Big wheels 

Missoula snags mountain biking race for the world's top riders

Professional mountain biker Sam Schultz spends the majority of the year traveling the globe, going from race to race, with only a couple of days to study, test-ride and compete on each new course. But later this year, the Missoula, Mont., native and rising star will have a rare chance to break the routine by competing on a course he helped design in his hometown.

Missoula will host the season-ending Pro XCT race at Marshall Mountain on July 23. Organizers expect between 50 and 100 of the nation's top professional riders—as well as hundreds of amateurs— to compete in front of more than 1,000 spectators. It marks the first time a race of this stature has been held in Montana.

"I'm going to know that course like the back of my hand," says Schultz, 25, who placed fourth in last year's Pro XCT standings and won one of the series' six races. "When I'm not on the road, I'll be in Missoula hitting that course. I can't even tell you—it'll be a huge advantage."

The inaugural Missoula race will not only determine the season points leaders for the Pro XCT (Cross Country Tour, for the uninitiated), but it will also give riders a chance to accumulate International Biking Union, or UCI, ranking points. UCI points are crucial in helping the United States qualify for mountain biking spots for the 2012 Olympic Games and determining the start order for UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.

"The fact that it's the season finale, and that it's a UCI race, means all of the points leaders—the best of the best—will be here," says Missoula XC promoter Shaun Radley. "For Sam, it means he'll be able to sleep in his bed, then wake up and chase points for the Olympics."

Radley describes the Marshall Mountain course as a 6-kilometer "figure-eight" design featuring multiple "short, punchy climbs." Race organizers and local volunteers will finish preparing the course in the spring, and a weekly race series will help break in the track leading up to the headliner.

click to enlarge Sam Schultz races in 2010. - JOHN MULLER

"I think you're going to see a course unlike others on the tour, and a real fan-friendly event," says Kelli Lusk, national events director for USA Cycling, the sanctioning body for the XCT series.

For Schultz, it all adds up to a huge opportunity—for both him and the community.

"We're already seeing great community support and a lot of excitement from fans and sponsors who understand what a big deal this is," he says. "Part of me realizes, crap, I better put on a good race and not make a fool of myself."

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