Geoff Kabush. Laid-back, the man with the side-burns is a fierce competitor that can shotgun a beer in two seconds. A successful mountain biker that races cross for fun in the fall, a dog rescuer and a vocal proponent of clean cycling. Kabush is all that and more.
One of the most successful riders on the North American circuit with 75 career medals – tied at 4 wins for the most US National XC Series Champion with 16-times US National XC wins – Kabush slowly made his way up the mountain biking ranks from his first World Championships in 1995 as a junior..
“I had a dream, in Victoria I had some good role models, so I always thought it was possible.” replied Kabush when I asked at the end of our conversation if he was surprised to he was not only still racing but racing at a high-level.
“My first Worlds I sprinted for 99th place, I didn’t have immediate success. Obviously I have some natural talent but I work really hard and I have learned a lot and tried to train smart and improve every year and I’m still having fun.”
It was also obvious that Kabush works hard at his craft. “Being an athlete is a 24-hour a day thing to pay attention but if you’re not having fun you’re not going to be able to stick with it long. That’s some of the reason I’m still going because I’m having fun and still improving and of course, it’s hard work but for me it’s more about training smart than training hard.”
In my quest to learn more about the mountain biking scene, I sat down with Kabush over a coffee (another one of his loves) and picked his brain for over an hour. He was on his way home after a training camp with the Canadian National Team in Southern California
Learning. At 33-years of age, Kabush is focused on the 2012 Olympic Games in London, UK. The priority this year for him and his Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain, are the World Cup races to get UCI points.
He admits that is excited for the 2012 Games. “The last couple of years, part of my enjoyment of sport is always learning and I’ve been learning a lot of new stuff in training just the last year or so, some new technology. It’s been motivating to learn and we’ve been dialing in that, so hopefully I’ll be able to use a lot of that this year and dial it in for the Olympics.”
Even though he has been racing for many years, from his first World Championships while still in high-school, Kabush is still learning.
“I’ve always used a lot of tools in training, a lot of new tools that come out to really take a look inside the body that weren’t available before so we’re able to see all kinds of cardiac stuff and at the tissue level. It’s like a credit card device that you can put on your leg and see the tissue oxygenation and tissue saturation.”
It gives Kabush and his coach a chance to test out training theories. “We got lots of questions and answers, and it’s fascinating. You can actually do small case studies to look at the theories and see what is really happening inside the body.”
I noted that its was the engineer in him. He smiled. While making his way through the ranks, Kabush graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from University of Victoria.
“About a year ago, we started using some of the new equipment and at first it’s a lot like any new devices, figure out the data and get some baselines. Now we’re getting some good information now.”
Now it’s a question of fine-tuning. “About every 6 weeks, I’ve been doing some testing and sit down with my mentor, do a bunch of assessment and come out with ideas, move forwards and check again and see what happened, if the ideas are working or not, adjust the direction and go on from there.”
Last one? Kabush will be 35 by the time the next Olympics come around, probably his last games. “It’s definitely my best chance, I’m in the prime of my career, it’s one I’m looking forwards to.”
He has already raced twice at the Games. His first experience which he called “fantastic” was at the 2000 Games in Sydney. “I was young, not expected to make the team. The year before Canada had a long list of riders they expected six riders and I wasn’t one of them so I was pretty motivated after being left off that list.” Kabush pulled out a couple of top 16 World Cup results beating his previous 44th place finish and not only made it to the team but finished 9th in the cross-country race. “It was just a pretty amazing experience, the Olympics in Sydney were pretty special. Then we had 8 or 9 days after the race at the Olympic Village, check out events and have fun.”
He missed the 2004 games and expectations were high for the Beijing Games in 2008. “I had a great year except for the Olympics, some mechanical issues and that’s mountain biking. That’s the tough part that it comes every four years.” Kabush finished 20th.
The games are important but not the end-all be all. “It’s a big goal and it’s what motivates me but it’s not the end of the world. I feel pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing, enjoy learning along the way and experiences, definitely going to put everything I have into the Olympics but if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.”
For 10-times Canadian National Champion Kabush, the Canadian prospects are promising. “I came up at the tail end of a really big successful group and there’s been a bit of a generation gap behind me but we’re really starting to build some momentum now. On the women’s side, we’re doing fantastic but there’s a really good group of young guys, 19 to 24, that are developing and seem to have an atmosphere in the group where they’re going to push themselves, the next couple of years hopefully you’ll see some guys push through to the international level.”
The racer. If he had to pick one race to win this year, it would be the World Championships in Champery, Switzerland. “Champery is another quite technical course.”
And them there are the two North American World Cups, Mt Ste Anne in Quebec and Windham in New York State. “Mt St Anne is always special because it’s in Canada but Windham, it’s a really good course for me but I didn’t even get to finish a lap there last year, had a bit of a mechanical issue, I really want another shot at that one.”
“Compared to my competition, I’m a bit larger, relatively speaking of course. I like climbs that have more of a rolling flow, not so steep 20% straight up. Windham kind of has a gradual flowing climb that weaves its way up and has a really good pounding descent which really suits me. So that’s why I’m really looking forwards to that one.”
