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Geoff Kabush pedaled into his first season as a professional mountain biker aboard a bicycle that you might now find at a garage sale.
The hardtail had rim brakes, 26-inch wheels, an eight-speed cassette, and a suspension fork that utilized rubber elastomers for cushion — cutting-edge technology back in 1996. Then 19 years old, Kabush raced his prehistoric rig in both pro downhill and cross-country events against some of the sport’s most celebrated forefathers: Ned, Tomac, Tinker, Dave “the Vanilla Gorilla” Wiens, among others.
Kabush’s connection to mountain biking’s past adds a compelling dimension to his current place within the sport. Now 41, Kabush still races — and often wins — some of the most important dirt races in North America. Kabush can beat the best gravity racers at enduro events; he can also win a gravel race, a mountain-bike stage race, or a cross-country.
He is both a relic from mountain biking’s golden age and an innovator who is driving the sport toward its new future.
“As I’ve evolved, it’s been fun to see how the sport has changed and added these new events,” Kabush told VeloNews this spring “I’ve just done the events that are fun to me, and it just happens that they are popular — and the sponsors are buying in.”
Kabush’s success across dirt racing’s new landscape makes him perhaps the most visible and marketable mountain bike racer in North America. For 2018, the Canadian has assembled a portfolio of personal endorsements that includes, among other brands, two distinct bicycle sponsors. This year Kabush will race gravel events — including Dirty Kanza 200, where he was third on Saturday — for bike company OPEN, the Michigan-based brand fronted by Gerard Vroomen. For his mountain bike races, Kabush will ride for Yeti Cycles and help the longtime gravity brand make inroads into the cross-country space.
“I’ve been able to sustain a steady and sustainable income from racing my bike,” Kabush said. “I’m not going to retire off of cycling, but I’ve been lucky to have a comfortable lifestyle.”
Kabush downplays his financial and racing success within mountain biking’s new era — he’s simply following a passion that he developed as a teenager, he said. Those who know him best credit Kabush’s late-career surge to distinct qualities within his personality and racing career. He never burned bridges within mountain biking’s cash-strapped sponsorship market. He separated himself from the doping culture that crept up around him. And, above all, Kabush cultivated the skills to excel on all varieties of terrain. “The market has changed, and [so have] those clear delineations of where cross-country starts and gravity ends,” said Chris Conroy, co-owner of Yeti Cycles. “Geoff is the cross-country guy who could always descend. He fits into this perfectly.”
NORTH AMERICA’S PROFESSIONAL MOUNTAIN-biking landscape took a dramatic turn a decade ago. Week-long “epic” stage races and ultra-distance backcountry events upended the traditional two-hour cross-country format. The sport’s two cultural groups — adrenaline junkie downhillers and calorie-counting cross-country racers — began to blend at enduro and all-mountain events.
The shift came as Kabush and his cross-country cohort began to enter the second half of their respective careers.
“You could see that stuff was changing — it wasn’t just about the World Cups and the Olympics anymore,” Kabush said. “These [new] races were in cool locations that were actually fun to go visit. That was always a struggle with the cross-country races — sometimes it was just a short loop in a city park.”
Kabush had already built a storied career around cross-country’s Olympic format. His descending skills were perhaps the best in North America — a credit to his upbringing on British Columbia’s technical trails. His sideburns became de rigueur within the mountain bike scene in the mid-2000s. And on occasion, he was known to don a mullet wig and impersonate the character “Deaner” from the Canadian alt-comedy film “FUBAR.”
Kabush dominated the National Mountain Bike Series’s cross-country and short track standings for much of the decade, and qualified for three Olympic Games (2000, 2008, 2012). He also amassed a collection of top finishes on the World Cup. His victory at the World Cup race in Bromont, Quebec, in 2009 still stands as the only win by a North American man in the series since 2003.
The results were there, however, the big payday was not. By the time Kabush hit his peak, the cash that fueled mountain biking in the late 1990s and early 2000s had evaporated. Top domestic riders could still earn low six-figure paychecks, but not transformational wealth. Eric Wallace, Kabush’s manager for the Maxxis team, said he pitched Kabush and his all-around talents to sponsors as the next John Tomac, in hopes of landing a big payday.
