ben cruz interview mtb-10
ben cruz interview mtb-10

‘Talent spotted’ at a young age by US legend Mark Weir, Ben Cruz is now forging ahead in the world of mountain bikes, travelling the world and living the racing dream...

From Dirt Issue 124 - June 2012

Words by Matt Wragg. Photos by Tai Power Seeff and Sven Martin.

Think of an enduro racer. The chances are that Ben Cruz is none of the things you were thinking of…except fast. Aside from being young, laidback and incapable of taking anything seriously, he’s American. Barely 21 and coming out of Northern California, he’s the youngest member of the biggest team on the enduro circuit, WTB–Cannondale. Having fast, experienced teammates like Jerome Clementz and Mark Weir to learn from is a start to his career that plenty of young racers would kill for. Despite admitting that he is still figuring things out, he managed to catch people’s attention last year with his first few trips to Europe. He more than held his own against the world’s best at the Enduro of Nations and came back later in the summer to take part in the epic enduro stage–race, the Trans–Provence.

We caught up with him at his pre–season team camp in Finale Ligure, Northern Italy, to find out how an American ended up racing enduro for a living, what it’s like for him coming over here to Europe and how he turned his ankle into barbeque chicken. >>

Click through to keep reading...

[part title="Ben Cruz Interview - Page 2..."]

ben cruz interview mtb-11
ben cruz interview mtb-11

I grew up racing downhill, but where I live in North California we have no shuttle runs. So every day I was pedalling, pedalling, pedalling. Because I wanted to do the downhills, I’d have to do these long climbs. I was always saying ‘no, I’m not a cross country rider, I’m a downhiller.’ I wasn’t doing it on a downhill bike, it was a trail bike. So I kept on getting more and more into it and then I started winning downhill races on my trail bike. I used to race all the NORBA DH nationals as a junior.

I gave up on those races though, because everybody there was so cliquey, and if you weren’t in the group all of a sudden you’re the outcast. Everybody is hanging out in their super, fancy–ass race kits, their shiny gear and everybody is looking all clean. And then there was me and my three friends, we would show up in some beat–down ass old truck, sleeping in the parking lot, all dirty and everybody was like, ‘these kids are gross’. For me enduro is so rad because it’s what I do everyday – I go out and I pedal and do big descents. It just fits hand–in–hand.

Mark Weir has obviously played quite a big role in your career, bringing you with him on Santa Cruz and now Cannondale. How did that all happen?

I’ve known him since I was eight, we’d go banging on his door. He and his friends would be hiding bottles of booze and pretend to be eating cereal when all the little kids came around. He took notice of me after I got out of high school because he would see me in the hills every day. I remember the first day that I actually rode with him. I had run into him when I was out on my 40lb VP Free with a 38–tooth chainring, no water and no food. It was just him and two other dudes, and they asked me if I wanted to ride. I went with them and all of a sudden I was up at the front pedalling with Mark and dropping his friends. From then he took me under his wing and told me, ‘you’re good at this, you should start racing enduro’. That’s how it all came about, he basically said, ‘we’re going to get you fitter, get you faster, fine–tune your skills...’ and we’re still working on most things, like not crashing...

Are you beating the other fast Americans, like Weir and Jason Moeschler, in the races?

Weir and Moeschler are old, therefore they are stronger and much wiser than me...I can hang with Weir on the climbs and descents, he is a lot more conservative and is good at not crashing, unlike me! I know I can shotgun a beer faster than him though! Jason is a fit son of a bitch. He will drop me uphill, but I can beat that high–poster downhill most of the time. Although when it comes to brains he surpasses my mental strength by a long way. Being the youngest member of the WTB–Cannondale team means I have the chance to learn from strong, established riders. I may not be beating them on a daily basis but they have laid out the map for me, now I have to find my own path. One day it'll happen but for now I want to just keep learning.

A lot of the guys who do well at enduro are a bit older and stronger, how does a younger guy like you approach the fitness side of things?

I used to do cross-country running races when I was in school, I was within the top ten in the state, which has helped. Right now I have been on a winter programme trying to tune my skills up: trail riding, downhill stuff – I jump in the truck and do some shuttles if I can. A couple of weeks before Sea Otter each year I get more into fitness, I get on the road bike and start putting the power down. With US racing that’s what you have to do, it’s all ‘let’s pedal to victory’.

