Late last April, Missoula native Sam Schultz lay awake deep into the night, staring at the ceiling of his Offenberg, Germany, hotel room, hoping to just chill out. Normally, that's no problem for the perpetually laid-back professional mountain biker. But on this particular night, Schultz will tell you, things were a little different.
The way Schultz describes it, that day's UCI World Cup race left him especially wiped. He'd just competed against more than 225 of the world's top mountain bikers, including decorated European riders accustomed to the type of celebrity akin to American stick-and-ball athletes. He'd also just completed a grueling three weeks of travel that included consecutive weekend races in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Monterey, Calif., and then Offenberg. The travel, the race, probably both, left his legs aching and his muscles shot. Sleep wasn't an option.
"I could feel my heart beating through my whole body," he says. "I wished I could calm down, but my legs were aching, my muscles—I could just feel that beating."
That sleepless night, as he continues the story, led to a morning of violent illness. He wasn't sure the airline would let him on the long flight home or how he'd make it if it did. Half asleep and looking like hell, the battered 24-year-old somehow sweet-talked his way onto the plane—only to spend most of the trip heaving into an airplane toilet.
"It was pretty horrible," he says. "I was definitely not having a good time."
Schultz does, however, have a good time recalling every queasy detail. While the particulars suggest he'd just hit a wall, or become yet another casualty in a punishing sport that seems to test its competitors' capacity for pain as much as it measures riding skills, Schultz tells the tale with gleeful pride. In fact, he's smiling—a goofy, ear-to-ear beam that makes him look like a guilty adolescent. And lest the listener think he's complaining, or trying to make the life of a professional mountain biker sound like the most unrelenting, wretched job on the planet, he takes a swift turn toward the story's end.
"I get crap all the time for getting paid to just pedal my bike," he says in his standard, it's-all-good drawl that makes almost nothing seem very horrible. "I have to make it sound, you know, a little tough every once in a while. Truth is, I was back on my bike a few days later."
Sam Schultz spends his off-season in the foothills of Tucson, Ariz., as assistant chef and chief storyteller at The Cycling House. A fellow rider from Missoula, Owen Gue, founded the top-flight training retreat five years ago as a place for endurance athletes to immerse themselves in a professional-level environment. For four months every winter, the facility offers semi-pros and serious weekend warriors the chance to eat, sleep and train under the guidance of accomplished riders like Schultz. But according to almost everyone, they remember him most for his stories.
"People are drawn to him," says Gue. "I think part of it is, the guests learn who he is and what he's doing—the level that he's competing at—and they want to hear all about it. But he also has this knack of telling these ridiculous stories that sound terrible, but are actually really good. Like, he had this flight back from Germany..."
What Schultz leaves out of a story is almost as telling as what he includes. For instance, with the Germany adventure, he modestly omits the fact that he finished in the race's top 20, a result that cemented his status among the best in the sport and prompted Bike magazine to claim Schultz had "officially arrived" on the international stage.
Another favorite travel story—one in which he hustled straight from a Chilean racetrack to a flight, sans shower or even washing his face—similarly neglects to mention that the dirt covering him came courtesy of a second-place finish in the prestigious Continental Championship. In general, for all of Schultz's stories, he deftly avoids talking about the fact that he's considered the country's best young mountain bike rider—or, perhaps, the country's best rider, period.
"The thing about Sam," says Gue, "is that he's so unassuming and low-key about what he does. He just looks like this guy who loves to ride and hang out. It takes a while for guests to get that he's ranked 33rd in the world, and even then they're like, 'Really? But he's a cook.'"