In front of a crowd of over 23,000 screaming fans in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, the UCI XCO World Championships concluded with the elite men’s race. Swissman Nino Schurther scored his fifth world title, tying the number of elite world titles of Frenchman Julien Absalon, with a dominating performance over local favorite Jaroslav Kulhavy and Absalon, who finished second and third respectively. Stephen Ettinger was the second American on the day in 50th place.
Ahead of the race, Ettinger didn’t have the positive feelings in his legs that an athlete wants to have in the lead-up to one of the biggest races on the calendar. But always the optimist, Ettinger was still confident that he would have a good day on a track that is just straight-up fun.
“I didn’t feel terrible, but I just didn’t have any spark,” said Ettinger. “I couldn’t get the legs to go. I was afraid of that because of the sensations I had coming in. It was really frustrating to have people riding past me at the start. You feel you’re at ninety percent and you know it. There’s nothing you can do. You can’t open that extra gear up. Maybe it’s the travel that caught up with me. I have traveled a lot in the last eight months. Or maybe it’s the weight of the last four years. The past month has been so emotional.”
Still trying to shake off the discouraging news that he was left off Team USA for the Rio Olympics, Ettinger flew to Czech with a lot of jumbled emotions still swimming in his head. But with the world championships on the line, the most important race next to the Olympics, Ettinger was hoping to switch off and tune in to the task at hand.
Unable to get the result he wanted, Ettinger ended his race with mixed emotions. On the one hand he was understandably disappointed by his result. On the other hand, he was absolutely exhilarated by the vivacious atmosphere that pulsated around the entire track.
“It was good, but it was not the race that I wanted to have,” said Ettinger. “It wasn’t the race that I’m capable of having. That being said it was one of the most unreal experiences I’ve ever been a part of racing a bike. This was my eighth worlds and none of them even compares. The crowd was totally on another level. The grand stands were packed and then the crowd was four people deep around the course. It was bonkers.”
Able to take a step back from all that has happened in the last week, the last month and the last four years, Etttinger is coming to terms with just how much emotional stress, added up day after day, year after year, affects the body and soul.
“I’m growing to appreciate how much stress adds up,” Ettinger said. “The past four years have been full on. The blinders have been on. My mom said I haven’t seemed happy. She said, ‘you’re trying to be relaxed and care free but you haven’t had that same spark’. There’s been a huge exhalation emotionally. In some ways it feels really good, and in some ways it’s hugely frustrating because the reason it’s happening is because I’m not going to Rio. It is what it is though. You have to take it for what it is and take it in stride.
“It’s about going back to the journey and figuring out what the journey is,” added Ettinger. “This is part of the journey. Learning this about myself and recognizing what has been going on the past four years and how demanding that has been. That’s part of the journey. It’s all good. There’s a huge decompression going on right now and I could feel it out there racing today.”
Racing in front of a raucous crowd was an exceptional experience for Ettinger, and so was ripping around on his new FOCUS O1E that uses the state-of-the-art Focus Optimized Linkage Design (F.O.L.D.) rear suspension.
“The new bike is unreal,” exclaimed Ettinger. “It’s so good. It’s so fast, so reactive. It does everything that you want it to confidently. It wants to climb, and then as soon as you point it downhill it wants to rip. I’m psyched. It’s an amazing, amazing bike. They did a phenomenal job."
Without a trip to Brazil in August, Ettinger is now readjusting his racing schedule to do things he’s never had the opportunity to do before.
“Now I get to do some different stuff to try to get the spark back,” Ettinger said. “I’ll be racing BC Bike Race come Thursday, which I have never done before. Then I’ll head to Mammoth for US nationals. Straight from there I’ll race on the road with Rally Cycling at the Cascade Cycling Classic. A few days after that I’ll race the Boston Rebellion and Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup before wrapping things up with the Leadville 100. It will be a busy six weeks.”
Adding to the thrill of racing the new O1E at BC Bike Race, Ettinger will also shift to the new Shimano Di2 XT that is being released at BC Bike Race.
With new, uncharted territory on the race calendar and cutting-edge equipment to help raise the stoke factor on the trails, Ettinger is sure to bounce back to being a dominant force on the XC scene.