After nearly two decades as one of America’s top mountain bikers, Exeter native Adam Craig is ready to turn his attention toward exploring trails less traveled after his recent retirement from competition.

“I told myself that when I turned 35 that I would step back and take a look and make sure I was still doing it for the right reasons and still wanted and needed to be doing it,” said Craig, a 19-time USA Cycling mountain bike national champion who represented the United States at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

“It has become pretty apparent to me in the last couple of years that my competitive drive has dissipated a little bit between the work of training all the time and then traveling around and doing competitions. It definitely starts to wear on you. You don’t get any better as you get older, typically, and I’d stopped getting better at it as other people have continued.”

The 1999 Dexter Regional High School graduate also cited the growing risk involved in the discipline he had pursued since missing out on an Olympic encore in 2012 — enduro racing — which times only the downhill sections of a course — as another reason for his decision.

“Enduro has been awesome for me, it revitalized my career after the 2012 Olympics and allowed me to refocus,” said Craig, who lives in Bend, Oregon, and will maintain his connection with mountain biking through work as an ambassador and in product development with Giant Bicycles. “But enduro’s more dangerous and it’s not an old man’s game, at least not this old man’s game.

“To be competitive at that requires a pretty serious risk-taking mentality that I’ve never really had. I’ve acknowledged that humans are pretty fragile, so I feel fortunate to have gotten out of that career without any major injuries.”

The road to Beijing

Craig participated in baseball, soccer and track as a youngster, but his sense of adventure drew him toward more off-the-beaten-path activities such as skiing and bike riding.

Craig got his first mountain bike at age 12 and began competing in races at Hermon Mountain. By 15 he was racing in the expert class, the highest level of the junior ranks, and in 1998 he placed second in the National Off-Road Bicycle Association junior nationals at Mount Snow, Vermont, to earn a berth on the U.S. junior world championships team.

Craig became a three-time U.S. U-23 cross-country champion from 2001 through 2003 and by 2004 established himself among America’s elite cross country mountain bikers, though he missed out on an outside chance to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Athens.

He soon emerged as the top American on the top-level International Cycling Union World Cup circuit and won USA Cycling elite cross-country national championships in 2007 and 2008 as well as the 2007 Pan American Games gold medal.

That led him to become the only U.S. men’s competitor in the 2008 Summer Olympics at Beijing where, after a slow start, he finished 29th.

“Racing cross country is what I knew and what I did,” Craig said. “That’s what took me from being a kid from Maine who showed up at the nationals in 1998 at Mount Snow and got a silver medal and started traveling the world until 10 years later I was racing in the Olympics.

“It was a pretty amazing journey.”

Craig continued competing around the globe on the World Cup circuit until being sidetracked in early 2010 by the only significant injury of his career. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate (knee) ligament not while biking but carrying groceries to his car in an icy parking lot.

“I’ve been careful, I guess, or lucky or both,” he said.

By May 2010 Craig was back competing in World Cup and national events with an eye toward the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

But illness early that year doomed his chances to qualify for the U.S. team, and by the end of 2012 Craig decided to change biking gears. He turned to enduro, a new speed rush of a discipline in which competitors are timed on several designated downhill sections of a course that can range from three to 15 minutes each.

As a newcomer competing against many riders transitioning from the more similar downhill racing ranks, Craig still finished ninth in the 2013 Enduro World Series championships.

“That was one of the results I was most proud of in my cycling career because to have a new challenge and to be able to succeed at it in the first season like that was pretty meaningful to me,” he said.

As Craig continued to compete in enduro racing for three more years, the decision to retire grew easier.

“I’m not a risk-taker, ultimately, which might sound silly considering my career, but there’s a lot of different levels of that,” he said. “The reason I haven’t got hurt in mountain biking is because I’m careful, and I don’t want to push my luck.

“What’s changed with enduro is the racing has gotten more competitive and as people have gotten more familiar with it the risk has gone up. It’s awesome and inspiring to watch, but I didn’t want any part of it.”

True to the outdoors

Craig has spent much of his time recently coping with one of Bend’s snowiest winters in a quarter-century, a flashback of sorts to his Maine roots.

But it’s been his ability to master the challenges of roots, rocks, mud and altitude at world-caliber speeds — on two wheels and at some of the world’s tallest mountains — that enables Craig to look forward to the next stage of his life with great anticipation.

“I feel pretty fortunate to have had a multi-phased career,” he said. “It definitely has made it more fun to stay in the game for as long as I have and it’s also laid the groundwork for having an appreciation of other aspects of mountain biking and given me a broader view of what to do to contribute to the sport moving forward.”

In addition to his continuing relationship with Giant Bicycles, Craig envisions himself becoming more heavily involved in trail construction, an interest piqued by some volunteer work with the U.S. Forest Service on some of its vast tracts of land in the Northwest.

“They’ve got so much trail to maintain that we’ve gone in and helped them with old, forgotten trails they just don’t have the time or resources to maintain, clearing out trees and deadfall and filling in ruts and making them work again,” he said.

Craig also hopes to use his familiarity with the region to serve as a backcountry tour guide on both bikes and skis.

“I’m excited to spend some time just putting together some big routes through the mountains, multi-day backcountry trips in more severe terrain that connects routes whether they’re old mining routes or old settlers’ routes and seeing what those people actually did,” he said.

“I’ll be just as busy as ever, I imagine.”

Avatar photo

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...