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That Win is Going to Leave a Mark

Heather Irmiger and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski talk to about her win at the Singlespeed World Championships, tattoos and life as a husband-and-wife mountain bike racing powerhouse.

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Jeremy Horgan-Kobelsk and Heather Irmiger the night before she won the Singlespeed World Championships in Durango, Colorado earlier in September. Photo by Gregg Keller

Between prepping for the UCI World Championships in Australia earlier this month, the traveling involved to get there and back and doing their duty for sponsor Gary Fisher, husband-and-wife mountain bikers Jeremy Horgan-Kobelsk and Heather Irmiger have been tough to track down lately.

But the cross-country and marathon National Championship-winning duo had one more trip – this one intergalactic – ahead: The Singlespeed World Championships in Durango, Colorado on Sept. 19.

It was there amongst scantily clad and costumed cyclists that Irmiger was marked for life, because the winners of the men’s and women’s divisions of the SSWC get a tattoo for their troubles. Now that the world championship/race/party are done, the couple had time to talk to

ST: Heather, do you sport any other ink in addition to your new Singlespeed World Championships “trophy”? If not, did you ever consider the phrase “If you don’t want the tattoo, don’t win”?
HI: The SSWC tattoo is my first. The phrase, “If you don’t want the tattoo, don’t win” echoed in my mind the day before the race and even throughout the race.  Every time a spectator would holler “First Woman!” I would shake my head and think, what am I doing?  I’ve never actually been conflicted about winning a race. I guess the bottom line is, I like to win and don’t how to throw a race!  It all worked out though. Nothing I’ve ever won has been this cool: costume-wearing fans, getting sprayed with beer throughout, and a back to my roots racing attitude.  SSWC was amazing, the tattoo design was actually really cool – I’m happy I won.

ST: Heather, I noticed in photos from the SSWC you were wearing some temporary sponsor tattoos. What was going through your mind when you were putting those on Saturday morning before the race considering the “real” deal for the winner?
HI: The temporary tats were my sponsor logos, since I was running an actual Paola Pezzo skinsuit and couldn’t put any patches on that. I really didn’t think much of it – I didn’t necessarily expect that I would win – I had heard some of the fast, local girls who knew the course inside-out were really gunning for it. I figured that my motorcycle-only riding policy of the previous two weeks would make it tough for me to run away with victory. I will tell you that on Monday, when the temporary tattoos still hadn’t washed off, I went crazy in the shower with a scrubber to remove them. As I finished off the temporary tattoos, I absent mindedly turned to the real one and almost went for it….”Oh wait, that one is real and isn’t coming off!”

Heather Irmiger says "there is no cooler tattoo" than the one the winners of the Singlespeed World Championships receive. Photo by Gregg Keller
Heather Irmiger says "there is no cooler tattoo" than the one the winners of the Singlespeed World Championships receive. Photo by Gregg Keller

ST: Considering the options – roses, unicorn, “Live free or die,” a knife stuck in a heart, etc – is there any other cooler tattoo out there? What does it mean to be in that small fraternity? Is there a secret handshake!? If you go to certain bars and flash your tat, do you get free beer or anything?
HI: For me, there is no cooler tattoo. I’ve never felt that anything I believed in, quoted or saw would have permanent enough meaning to place on my body. The fact that this tat was well designed, comes with a great experience, accomplishment, party and crazy stories is perfect. I didn’t have to find meaning, it came with it – and, by the way, I had no input on this thing! As for the other questions – I can’t tell you…unless you’ve got a tat.

ST: How much riding do you both do on singlespeeds? Was the SSWC just a one-off, one-gear deal?
HI: With the exception of the day before the race, I hadn’t been on a singlespeed in probably four years; the last time I rode at the Intergalactic SS Championships. As an Intergalactic Pilot, I used to ride SS from September-December as a fun off-season activity with my fellow pilots. My old Bontrager (original) SS slowly fell into a state of serious disrepair so I just hadn’t been riding it. I really missed the feeling of the SS, but now, with the sweet new Superfly SS, I expect I will be back in action for some regular training rides and off-season fun rides.

JHK: I rode singlespeed mountain bikes a lot in college and when I was an Under-23 [racer]. As was already mentioned in a few interviews, most of my riding friends when I moved to Boulder were the Intergalactic Pilots. We would kit-up in our blue suits, have informal races and do epic mountain rides on singlespeeds. I raced a bit locally on singles then as well, but haven’t ridden them as much in recent years. Getting back on one for SSWC was so fun.

ST: In general, how could someone looking to broaden his or her horizons on a mountain bike benefit from riding a singlespeed?
JHK: Singlespeed riding is incredibly fun and hard to explain why unless you’ve done it. Having one gear helps you read the terrain better and work hard to conserve momentum and be smooth in places where it might normally not matter.

ST: What bike did you guys race at SSWC?
JHK: We both raced the 2010 Gary Fisher Superfly SS. Incredible.
HI: INCREDIBLE – my gear ratio was 32:22 for the tough climbs. I loved not thinking about the shift; just rolling over the terrain with the big wheels.

ST: Both of you have had great success on 29ers this season. What are the comments you’ve heard about the big wheels on the World Cup circuit, particularly at the European stops?
JHK: Christoph Sauser and I were hanging out at the podium this year at Sea Otter and I asked him if he’s ridden much on 29ers at all. He said that he has one but he gave it to his mom and she rides it to the grocery store. Ha! There’s definitely not as much of a 29er movement in Europe, but I think that will change over time. The bikes and equipment are only just now at a World Cup level, and as people have more success on them internationally, people will take a harder look. Willow Koerber getting a bronze medal at the World Championships was a significant result in that arena.