Kabush credits growing up on the West Coast of Canada for his technical skills. “Not a lot of World Cups are crazy but it allows me to relax, not a lot of anxiety when I show up at a course.”
With so many years behind him, he doesn’t really get nervous at races anymore, well most of the races. “Sometimes doing a team relay at the Worlds when you know that people are relying on you but, I’ve done so many races and I know what to expect, I got a lot of trust in my team.”
Striving for the top at the World Cups, Kabush identified Switzerland as the top country right now. “They have, I don’t know, at least seven or eight guys that can be on the podium at a World Cup. They’ve just done an incredible job from developing at a really really young age their national series, just getting kids active so that’s really paid off for them.”
After that, it’s a pretty level playing field of around 15 to 20 men. “Numerous guys that can contend. You can’t focus too much on the other guys, you have to take care of yourself.”
The scene. “I’ve seen it all, it’s been pretty cyclical.” Kabush said about the North American racing scene.
“In the 90s, when I first got into it, it was on TV, it was kind of the next big thing, I call it the glory days, there were teams with 15 riders and 3 big-rig trailers, and hundreds of people at the expos. I don’t really think that was sustainable, there was definitely a pull-back, now it seems to be kind of leveling out, kind of finding its footing. Mountain bike itself has kind of splintered a bit, different discipline but racing I think is still really strong, and a cross-country bike is what the majority of people out there ride so it seems to have leveled out, finding its footing and building up again. There are definitely not as many riders able to make a living in North America but the sport itself, international is maturing.”
It’s much more stable in Europe. “It’s incredible to go to the World Cups there, 15 to 20 sometimes 30,000 people in a classic venues, it’s just more part of the culture than in the US, where it’s more part of a fringe sport.”
Stability is one thing that Kabush identified that is needed for the sport here. “It’s been pretty hard to a general person the national series, I think it’s changed maybe 3 or 4 times the last decade. Figure out the organizational structure a bit, I think USA Cycling had taken charge again, give at least a stable name to the series but more importantly get stable organizers that can build up the events because it is the events to make it successful.”
It takes time to build up successful events. “It’s really tough the last two years, organizers were trying to do one-off events. With Mt Ste Anne which is probably one of the most successful World Cups, it took probably two or three years for them to turn a profit and get the ball rolling, it takes that time to get community awareness and even buildup.”
From huge to none, the prize money went down after the heyday of the sport, but it is getting a bit better. “Maybe it’s the Olympics but the events are getting UCI with that, there’s minimum prize money. Not like in the glory days, when started you’d get massive checks and jeeps for winning races.”
Kabush came in at the end of the glory days and missed the big checks and the jeeps.
Clean racing. A long-time proponent of clean racing, Kabush along with Catherine Pendrel and the CCA launched the Race Clean Own Your Victory program in 2010.
I asked Kabush straight out, how clean is mountain biking? “A lot cleaner than it used to be and a lot of it.” he replied. “I think it has to do with risk versus reward.”
“In the glory days, same as on the road and I think road has improved a lot, mountain biking more so because there’s not a lot of guys making that much money. Even if I took a bunch of drugs and won a lot of races, I wouldn’t be making a lot more money. Not like on the road where you can dope, win a big race and make a million bucks. I don’t know if that’s part of my racing success or maturing as an athlete but certainly, in the last decade, I don’t know all my competitors in a personal level but I have a lot of confidence in a lot of the guys I race against.”
The sport has improved a lot since he started. “I definitely would have progressed a lot quicker to the top level but I think I was lucky that I was going to school along the way when I first turned senior so my progression was a little slower and that was maybe to my benefit as the sport cleaned up.”
Kabush was never tempted. “It would never cross my mind but I think that has a lot to do with my upbringing and priorities. The sport would be ruined for me if I took drugs, it’s more about learning about myself and what I can achieve, it’s not just about winning the race, it would be pretty hollow.”
Anything is possible. Powerful words. “That’s part of the reason I started the program last year, the CCA Race Clean Own Your Victory program. I just know when I was started out I kind of had doubts whether I’d be able to make it on the international level. The message is it’s not easy but if you work hard, train smart anything is possible. Some good role models with Catherine and myself, want to make sure the young people know that anything is possible.”
“Most people think rescue dogs have something wrong with them but most of them are amazing dogs, we get them either from shelters, Keri gets notified if a kill date is coming, we’ll try to take the dog before they put it down and find new homes. Owner surrenders, someone who can’t take care of the dog to surrender it and that’s the responsible thing to do, to find a rescue and try to find a home so it keeps up pretty busy.”
The couple have multiple dogs at home. “We have two Wains and an old lab, and then we have several, several, kind of in rotation.” he smiled. “I think there’s another five or six at home right now. Once you get more than a couple, it’s just learning the routine, it’s fun, they’re great dogs.”
Also on the horizon for 2011 is a feature with Sam Smith, of Transitions I/II and Behind the Barriers. “Sam followed me around, a couple of trips with the team last year. It was leading into Mt St Anne Worlds.” (see trailer)
Following our conversation, Kabush raced his first US Pro XCT where he finished 6th in the cross-country and 3rd in the Super D at Bonelli Park. His next race is the second round of US Pro XCT in Fontana, CA before heading out to Europe.