Sam Schultz is humble, hip and a total badass on a mountain bike.
He’s super outgoing around kids, swears like a sailor around his buddies and treats everyone else – sportswriters included – with the kind of politeness normally reserved for grandmothers.
Schultz is also a culinary whiz, a dance floor tenderfoot and a natural-born, swoopy-haired, freckle-faced competitor.
He’s traveled to places such as New Zealand, Chile and South Africa, and yet he still talks about his public school upbringing.
Sam Schultz is everything that’s cool about Missoula.
Soon, though, he’ll be representing more than just his hometown.
That’s right, “Uncle Sam” is reppin’ America.
Western Montanans have been hearing more and more about Schultz these days, even though he’s in his eighth year as a professional mountain bike racer.
In June, the 26-year-old was one of two men selected to the United States’ Olympic Cycling Team in the mountain bike discipline. Schultz will be competing in the Summer Games in London on Aug. 12. He’s the first mountain biker from Montana to be named an Olympian.
“I’m super fired up,” said Schultz, who’s been training, competing and relaxing in Missoula for the last two weeks. “It’s definitely, already, been one of the coolest experiences of my life and it’s going to be pretty amazing getting over there and just seeing what it’s all about.”
Just making the Olympics is the high point in many athletes’ careers, but Schultz is trying to keep a level head about the whole thing.
“I still have a bunch more races to do,” said Schultz, who ticked off a World Cup event in France, a pre-Olympic camp in Germany and several post-Olympic races that he has left on his schedule. “Then I’m going to hang up the bike for a little bit and hang out.”
“That’s the thing I respect the most about Sam. Yeah, he has this ridiculous work ethic, but he also has to be enjoying himself and having fun while he’s out there. It’s nice to see that balance,” says fellow bike lover and longtime friend Owen Gue. “That’s why he’s an inspiration to myself and others who know Sam personally. He’s not afraid to get down to business and train for a race, I mean that’s his priority, but when it’s time to let loose and clock out for a bit, he can do that. ... Don’t get me wrong, he’ll make it hurt like hell when he’s out there training, but he also knows how to enjoy it. He gets the big picture. And he gets it better than most people. That’s what makes him a better athlete.”
Schultz knows he isn’t favored to win the mountain biking event at the Olympics. To steal a pun, he’s just looking forward to the ride.
Gue, on the other hand, admits he gets goosebumps when he thinks about what could happen in London, or to be exact 35 miles east in Hadleigh Essex, which is where the mountain bike course is set up.
“We’ve seen the progression in Sam for awhile, but it’s the Olympics, man. That’s never a guaranteed spot. People fight like dogs to get there,” Gue says. “When I think about Sam going to London and racing for the U.S., that’s pretty dang crazy. I think about way back in the day when we were 16- and 17-year-olds riding up in the Rattlesnake. It’s cool to see one of your best friends going to race in the Olympics. Not many people can say that.”
The road to the Olympics is an uphill climb, but never is that more true than in mountain biking, which also offers its share of spills.
Schultz knows that all too well. He can’t remember the last time he didn’t have at least a little trace of road rash somewhere on his body.
“It’s probably been since I was 13,” says Schultz, before pausing. “Maybe less than 13. I don’t know. I fall down a lot. But I usually get back up.”
Take last week, when the 2004 Hellgate High School grad overcame a balky shoulder to win the Missoula XC at Marshall Mountain, which is the second-to-last ride on the Pro Mountain Bike Cross Country Tour. That victory, on home soil, bumped Schultz up to No. 2 in the tour standings with just one more race to go. The Pro XCT finale is Aug. 18 at Mt. Morris, Wis. A championship there would mean another first for Schultz.
“From London to Wisconsin,” he laughed. “You know, just keepin’ it real.”
Last week, while soaking up a steady diet of backyard barbecues, trips to the doctor and pushy media requests, Schultz proudly displayed his newest title.
He won the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championship in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 7 and received an aptly-themed “Stars and Bars” racing jersey. Schultz wore it during last Saturday’s win at the Missoula XC.
“Just call me Uncle Sam,” he told a friend.
Schultz first started riding mountain bikes when he was about 10, he tried his first organized race at 13 and by 18, not long after graduating from high school, he was living in Colorado and riding professionally. Once there, he dominated regional events before moving up to the national- and international-caliber races.
Among his other notable accomplishments, Schultz was the U-23 national cross country champ back in 2006 and he was a member of the U.S. Olympic Cycling long team for the 2008 Beijing Games. Schultz also has several top 20 finishes on the World Cup circuit, including his best showing ever – 10th place – at an event in Windham, N.Y. last month. Schultz believes that’s primed him for a good showing in London.
