Interview: 'Rad' Ross Schnell the burger king

Riding, racing and the art of radness

It’s just after 10am on a Tuesday in Laguna Beach, California and professional mountain bike rider 'Rad' Ross Schnell – the 29-year-old considers riding, not necessarily racing, his profession – just rolled into work.

His commute on this particular morning consisted of a six-block townie ride down the Pacific Coast Highway from the Casa Del Camino, the beachfront hotel he’s crashing at, to his sponsors CrankBrothers' office.

The Grand Junction, Colorado native has been here for a week, shooting photos, giving his opinions on the brand’s components, riding and glad-handing media.

Yesterday, he was up before sunrise for a trip up north to shoot photos and test kit with Jason First, CrankBrothers’ sports marketing manager. Then it was back to Laguna for a ride with BikeRadar, but not before a stop at In-N-Out Burger for a double-double Animal Style and a large shake.

“That was probably a 2,000 calorie meal,” Schnell said over his second Belgian beer at a late dinner in downtown Laguna, adding that it was the shake that kept him at the front on the climbs of the day’s second ride, well ahead of First.

The 2009 world single speed champion was in the office for a quick interview and to procure some packing tape to patch up a cardboard bike box, which he then needed to stuff his new Project One Trek Remedy 9.9 trail bike into before an evening flight to New Zealand. In between, he planned to cram in a ride.

Schnell gets some fresh air, before hopping on the plane to New Zealand.

In New Zealand, Schnell is set to meet up with Kiwi mountain bike magazine Spoke and road trip for a week, but not before taking in a Pixies show in Auckland. During the week he’ll just be Ross, promote his sponsors, ride sweet local singletrack and probably drink his fair share of local beer; exactly what any self-respecting mountain bike rider would do on a road trip. This is Schnell’s second year of living a life of mountain bike radness, which is best described as part professional athlete, part vagabond and part vibe master.

But first, where did it all begin?

As a rider Schnell is true to the sport’s soul. He was a BMX rat, which is where he earned the nickname 'Rad Ross' before he was even out of the single digits in age. In his teens he spent three years on the NORBA cross-country circuit with John Kemp’s Devo junior development program. But he’s always been able to transition seamlessly from lung searing endurance efforts to the gravity driven side of the sport.

He used this versatility to grab two national dual slalom titles and one cross-country title, which contributed to winning two national collegiate omnium mountain bike titles (2001 and 2003), all while racing for Mesa State College. A nagging knee problem hampered his transition to the senior professional ranks  and at one point had him seriously considering hanging up the bike, before surgery fixed the issue. He had to work as an X-Ray and CT technician in Grand Junction to pay the bills (Schnell has a degree in radiology).

Not one to take himself too seriously, in 2006 while still on Trek-Volkswagen’s regional grassroots team, Schnell donned a wig, neon helmet, 1970s terry cloth tennis shorts and some vintage Oakleys at the Norba Short Track Finals in Snowmass, Colorado. He then preceded to charge the double jumps on the descent, instantly endearing himself to the crowd. He used the same kit to win the Super-D title that year. It’s unclear whether the outfit or the result got him a job on the iconic Trek-Volkswagen factory squad the following year.

Seriously, nobody put him up to this

That's not to say he can’t compete with racers who ‘keep their legs up’. In 2008, the year before the Trek-Volkswagen team folded, he won a national short track at Brian Head, Utah in official Trek-VW team kit, beating the likes of Ryan Trebon and Jeremiah Bishop in the process.

"I’ll always consider myself a cross-country rider,” he said. “But going to those events just feels stale to me. It’s just not as exciting as these new events are. Going to an enduro race feels like you’re going to ride with your buddies for the weekend. It has all the things I like to see in a race: the camaraderie, and no one needs to keep their legs up all weekend; everyone is just there having fun.”

Defined by Downieville

Schnell’s career defining moment came when he won the Downieville Classic in 2008, setting a course record in the process. It’s an event touted as the all-mountain world championships and decided by combining a cross-country race with an epic 45-minute downhill race. The catch? Riders must use the same bike for both events, which promotes the use of real mountain bikes – trail bikes.

“Going to Downieville was a new thing for me,” said Schnell. “I’d always thought of myself as a complete rider, but that changed my outlook on my whole career. I can do cross-country, I can race short track, I can do all-mountain, sometimes I can win a random downhill. At the same time I have a lot of support from Trek backing that up, because they’re not necessarily marketing one type of bike but a wide range. That’s just kind of how it all happened; it all fell in my lap.”

For Trek, having a rider like Schnell is invaluable. He has, and can ride, each of the brand’s mountain bike models to their fullest potential; from the World Cup worthy Top Fuel to the Scratch and Session freeride and downhill bikes, not to mention everything in between. There are few riders who are this versatile. "We wanted someone who could ride cross-country and all-mountain," said First. "He fits that mould perfectly. We don't necessarily need a person that's going to win everything. He's nice to everyone and creates a more emotional connection."

