Exclusive interview: Chris Eatough

Endurance mountain bike world champion Chris Eatough chats candidly about his sport, his family, and his goals for 2008.

The name Chris Eatough is synonymous with endurance mountain bike racing. The six-time 24-hour world solo champion has dominated the enduro scene for almost 10 years and, unfortunately for his competitors, shows no signs of slowing down as evidenced by his recent win at the 24 Hours of Moab.

You might think that a rider who feels comfortable on the bike for 24 hours was born into the sport, but that wasn't the case with the Maryland-based Eatough.

"I wasn't a cyclist at all growing up," Eatough said. "Actually soccer was my main sport. I grew up in England, obviously it [soccer] is a big deal over there. I came to the US when I was high school age, about 15 years old, and continued to play soccer here. I played college soccer at a pretty high level at Clemson University, but I was really mixing my athletics and academics at that point."

Like many of us, graduating from college opened new doors. "I didn't really get into bike riding at all until I was done at Clemson University," the 33-year-old Eatough said. "I was 21 years old then and I got started riding bikes partially because my soccer career was coming to a close, and I was looking for an athletic outlet looking for something different to keep myself fit healthy and have fun outdoors.

Early days

"My dad was actually a mountain biker and a recreational part-time racer," he added. "He would race downhill and cross country in the masters class in the mid-90's. I was aware of the sport from my dad enjoying it. I started riding one of his older bikes and riding with him a little bit and exploring on my own and that is when I got hooked on mountain biking. I wasn't a road cyclist - I was definitely a mountain biker. I liked being on the trails and being in the woods."

Though Eatough quickly took up the competitive side of the sport, his transition into endurance racing evolved slowly, beginning with the more traditional cross country style events for a while. He raced the US National Championship Series(NCS) series and started doing well and racing as a pro and getting some sponsorship.

"I was doing fairly well with that, but I was never quite up with the fastest guys," he said. "I never seemed to have the speed and the climbing ability to do really well at the NCS series which was kind of a ski resort dominated series where you have to be a good climber. It really wasn't my forte; I could do well. I could get into the Top Ten in those races sometimes but I was never really at the front.

"I started playing around with some longer races," he added. "My team always did a 24-hour team race, at least one a year. Back then we did the 24 Hours of Canaan. So, I would race with the Trek team and always seemed to do well at that. I did a 100-mile race which is, obviously, fairly long, but not 24 hours. I did really well at the 100-mile race so it seemed like the longer the race was it took that speed element out and really brought in the endurance and the experience and the patience and that kind of thing which seemed to suit me really well."

His calling: 24-hour races

Eatough's first 24-hour race was somewhat of a lark. "I just decided to attempt a 24 hour solo one time and the first one I did was actually the Solo World Championships in 1999. They had pretty good prize money so I thought I would just go out there and take a chance with my dad as my support crew and see if I could win a piece of the prize money. I ended up winning the race and I have been doing it every year from then on."

For the Trek rider, training for a 24-hour race is a work in progress. "In the past I would do quite a lot of long training rides," he said. "I would do a lot of four- and five-hour rides and would do that maybe four or five days a week to really build up the quantity of training that way. But, over time, I feel like I get more out of the occasional long ride so I don't do as many weeks where I do five hours a day now. I might do a really important seven- or eight-hour training ride, but only do it once every month.

Training

"In the meantime I'm doing more maintenance-type training," Eatough added. "I also race a lot now. I find that I race so many long distance races, I usually do only two 24-hour solos a year, but I do a lot of other endurance races like 100-milers and the multi-day events like BC Bike Race [7-day/360-miles]. Doing those is really good preparation and training and it means I have to train less on my own these days than I used to. I have built up such a good base from that training over the years and now I have all this great endurance racing to do that in itself just prepares me for other racing."

Road bikes and road riding have long been a staple training technique for mountain bikers. But, that appears to be changing.

"I do quite a bit of riding on the road, but nowadays I do almost all of it on my mountain bike," he said. "I used to ride a road bike 50 percent of the time, but now I ride a mountain bike pretty close to 100 percent of the time even though I might be riding on the road. Unless you're really trying to mix it up with a fast road group or you are really trying to hang with a group and get a benefit that way I feel like there are a lot of benefits to being on a mountain bike.

"You can put slick tyres on a mountain bike, but to be honest most of the time I don't bother -- I just ride my regular off-road tyres," he said "The tyres I run are fairly smooth and they don't make much noise so I like it. You have the same position that you race on. You're not dealing with a different position and you're getting very comfortable and accustomed to the bike you race on. It gives you a lot of options: you can ride dirt roads, you can cut through the park a little bit and ride through some fields and ride a little bit of trails on your road ride. It gives you thechance to mix it up rather than just being stuck on the pavement."