Heather:  Many WC racers & Euros still ask “why” when it comes to the 29er platform.  I believe it won’t be long before that attitude changes.  At the World Championships, many of the top men were asking me about the bike – “is it easier?”, “wow, 29?”  I actually think that the smaller riders at the World Championships are turning heads the most since we weren’t originally supposed to be able to handle the big wheels.  Regardless of body size, I think that a properly fit 29er offers a technical advantage on every course. It rolls better, corners faster, and saves the rider from excessive fatigue. The top Euros can’t ignore that much longer.

ST: Do you guys hope that more pro racers do not go to 29ers? Do you feel you have something of an advantage on them? How is it that more racers haven’t embraced big wheels?
JHK: Domestically, many of the top riders have embraced them at this point. This year at XC Nationals, seven of the top 10 were racing big wheels. That is extremely significant. I don’t necessarily hope that more people don’t race them, however it was fun when I was pretty much the only top rider aboard a 29er.

HI:  It’s probable that more racers haven’t embraced the big wheels because not everyone rides for a program that produces them. I think if enough racers were given the option, they would try the platform and like it. I’m with Jeremy: It’s not that I feel like I’m at a huge advantage (you still have to train just as hard). I prefer the platform and enjoy being on the front end of what I believe is a huge movement in cycling history.

ST: Both of you have been racing for many years now. Do you enjoy being on the road? What are the perks and what are the difficult aspects. What are your must-haves when traveling?
HI:  I love the places we visit and even the traveling…although, after this year I have decided I have a three or four international flight a year mental limit. I was feeling a bit panicky by the Australian flight, after already visiting Chile, South Africa, and Europe twice. The perks are visiting more places in a year than most will see in their entire life, going to races in unusual, non-touristy places and understanding the people and cultures you visit.
Also, Jeremy is everywhere I am, so no need to miss the significant other! The down-side of the travel is NOT being able to do much more than ride the course, eat and sleep in these cool unexplored locations and the exhaustion that sets in with racing mixed with traveling. I also really miss our dogs and the routine of normal life at home. Being on the road has such a rhythm to it that you sometimes forget what month it is. One month has gone by and while you’ve raced and traveled, your friends have worked, gone on two camping trips, had four BBQs and planted the herb garden. And yet, I race my bike for a living, so sweet.
Must-haves for me: my travel pillow, gluten-free baking mix, melatonin and ear plugs.

JHK: I still enjoy being on the road and traveling. The biggest perk is simply the variety of places and things we get to experience over the course of a race season. Sometimes we get to stay an extra day here or there and do something other than bike racing. For example this year in South Africa we went to a game preserve after the race, which was incredible. Other times, I’ll go somewhere exotic and literally see only the airport, hotel and race course. In Santiago, Chile this year we were there for less than 72 hours, and I ended up frantically packing my bike in a dirty parking lot right after the race and flying home without even taking a shower. No matter how much fun it is though, it is tiring racking up so many days on the road and in airplanes. I end up neglecting a lot of things over the course of a busy year. I’m getting better at shortening my list of must-haves; good coffee for the AM and earplugs for the PM are two that still make the list.

ST: Since both of you are top-tier, elite racers, how do you separate the job from your “regular” lives? Especially when you’re traveling from race to race? Is it all part-and-parcel or do you try and not to talk about it at the dinner table (which could be difficult, as eating is so integral to training)?
JHK: Cycling as a job is so much our life that we can never really separate the two. There are times that the dinner conversation revolves solely around bike racing, and others when it never comes up. We don’t make a conscious effort to try and separate it.

HI:  Jeremy is right, it’s really too much our lives to consciously separate it.  I really do, however, look forward to the off-season and early base-training part of the season when we naturally separate it.  From October to February, Jeremy and I re-connect with friends, family, and all of the “normal” life responsibilities we’ve pushed aside from March-September.  When we aren’t only racing AND traveling, training becomes a part of our lives.  So, half the year we can separate the job from the “regular.”  We’re talking ski trips, avalanche classes, the bathroom remodel, the family, dogs…

ST: 2009 was a successful season: Both of you are national champs in XC and Marathon; Jeremy won the ProXCT and Heather finished third along with a top-10 at Worlds, and of course SSWC. How could have the season been better?
HI: My goal every year is to accomplish more and push myself further – especially internationally. The results this year were top-notch and I accomplished most of my goals. In the future, I aim for more consistent podium and top-10 performances at the World Cups. But what really made the year so amazing was our team and support.  I know it sounds cliché, but the season is only as good as the people around you. The entire team, Jeremy, Willow Koerber, and Sam Schultz had great results this year and we, along with our staff, really clicked more than ever.  The Fisher Team is vibing high and will bring more success for all of us.

JHK: 2009 was certainly one of my most satisfying seasons. I accomplished pretty much everything I set my sights on. One of the most gratifying things about this year is that it was also the most fun season I’ve had in a while – which is saying something because I enjoy pretty much all of them. That said, I had some really bad luck at the spring World Cup races, which made my whole international campaign harder. Next year I would like to have better races in April so that I’m better set up for the World Cups in the middle of the year when I’m at my fastest.