“I wanted Geoff to be the next hero for North American mountain bikers,” Wallace said. “Our sponsors embraced it, but when it came time for me to ask for money, I got a lot of high fives instead.”
After the 2012 Olympics, Kabush watched his peers deviate from cross-country. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Adam Craig switched to full-time enduro racing in 2013; both retired a few years later. Todd Wells blended 100-mile and stage races with his cross-country program in 2012 and moved to full-time ultra-endurance racing a few years later. Wells retired in 2017. Ryan Trebon focused almost entirely on cyclocross, while Barry Wicks turned his attention to multi-day stage races and the new Epic Rides Series while dabbling in gravel racing.
Kabush, however, remained dedicated to cross-country’s orthodoxy. After the London Games, he signed on with the new Scott-3Rox racing to make a push for the 2016 Olympics, which meant more years chasing points on the World Cup circuit. But as the years went by, and Kabush entered his late 30s, his high-end speed began to fade. He rarely sniffed the front of a World Cup race.
“You find yourself off the front by two rows at a World Cup and it becomes a lottery — you find yourself behind a crash or in the back fighting and it gets really frustrating,” Kabush said. “For a few years, it felt like I was banging my head against the wall.”
Kabush failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics; Canada’s sole slot went to Raphael Gagne. A few weeks later, Kabush was informed at the 2016 Interbike trade show that Scott would end its sponsorship of the 3Rox team; the bike company agreed to back Kabush on an individual deal.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, Kabush was without a professional mountain biking team — no mechanic, masseuse, or team director. On the first day of the 2016 Interbike show, Kabush strolled the showroom floor pitching himself to sponsors, unsure whether the industry would step up to give him a ride. He carried an envelope with his racing accolades and wore a smile. Kabush did not appear deterred by the financial uncertainty — he joked with journalists that he felt like a teenager again, pitching his services for bike parts.
Kabush’s sales pitch at Interbike had little to do with the Olympics. Instead, he embraced mountain biking’s new popular events. He targeted the Epic Rides Series, stage races like the BC Bike Race and Breck Epic, a handful of gravel events, and even gravity events like the Downieville Classic and Trans-Cascadia enduro.
As the fall dragged into winter, sponsors pledged their support for his individual racing program. Tire manufacturer Maxxis came on board, as did Shimano, apparel manufacturer Louis Garneau, and suspension company Fox.
“I had to bug people and make cold calls — it wasn’t the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” Kabush said. “I didn’t have a platform yet that I could show them of what I had done, I just had to tell them what I planned to do.”
AT THE 2004 SEA Otter Classic Kabush finished second in the cross-country race to Belgium’s Filip Meirhaeghe, the defending world champion. Doping rumors swirled around Meirhaeghe and his superhuman-like speed that season, and the Belgian eventually tested positive for EPO later that summer.
A year later, when Kabush won Sea Otter, he stood atop the podium in a T-shirt that read “Doper’s Suck.”
Kabush butted up against doping throughout his career. As pro road racing became inundated with performance-enhancing drugs, cross-country racing saw multiple high-profile drug busts too. Rumors surrounded other athletes who never tested positive.
Kabush regularly used his platform to condemn doping. He told reporters he was not bitter about drug cheats, but simply proud that he had found ways to beat them clean.
Behind the scenes, however, the specter of doping wore away at him.
“Geoff talked about it every day. ‘How do you get around it? Why continue to race while everybody else is cheating?’ It got to him,” Wallace said. “Beating those guys was the driving force for him for a few years.”
Kabush’s career trajectory was also impacted by doping. He regularly raced on the domestic scene against Chris Sheppard, who tested positive for EPO in 2005. In 2004, he missed qualifying for the Olympics after Ryder Hesjedal and Seamus McGrath took Canada’s two spots. Both later admitted to doping under the guidance of Michael Rasmussen during the 2003 season.
Kabush says he does not believe those riders only doped in 2003 (Hesjedal declined to comment). Kabush trained alongside McGrath and Hesjedal in the early 2000s. After watching their performances rocket upward, he suspected something was amiss — friends told him the boost in performances was due to PEDs. Kabush chose new training partners or rode by himself.
[pullquote attrib=”Geoff Kabush on doping in mountain bike racing”]“It had a big impact on my career and my friends’ careers. There were definitely victims.”[/pullquote]
Pro cycling has spent the last 20 years debating whether or not to welcome back admitted dopers. Those who confess are often invited back into pro road cycling. That’s not the case within North America’s off-road community. After Sheppard’s bust, he struggled to re-enter the cross-country scene and eventually retired.