What is the enduro race scene like in the States?

We have Super–D, the Oregon Enduro Series is what it’s called now. It’s very cross–country based...open–face helmets, no kneepads and everybody is in full spandex. I’ve been at multiple races where 29ers have won the race, it’s not the raddest thing. I did Ross Schnell’s Tressle Park Enduro, the format was really good, but it wasn’t anything like the Euro–style riding because it was in a bike park. All the trails were set in stone and all the locals knew the trails. It was at 14,000ft, so it was impossible for me to breathe too!

ben cruz interview mtb-2
ben cruz interview mtb-2

The US scene is picking up though. They are doing a super–enduro race in Santa Cruz so that will be interesting. It will all be on singletrack and they have a good format. They have untimed liaison stages where you just pedal and then they have the timed zones. Hopefully in the next few years it’ll really take–off.

What are your own trails like?

The trail system me and my buddies have been working on over the last few years is good. We have one trail that goes straight down the hill and then we have an enduro trail that wraps round a canyon. It’s a cool training ground because you can hit runs on steep trails with a bunch of berms, we’ve built big slap–berms. You come drifting into them and right when you’re about to fall, you get into the hole and it catches you. And we built these whoops. They’re about a foot and a half deep and two and a half feet apart, but we separated the distances between them. You never see whoops for a mountain bike and these things are gnarly. Mark has some at his ranch that are straight, but we built ours through a high–speed S–turn. You bang this left–hand berm and you’re hauling ass, and then you kind of fade to the right, and right in the middle of the right hand turn, it starts. You’re going ‘bup–bup–bup–bup–bup–bup!’ You come out of it, if you can make it through, with no speed. You go in at about 30mph and when you come out, suddenly you’re doing 2mph. It’s just so abrupt.

[part title="Ben Cruz Interview - Page 3..."]

During the 2011 Trans-Provence
During the 2011 Trans-Provence

Well when you’re a 21 year old kid and someone asks you if you wanna go to Europe to ride your bike, what are you supposed to say! It was a no brainer. On top of the radness of travelling, racing the French enduros has been a dream of mine since I was younger. I’d always heard these crazy stories from Weir about ripping through fields wide–open with no clue where you’re going. I loved the idea of that and wanted to experience it for myself. WTB and Cannondale have been super supportive of me doing that.

How is it for you coming over here to Europe?

It’s definitely different in Europe, there are longer descents and everything seems a bit more wild. People here embrace cycling, but at home people are saying ‘this is dangerous, somebody is going to get hurt’. Everybody sues everybody over there. We’ll never have the type of enduro they have here in Europe unless it’s on private property. Ski resorts in the US are so into legalities that they’re not going to let us tape–off this huge, wide–open field and rip down the middle of that thing. They won’t ever let us do that. Or go through the woods where there is no trail. They all say ‘erosion’. Even though the land forgives it after the race has gone. Go back two months later and you can’t even tell that people rode there.

You seemed to adapt to Europe pretty well – you definitely held your own at Enduro of Nations last year.

Enduro of Nations was crazy. I was on a junior international team as I was the only American. There was a fast French kid, Maurian Marnay, and then Danilo Penini from Italy. After day one we were doing well, but then it rained all night and the tables turned. Lining up at the mass–start nations race was crazy. Looking down the line at every big name I had posters of on my wall as a kid, I used to watch videos of these guys when I was a little kid. I was behind Jerome Clementz and next to Nico Vouilloz, which was a tad scary.

When we all took off, Karim Amour and Jerome were at the front and I got on Nico’s wheel. The start was slightly questionable, but that’s enduro, you gotta be on your toes non–stop. I had my helmet half way over my big head, playing with my GoPro, trying to get it to go and all of a sudden everyone was sprinting away. Nico wasn’t ready as the tape dropped either. That made me feel like it wasn’t just a rookie mistake! I threw my helmet down, got on his wheel and we started sprinting. We started passing people, we probably went into the trail around 20th, 25th, that kind of area, and I said to myself, ‘OK, I’m following him’. We were off the trail passing everybody, taking the craziest pass–lines ever! If the trail was a foot wide in one place, we were going a foot over to hit some bush to make up a couple of feet. That’s the raddest thing about those enduro races, the trail is there, but you have some space on the sides of the course to romp as you please. It was all just deep mud. Following Nico down a trail like that I was just blown away – I don’t know how he was so sideways and in so much control. I was just following him, I was surprised I could even stay on my bike. It was a cool experience for my first trip to Europe.