Trek-Volkswagen folded in 2008, an event which seemed dire to Schnell at the time. Instead, the all-mountain world title launched his career and gave him serious pull with companies interested in this new offshoot of mountain biking. He was able to piece together a solo, do-everything program supported by Trek, SRAM, Oakley, CrankBrothers and Pearl Izumi.

“He’s not our top dude; he’s not really a World Cup guy,” said Steve Blick, who takes care of Oakley’s sports marketing for cycling. “He’s one of those guys that people like to embrace and he’s got a pretty cool background in a lot of things. That’s what it takes to be part of the Oakley family: a little bit of rebelliousness and breaking the mould of what everyone else is trying to be and being yourself. That’s what I like about Ross – he’s just being Ross.”

“There’s this other way to make an impact in a marketplace and it’s finding unique personalities who pursue unique things,” said Michael Browne, Trek’s mountain bike global brand manager and the person who has to justify giving Schnell an array of bikes and a paycheck. “Ross is one of those guys. I don’t lean on him for a whole lot – other than just being Ross and riding bikes in a different way. It works. The guy is out there riding short track on a 6in bike. It’s a different way of doing it and I’m really glad we’re doing it.”

Schnell explains the art of radness to BikeRadar:

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The new path

Schnell says that being his own boss fits his style. It allows him to make it up as he goes. “With the exception of needing a personal assistant,” he says. " I’m busier than ever with taking care of all my own stuff.” 2009 started solidly enough for Schnell. He came out swinging, contesting the European Enduro series and bumping elbows with gravity icons including Nicolas Vouilloz and Remy Absalon, brother of Julien.

A momentary loss of focus at the round in Metabief, France caused him to crash hard, fracturing his pelvis. This was at the beginning of May, smack in the middle of the season and enough to take the wind out of any competitor’s sails. The injury kept him off the bike for more than a month. “I went from being really prepped and ready to hit it and go for those key events to just sitting around on my couch for six weeks,” he said. “The doctor cleared me to ride mountain bikes the day of the cross-country race at Downieville.”

Downieville is the biggest event of the season for both Schnell and his sponsors. It's an event he can’t miss, no matter the circumstance. He finished sixth overall, without disappointment, while wearing the #1 plate — straight off the couch. “I looked at it as a really fun event,” he said. “I like to support those guys, the promoters are awesome and it’s a really fun place to go and ride. I don’t see racing as a ‘I’m not going to a race, I’m not going to win it' prospect. I feel like going to those events and supporting them is the biggest thing.”

In classic ‘Rad Ross’ style Schnell headed to the US Nationals the week after Downieville, but missed the cross-country event due to a blown radiator hose in his late model Audi. The season ended on a high note, however, when he took the 2009 World Single Speed Championship title in Durango, Colorado on his full-suspension Trek Top Fuel.

2010 pre-season: Everyone needs their glamour shots

2010 another season of fun

2010 is the second season that Schnell is running his own programme. He’s more dialled into the events he wants to participate in and what it takes to be successful in them, from bike and tyre selection to just getting around in foreign lands. His goals? “I perform better on average when I’m just having fun doing what I’m doing,” said Schnell. “That’s why I don’t train 30 hours a week, or 20 hours a week. It seems like things always click when I’m happy and I’m happy doing what I want to do.”

To prepare for the upcoming season Schnell spent the winter backcountry skiing in Colorado, including a couple of randonee races (combination up and downhill ski races, using backcountry touring equipment). During his week in Laguna, he tuned up his bike fitness by powering his single-chainring-equipped 6in-travel Remedy 9.9 trail bike — which he plans to cross-country race this year — up the insanely steep ascents and descents that characterise the Laguna Hills. He’s all too happy, however, to put off the start of his racing season with the road trip to New Zealand.

“Some people could probably say I’m slacking right now, but I see it as when the important events roll around, I’ll be there and I’ll be fresh physically and mentally; ready to go,” he said. “I have a road frame,” he added in response to the question of what his day-to-day training looks like. “But I literally haven’t ridden a road bike for going on two years now. I do have a ’cross bike and I can somehow quantify being a professional cyclist by having a PowerTap on it – and a riser bar and 29er tyres.”

He claims that he’ll get killed at the Sea Otter Classic in April and hopes to race into some fitness for the Downieville Classic in California and the US Nationals, which will again take place in the high country of Granby, Colorado. He’ll also be back in New Zealand in October to participate – better described as, defend – his second singlespeed world championship race.

When asked to put a finger on specific goals, however, staying healthy and having fun sum up this rider’s attitude. If that means, he needs to pull out the terry cloth short shorts and the neon helmet again, so be it.

Schnell's Laguna commute getup

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