Sponsors rallied behind Kabush and his anti-doping platform. Kabush often references his experiences within cycling’s doping era and is quick to point fingers at those riders who were caught cheating. He holds an athlete representation position within Canada’s cycling federation and says he has no interest in welcoming back the riders from his era who broke the rules.
“It had a big impact on my career and my friends’ careers,” Kabush said. “There were definitely victims. A lot of people who made the good choice had to quit or move on, and I’m not going to forget about that.”
EVERY JUNE, NORTH AMERICA’S mountain bike community descends on Bend, Oregon, for a beer-filled weekend of racing. The Blitz, as it is called, invites select racers to sprint down the slopes of Mt. Bachelor and then chug a pint of beer in the fastest possible time. Then, competitors participate in an arm-wrestling tournament to crown a final champion. Kabush has won the event three times.
Wicks says that Kabush’s dominance of the Blitz’s arm-wrestling competition speaks volumes about the Canadian’s longevity in the sport.
“Geoff actually researched how to win [an arm-wrestling competition] and showed up and killed everyone,” Wicks said. “Yeah, there’s a trick to it, and Geoff was the only one who put in the time and figured it out.”
Tales of Kabush’s racing intellect circulate throughout the racing community. When Kabush narrowly finished second to Carl Decker at California’s Lost and Found gravel race — an event that is equal parts race and party — he spent hours analyzing where he could have made up time. Throughout Kabush’s career, he has studied the various ways to win a bicycle race. A cross-country race is often won by a perfectly-timed attack in the right section of course. The fastest sprint wins a short-track. An enduro race is often decided by tire selection and knowledge of the riding environment.
“It was always a chess match for Geoff,” Wallace said. “People called him ‘the stalker’ because he would sit back and just watch what everyone else was doing before making his plan.”
Throughout his 2017 season, Kabush discovered the tricks to win his new crop of target races. In June he pipped Wells to win the fat tire criterium at the Epic Rides race in Grand Junction; he finished second to Howard Grotts in the cross-country. In July he won the seven-day BC Bike Race. In August Kabush won the Downieville Classic, the self-proclaimed All-Mountain World Championships.
[pullquote attrib=”Eric Wallace”]“It was always a chess match for Geoff. People called him ‘the stalker’ because he would sit back and just watch what everyone else was doing before making his plan.”[/pullquote]
Kabush said there are no tricks to his victories. Instead, each win represented the end result of a long process. His win at the 2016 Trans-Cascadia enduro race was the outcome of his stab at the 2013 Trans-Provence enduro, where he struggled. His win at Downieville came after he determined the lightest bike and tire setup he could run on the punishing course.
“I take advantage of what I’m good at,” Kabush said. “I love finding new ways to take advantage of my skills and my equipment, and taking some risks to try and win.”
In October Kabush won his second title at the Trans-Cascadia enduro, a blind enduro event (in which riders are not allowed to inspect the course) that invites a select group of mountain biking’s elite gravity and endurance racers to camp out in the Pacific Northwest’s backwoods. The race featured a web of mossy, slippery trails through the dense forest. After Kabush won the event in 2016 organizers removed some of the climbs to make it friendlier to the gravity crowd. Yet again, Kabush prevailed in 2017, showing that his abilities on the descents were on par with gravity racing’s strongest riders.
At the podium ceremony, Kabush sprayed third-place finisher and multiple-time gravity world champion Brian Lopes with champagne. Lopes, 47, is perhaps the most decorated American mountain biker of all time and a member of mountain biking’s Hall of Fame.
After Lopes threatened Kabush not to spray him again, Kabush poured beer on Lopes. The Californian reacted by punching Kabush in the chest. A video of the confrontation circulated on Instagram and both men gave interviews to the mountain biking site Pinkbike.com about the incident.
“I think it reinforced that I’m having a lot of fun out here,” Kabush said.
Kabush brushed off the incident. He was just trying to get Lopes to loosen up during the fun camping trip. It wasn’t a fight, so much as it was two 40-something mountain biking legends goofing around in the woods.
And why should Kabush worry? After all, he won.