with the lead and a hundred yards to go at Xterra Worlds.
McQuaid was 28 when she made her first trip to the James River, and her success in the first one may have been the spark that ignited her career in Xterra.
“I was a swimmer in High School, ran a bit at University, and raced world cup in mountain biking for a while,” McQuaid explained when asked how she got into triathlon. “When I didn’t make the Olympic team for mountain biking I was just going to take a year off, maybe even quit, but then I discovered I was OK at Xterra and I could maybe improve over time and make it as a pro in this sport, and that kept me racing.”
She was more than just OK back in 2001, and proved it soon after with her first Xterra victory at the West Championship in 2002. She’s been one of the sport’s biggest stars ever since.
In the early years at the Xterra East Champs the bike course was a lot more wild and technical, and back then McQuaid’s bike handling skills carried her through.
“This was one of the more technical ones back in 2001 to 2007, and in the battles I had with Jamie Whitmore I’d get wins if I was riding well, and carried a lead off the bike where she couldn’t catch up. It’s less technical now, the field is stronger, and it’s just who has a better day. Like, for me to win on Sunday, I’m going to have to have a strong bike, but also not be weak on the run.”
Just like the course in Richmond, McQuaid has evolved through the years.
“I think you always have to challenge yourself and keep changing and developing. In the past four years I moved into the half-ironman stuff because its different people to race and its making me better at Xterra as well. So now I’m racing more of that at the same time which makes the in-season, like right now, more challenging because I have too many events on my schedule, but I think by the end of the year it will pay off to have worked my way through it.”
While the daunting race schedule may make McQuaid, who started her season with a win at the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, stronger come October it’s hard to imagine it’ll help her much on Sunday.
For one, McQuaid just came off a fifth-place finish last weekend in tough conditions at the Ironman 70.3 in Kona, Hawaii where she rode off the top for much of the bike. Second, the travel from the Hawaiian Islands to the East Coast is nothing short of brutal. To her credit, McQuaid is not offering it as an excuse. And three, the women’s field in 2012 is arguably the strongest it has ever been.
McQuaid will be up against last year’s Richmond winner and 2010 World Champ Shonny Vanlandingham, the 2010 Richmond winner and four-time Xterra European Tour Champ Renata Bucher, the reigning Xterra and ITU Cross Tri World Champ Lesley Paterson, and the rising star from Virginia, Suzie Snyder (who was the top American at ITU Cross World and was third in Richmond a year ago).
“A dozen years on the podium” sounds sweet, and rest assured 94-degree temperatures, tired legs, and fierce competition won’t keep McQuaid from giving it everything she has on Sunday to make that statement a reality.
Conrad “the Caveman” Stoltz – winner of six of the last seven here in Richmond and two straight in the Xterra U.S. Pro Series – shared a goldmine of great pre-race quotes to reporters gathered in Richmond yesterday – exemplifying the positive tone and professionalism that has served himself and the sport so well through the years.
He shared the classic story of his first trip to the River City, “Back in 2001 I was just an innocent roadie thinking I had reached the pinnacle of triathlon going to the Olympic games and I came to Richmond for my first Xterra. I borrowed this 35-pound soft ride bike a week before the race and came out just to see what Xterra was all about, and I was blown away. Mike Vine won, I got second, Lebrun was third, Steve Larsen fourth and Ned Overend fifth. After the race Steve and Ned came over to me and said ‘welcome to Xterra, great to see you’. The people were so friendly and I had such a good time that Xterra became my goal. I really lost my heart to Xterra in Richmond.”
But after the cameras were turned off and the recorders put away, he was solemn.
“It’s not the same without Dan,” he said.
Dan Hugo, the charismatic young South African that came “oh so close” to winning everything last year (he was second at the Pacific, Southeast, East, USA, and World Championship races) crashed hard on his road bike last week in Boulder, Colo.
“Clavicle in 3 pieces, thoracic spine chipped…untimely dog crossing road while in TT position,” he shared through his twitter account along with a heart-breaking picture of him in a hospital bed.
It’s not the same without Dan because he’s part of the Xterra Tribe, a very-real extended family that stretches around the world, and also because his promise seems too great to be so snakebitten.
At the Xterra USA Champs last year, when the media spotlight was shining at its brightest because of Lance Armstrong’s participation, he was having the race of his life and destined to have the breakthrough win of his career. He didn’t know the savvy and speedy Nico Lebrun was in striking distance until he went flying by with two miles to go in the run.
At the Xterra World Championship, despite a crash on the bike, he came up just 33 seconds short of winning a world title. To make it harder, just a month later race winner Michael Weiss was banned from competition for two years stemming from a 2005 doping infringement.
Last month, Hugo could not compete in the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships/Xterra Southeast Championship because he did not technically qualify to race for Triathlon South Africa, a sad and crushing blow to his hopes of competing for the Xterra U.S. Pro Series crown that started optimistically with a third place showing at the West Champs.
Now this. Through it all, he has stayed positive. Three days ago he reported surgery on his clavicle was successful, “7 pieces held by 12 screws. MRI showed nothing new. So just 5 spinous processes broken. Checkout soon.”
“Would have been great to be in Richmond,” he wrote this morning. “With open trails it’s going to be brilliant racing upfront between Stoltz, Evans and Middaugh. Often in Xterra the race scenario is unpredictable. Different line on the bike, unexpected stream crossing on the run, it’s much like life with its twists and turns. I’m often encouraging others to embrace and enjoy the unexpected. Seems I’m not so apt to doing so myself. The next few weeks will be patient and slow going, but all indications are thankfully fine for the future. Enjoy Richmond. I’ll be following with interest.”
Likewise the Xterra family will follow Dan’s recovery with interest, and look forward to welcoming him back to the starting line soon.