For Eatough, preparing the mental side of his game is also critical.

"I think my mental outlook and motivation has changed also over the years," he said. "I think it has to. You need to keep finding fresh motivation to push yourself that far for that long. Nowadays, I find a lot of motivation from my family. My wife and I have a baby girl. My training and my racing is a commitment for me and my family. When I go to one of these big races now I feel like even if they are not physically there with me they are in it with me because they have been putting up with my time away from home, the training and racing. So, I feel like I owe it to them to give it everything I got and to not give up easily and to really push myself very far because of the sacrifices they have been making and I don't want those sacrifices to go to waste."

Defining moment

When asked what he feels is the racing moment which defined who he is and how he rides, Eatough remembers an event back in 2000.

"The second solo world championship that I won was in California at Idyllwild," he said. "When I won the first year, a lot of heavy hitters were not there so I think I was still kind of an underdog in people's eyes for the second year. Tinker Juarez was back at the race that year and I hadn't raced against him before. Rishi Grewal, who was a big name in endurance racing at that time, was also there. The speed was pretty high for the beginning of the race and the temperatures were really hot and it was basically the three of us trading blows. It was kind of an early knockout because both those guys ended up dropping out of the race through fatigue and heat exhaustion probably only four to five hours into the race.

"I had things wrapped up early with a big lead but as the race went on, I was suffering pretty badly, too from the fast pace early on and the heat," Eatough explained. "I was in a really bad way. I was throwing up constantly from about 10 hours into the race, puking every 45 minutes. I never stopped, I just kept on riding because that's what I thought I needed to do to win the race. I ended up clinging onto my lead, though it wasn't a very big lead in the end as the other riders were starting to draw in on me. It was a long way to go after those guys dropped out with nearly 20 hours to go.

"For a brief time I was thinking 'this is great I've got it made now' and then pretty soon realizing that there was still 19 hours to go and I am feeling terrible, how am I going to make it through this."

It was only the second 24-hour race for Eatough. He had won comfortably the year before, so it was really the first time he had really been challenged. "It was an unknown situation of 'how can I possible ride this long when I'm feeling so bad?'" he said.

Eatough's 2006 racing season was the subject of the documentary "24-Solo" and the 24-Hour solo world championships were supposed to be his crowning moment. Unfortunately, his quest for a seventh straight title didn't go to plan and he finished second to Australian Craig Gordon.

"When I thought about it after the race I wasn't all that disappointed," he explains. "I felt like I had raced a really good race. I was well-prepared. I gave it a really huge effort and I didn't win the bike race. I came second place. I walked away healthy and I went to dinner that night with my team. I went on the podium and accepted my second-place prize and was able to return to my teammates and helpers and have dinner with them and go back to my family and carry on with my life, where as Craig Gordon was in a hospital bed not knowing what his future held with his family back in Australia and not able to go to the awards ceremony.

"It reinforces that it is jut a bike race and even though we really push ourselves and we really dig deep and we really commit ourselves to these things and they seem so important at the time, they have to seem important for us to commit so much, but it is still just a bike race and some things are more important like family and friends and your health.

"That's the lesson I was feeling pretty soon, just a couple of hours after the race. I was starting to realize that I was happy to be feeling okay and in one piece. There really wasn't much about the race that went wrong. I had a good race."

While it might seem like bravado with Gordon having to be hospitalized to beat him, Eatough is quick to point out that 24-hour solo races demand the most from all the racers.

"I don't think about it so much that way and I don't think he planned on ending up where he did," he added. "I'm sure that wasn't his plan. Again, he was pushing himself as hard as he could. Who knows, maybe I have been close to that point in races and just managed to stay out of hospital. I don't know if it is an ego boost but I think it makes me feel good that I was able to go back to my family and go back to racing and continue my career. This is my career and this is how I'm able to provide for my family right now  so I don't want to jeopardize that and jeopardize my health so I couldn't do it anymore."

An interesting side effect of Eatough's domination at 24-hour races is that many of his chief rivals have been avoiding the races in which he is entered. "There is nothing I can do about that. The status of 24-hour racing right now is that there really isn't one race that is definitely the one big championship. If there were then I think picking and choosing a race depending on who else is going would be a little bit less of an issue.  If there were an epic championship with prize money and exposure and all the respect that the champion of that race deserves, then I think all the top riders would go to that race regardless."

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Bruce Hildenbrand's exclusive interview with multiple world champion 24-hour racer Chris Eatough.

© BikeRadar 2007

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