For a 25-year-old professional mountain bike racer, six months off the bike is an eternity.
That’s what Russell Finsterwald was facing after an innocuous crash in cool-down following a June race last year. You wouldn’t wish a major injury on any cyclist — pro or amateur. However, the broken collarbone and torn ligaments led to an opportunity for him to step away from traditional cross-country racing for the 2018 season and focus on the Epic Rides Series of marathon races.
And so far, he’s off to a strong start.
Before crashing on a mellow trail after his second-place result at the Missoula ProXCT race last year, Finsterwald was coming into his own as one of America’s top cross-country racers.
He won both the short-track and cross-country as a junior at U.S. nationals in 2009, and he went on to win the under-23 XC championship in 2012 as part of the Subaru-Trek team. The young pro dove head-first into World Cup racing, heading to Europe in 2014 to race in the elite division after racing U23 worlds in 2013, as well as numerous U23 World Cups.
Back in the States, he was a favorite at elite national championships, winning the 2015 short-track nationals and finishing fifth in the cross-country that year. He was also third in both the STXC and XC at 2016 nationals.
Then came the June crash. “It was on the easiest trail you could possibly imagine,” Finsterwald says.
The rehab stretched through the entire summer. He used the time to explore hiking trails around his home in Colorado Springs and stuck to the physical therapy, which wasn’t particularly arduous.
More importantly, the time off the bike and away from the races confirmed for Finsterwald that pro racing was the right path for him, stoking his motivation.
“That was kind of the light at the end of the tunnel, it actually made me realize how much I love racing my bike,” he says. “This is what I want to be doing. I want to be back out there.”
Unfortunately, the injury wasn’t his only setback.
In late August, he learned that his SRAM-Troy Lee Designs team would not be continuing in 2018. On the mend, Finsterwald found himself motivated but lacking the sponsors needed to support his ambitions.
For the next seven months, he scrambled to put together his own team. He had a couple sponsors confirmed, but it wasn’t enough. Fortunately, just in time for the opening races at the Fontana ProXCT, he secured a spot on the Clif Pro Team.
“This off-season was a bit of a struggle, trying to put stuff together,” he says. “Luckily this Clif program came together last minute.”
How last-minute was it? “I was building the bike up the day before the Fontana ProXCT!” Finsterwald says with a laugh. He was 11th in that season kick-off race in California.
Although he’s been racing traditional cross-country early in the 2018 season, Finsterwald’s top goals are the four Epic Rides Series races, which began with Whiskey Off-Road, May 28-29. In part, his shift in priorities comes down to the fun atmosphere at races like Whiskey.
“For me, this is mountain biking,” he told VeloNews at Whiskey. “I don’t know if you’ve been to a ProXCT lately, but it doesn’t have that feel to it. There’s not this festival feel where a concert’s going on. It’s kind of like tunnel vision, you go there to race, you do your race, and you head out.”
Finsterwald likes the long, single-loop courses as well as the fun singletrack trails. He also recognizes the economic realities for sponsors. Many companies who sponsor pro mountain bikers want to reach the participants at Epic Rides events.
“Honestly, in the U.S., I don’t think sponsoring a World Cup athlete makes the most sense in terms of their return,” he adds. “My grip company ODI, they’re not going to sell grips in Europe, but if I’m here riding their grips and promoting them well, they’re going to sell grips here.”
He hasn’t completely forsaken World Cup racing, though.
“It’s just a totally different scene, and it’s a cool scene, and obviously it’s the pinnacle of the sport, the top level,” he says about his experiences racing in Europe. Finsterwald plans to return to racing World Cups in 2019, hoping to make the U.S. long team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and perhaps even get a spot on the final team.
As illustrated by the abrupt end to his 2017 campaign, there’s no reason to live in the future. For now, Finsterwald is enjoying his foray into marathon racing and doing quite well to start.
At Whiskey, he rode to fifth place in a stacked field. He reached the top of the big climb out of Skull Valley around 10th place, in good company with riders like Geoff Kabush (Yeti). Finsterwald saved a few matches for the little kickers on the way down into Prescott, Arizona and ended up fifth on a sunny, windy day.
“I was really happy with that,” he says of the result. “I’ve only done that race one other time and kind of struggle. I wouldn’t say that course is for my strengths.”
The upcoming second round in the Epic Rides Series in Grand Junction, on the other hand, may be better suited for the Coloradan. While he was felled by cramps in the 2017 Whiskey, slipping to 17th, he was third to Kabush and winner Howard Grotts (Specialized) in Grand Junction last year.
“Hopefully we can keep Howard a little closer and beat him at the end,” says Finsterwald, looking ahead to the Grand Junction Off-Road. “I need to have him in sight or be with him at the top of the Windmill climb. That’s sort of a decider in the race; there’s still plenty of pedaling left. I think it’d be realistic to bring back a decent amount of time, but I can’t be giving him three or four minutes.”