You came back for the Trans–Provence later in the year, right? That didn’t go so well, did it?

I broke my ankle. It was day four, stage three. On stage one I had ripped my derailleur off and broke my chainguide to pieces. So I ghetto–rigged my bike with a bunch of random shit, I had three master links in my chain and stuff was zip–tied on to hold my chain on at the chainguide. And I was pissed because I had messed my bike up. I saw the Grey Earth course and said ‘I’m going to f–king open it up on this one...’

I watched Jerome, Marc Beaumont and Weir go and there was a rise in the distance that I couldn’t see anything past. So I was just sprinting and I frickin’ pinned it as fast as I could, thinking ‘I have to make up some time’ – I’d lost 35 seconds in the morning. I came over the rise, sure enough, I see the trail jetting out to the right and photographer Sven Martin is there with his camera. I was going so fast, my bike was maxxed out as fast as I could sprint and I could see trail going off to the right. I went straight, romped this bush, and maybe fifteen feet after the bush there was a huge ravine. All I could see is bushes on the other side. I was going so fast, I said to myself, ‘OK, I’m jumping it.’ I went about 15–20ft out, into an uphill rise. I cased it by half a bike–length.

Afterwards Sven told me that it was the scariest thing to watch because everybody was coming over the rise braking, and I came over the rise sprinting. Then I was off the trail and he said when I hit my bike bottomed out so hard that it sent me flying. Apparently I flew 10–15ft up and was just flipping, then I fell into the hole. He saw me fly, hit the other side, start doing flips and then disappear into a hole. He freaked out pretty badly when he saw that, he thought I was dead because he knew I hit really hard. Sven told me he’s seen bad crashes, but that was scary.

At that speed my ankle compressed. I pulled the ligaments off the bone in my foot. When I got home my doctor told me, ‘think of when you’re eating barbeque chicken and you pull the meat off the bone. That’s what you did – your meat came off the bone.’

The Trans–Provence goes a long way out in to the back country, what happens when you injure yourself like that, that far out?

When I did it, the organiser (Ash) gave me my cellphone and wallet and threw me in an ambulance to Nice by myself. I got to Nice, got out of the hospital and they told me they couldn’t come and get me for a couple of days. I had to go and get a hotel and wait for them. I had been riding for four days with campground showers, which are shit. I was in riding clothes that were on the fourth day, one Shimano shoe and a broken ankle, I was looking so homeless. I ended up staying in this hotel and hating my life…I had nothing. Then my phone died and I didn’t have a charger. I managed to get to an internet cafe and somehow managed to get hold of Ash and set up when they were going to come and get me. Seeing the cool bus pull up was the best thing I have seen in my life!

ben cruz interview mtb-7
ben cruz interview mtb-7

What are your plans for this year?

I want race any and every enduro, DH, Super D, and overmountain–style race I can get too. Trans–Provence is at the end of the season and I’ve got a bone to pick with that grey earth track. I’m also planning on coming over the pond in July for the Mega, Mountain of Hell and Enduro of Nations. Back in the US, I would love to run Downieville again as it’s like my second home in the summer, but I’m not sure it’s do–able with all the travelling. I just want to keep an open mind and open schedule, maybe throw some local XC races in the mix and try and spend some time with Weir and the Nor Cal boys.

What do people back at home make of you coming over here to ride and race?

Nobody has done it from America in the enduro scene, which is weird to me. At home I’m the ‘the enduro kid’. I guess because it’s what I do, but I don’t see it as ‘cool, I’m going to be the first one from the country to go and do this’. I go out and ride my bike. This is what I wanted to do when I decided I wasn’t going to go to college. I went to college for a week or something and decided I was done, I hated school. I should definitely go back at some point, but as soon as I was there I felt like I was doing a burnout – sitting there spinning my tyres like a Camaro in the rain, when I could be out getting better doing something. The last year has been insane, non–stop travelling. All my friends at home are pissed, they’re working their asses off and I’m being flown to Italy for a week, just to hang out and go riding. I posted a photo on Facebook when we were doing a photoshoot on the beach the other day. You can see the town and all the peninsulas and the sea. There were about fifteen comments from my friends telling me I am a son of bitch...I guess the long days of pedalling are starting to pay off!