“It feels pretty good to be able to ride real similar to the lead guys’ pace at the World Cup,” Schultz said. “I felt great there and that definitely boosts the confidence. Hopefully I can keep the momentum going and, you know, keep getting faster here...we have a little under a month before the (Olympics), so I have a little bit of time to put some training into action.”
Schultz is quick to point out that his U.S. teammate Todd Wells is a serious threat to medal in London. Wells was second to Schultz at the national championships on July 7 and fourth at the most recent World Cup event in New York. He’s also been to the Olympics twice before, although Wells never placed.
“He hasn’t had the greatest races at the Olympics. He’s had great seasons leading up to them before, and then it’s just kind of not been what he’s been hoping for at the Olympics,” Schultz said. “I think he’s gotten things dialed in and he’s ready to pull one together for this year, hopefully.”
Schultz likes his chances in what will be his Olympic debut for a couple of reasons.
For starters, he pre-rode the course not long after it was completed last spring. Schultz was in England for a World Cup event and was one of several riders who was invited to the course the day after their race. Schultz recalls being surprised by its appearance.
“It was almost too clean,” he says. “They had just cut it and everything was just perfectly manicured. It looked like ... It was a little bit too much. It didn’t look like a mountain bike trail necessarily. It looked more like a sidewalk, but with obviously some gnarly stuff in it. It’s going to be a good race, though, it just looks a little bit different than what we’re used to. ... the idea was to let it grow in a little bit; let it get a little bit more natural. I think by the time we get over there, by mid-August for the race, it’s going to be in good shape.”
It’s reminiscent of the Olympic kayak slalom course that was built for the Beijing Olympics four years ago. Instead of a natural river bed, the course was a concrete canal.
“People that are into mountain biking are going to see this course and be like ‘This is lame,’ you know, but I can assure everyone that it rides like a mountain bike course and it’s definitely tricky and it’ll keep us on our toes,” Schultz said. “And the best mountain biker is going to win there. They did a good job of designing it. It’s gonna be sweet.”
Schultz also likes his chances in London because in an Olympic year the mountain biking season gets longer.
“Things start a little bit earlier than normal,” he says, “which just extends the season. So, it’s been going on for quite awhile now, which definitely makes it a little bit more taxing on a lot of the guys.”
Some countries give out their Olympic bids earlier in the year and that forces some riders to come out flying at the beginning of the World Cup season, which is the standard for the sport to select its Olympians.
“That definitely takes a toll on guys later in the year, both mentally and physically,” Schultz said. “That could be a blessing in disguise for me, you know, because I came on a little bit later. The last few weeks I feel like things have really started to click. I think that could be good for me.”
Perhaps the only downside is that mountain biking is one of the last events at the Olympics.
“I still think the crowds are going to be pretty dang big. I’ve been on the hunt for tickets for friends and family that are coming over and there’s no tickets to be found, so I think it’ll be a decent-sized crowd,” Schultz says. “The one bummer about it is that it runs up pretty close to the closing ceremonies, and we’re missing the opening ceremonies. But I think we’re going to get right onto a shuttle after the race and go try to hit the closing ceremonies. It sounds like we’ll be able to make it so I’m pretty psyched about that.”
Schultz is also pumped that his parents Bill and Cindy and brother Andy, who also rides professionally, will be in attendance. They won’t be the only folks from the Garden City though.
“It’s pretty amazing how many people from Missoula are like, ‘Hey, I booked a flight. I’m going over to cheer you on,’” Schultz said. “That’s super cool.”
Gue can’t make it to London, but says he’ll watch it on TV with friends. The event is supposed to be carried live on Aug. 12 on MSNBC.
Gue and Schultz didn’t go to the same high school, but that’s about the time they first met.
“We met through the riding community in Missoula, which isn’t huge, but it’s a great riding community,” Gue said, “and when there’s another young punk out there riding bikes you kind of go, ‘Whoa, who’s that? That’s cool’ – you know, what he’s doing – so you kinda of latch onto those people.”
Gue was a year ahead of Schultz in school, but he remembers the youngster making an impression.
“You could tell that he was a good guy, a super fun person. And when you’re in high school you’re around a lot of different people and some kids can put on a front, or even have an ego, Sam never had any of that.”
Gue, 27, has always been more into road biking than mountain biking, but never felt intimidated when riding with Schultz.
“He was a competitive cyclist, but as a person he was super easy to be around. Super friendly,” Gue says. “Which, to his credit, he still has that.”