In Print: Cruzing to the Top, The Ben Cruz Interview

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At the end of June American enduro racer Ben Cruz of Team Cannondale OverMountain finally earned his first ever international victory at round 3 of the Superenduro Series in the Lombardia Alps of Madesimo, Italy. It was a nasty, rainy event where weather definitely played a role.

Like his WTB-Cannondale OverMountain teammates Mark Weir and Jason Moeschler, Ben Cruz is an all-rounder on the mountain bike, a speed demon unafraid of distance, obstacles or weather. With an unapologetic, never-say-die attitude, the 23-year-old from Novato, California, is a Weir-shaped nut that hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Unfortunately, the only thing keeping him from surpassing the athletic exploits of his teammates and vaulting to the top of the record books in a few years is also the same thing that propels him: his attitude.

While the fun-loving and brash Cruz has become more focused than ever this year, with a keen eye on becoming a top American enduro racer on the international circuit, he still possess a hint of Hunter S. Thompson deep inside. Here’s an uncensored look at enduro racing’s most controversial personality.

Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in Dirt Rag #169. To ensure you always read the latest news and reviews, order a subscription today.

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My childhood was fun. I pretty much ran amok around town with my hoodlum friends. I did play baseball and football as a kid, but I was always a bike freak. Shredding on BMX bikes, running from security guards and kicking dogs, you know; normal kid stuff.

When I was 8 or so we used to bang on Mark Weir’s door and harass those guys; still do. When we were kids, though, we weren’t allowed past the door; God only knows what they were actually doing in that cave …

I was into racing from 13 on, doing downhill, but I really got a fire lit under my ass when I was 17 or 18. I didn’t know what I was gonna do with my life, but knew I wanted to be outdoors. The bike just became my tool to life, not to mention it keeps me halfway sane.

I had an awesome chick for two years when I was 18, and at the time she wouldn’t hang out with me unless I’d ride my bike beforehand, because she said I was a dick if I didn’t ride.

It’s been my dream to race and ride bikes for the rest of my life since I was a kid, and that’s a reality now. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

I’d more than likely either be in the military or in prison if I didn’t have bikes in my life. Weir saw I was going down a path of destruction with all the crazy shenanigans my buddies and I were doing and took me under his wing and laid out a path for me. Building the Gobbler trail system changed my life as well.

Gobbler is a trail system I built in the hills behind my house. It all started when my friend built a trail and I went on a mission to make a better one. The original trail in the valley, “Gobbler” as we call it because we killed some turkeys out there the first day of digging, is a gnar, berm- and chute-filled two-minute DH track in the trees. It’s one of the only trails in my area that really scares me. A lot of people hate it because it’s not safe by any means. Then we built an enduro trail, and almost everyone hates that, too, because it could be one of the hardest trails in Marin. It’s all off-cambered in the redwoods, crosscutting a valley at high speed. The best part of the trail system is that it’s an eight-minute climb with two- or three-minute descent options, not to mention it’s all on private land, so no one else is allowed access.

Building Gobbler changed me because I went from being a scummy kid lurking around town to a full-blown trail hermit. I’d spend endless days in the woods just busting ass, and at the time I didn’t notice, but I was shaping a scar in the mountain that still serves as my everyday training grounds. That valley has been my source of enjoyment for quite a few years now, and I don’t know if I’d be as far along if we hadn’t gotten into a trail-building battle that spawned it all.

My best race so far … hmmm, that’s a hard one for me. Finishing Day Four of the 2012 Trans-Provence really meant a lot to me. I’d broken my ankle that same day during the 2011 edition, and getting through the day was like someone lifted a Chevy off my chest. All year the only thing I’d thought about was that one dumb mistake; making that 2012 stage my bitch was a huge accomplishment in my book.

Training with Weir is very different. I don’t think anyone really understands how gnarly of a human he is. He has the old-man strength and wisdom of Yoda … with the same hairline. He has taught me a lot and I’m still learning.

It’s like when Luke Skywalker is charging the Death Star and he hears Obi-Wan and Yoda talking to him: “There’s no room for failure, and only you can fail yourself.” I don’t know if it’s his voice, but I certainly have something watching me that I don’t want to let down every time I leave the starting gate.

I ride an alloy-framed Cannondale Jekyll most of the time. I choose to ride alloy just because of the way I train. It may sound kinda odd, but I love freeriding. Not straight “huckstible” stuff, but just finding new ridges and valleys with no trail and just letting loose and pinning it through the woods. Carbon doesn’t take as kindly to violent dismounts, so I ride alloy.

When building a bike, I never shoot for a lightweight record, just a build I know won’t break. The past few seasons I’ve been on Cannondale and Shimano/Fox Racing with Weir and Moeschler. This season I’m on a Cannondale program and will be running SRAM. I like a 36mm-stanchion fork, preferably with 160mm or 170mm of travel, a Fox Dyad rear shock, single ring up front, MRP chainguide, WTB Stryker All Mountain wheels, WTB Vigilante tires, WTB Volt saddle and WTB grips.

Tonight’s meal consisted of five slices of a Papa Murphy’s combo pizza and a few tall Jack and Cokes. It’s off-season, though—during race season I try and behave and eat healthy. I eat a lot; plus, my parents live about five minutes from me, so I tend to roll by and steal leftovers frequently. I do cook a lot, too. I make some mean dirty rice and have some rad barbecue skills.

I was never informed of a yearlong, million-feet-of-climbing battle between Moeschler, Weir and I. Or, maybe it was one of those nights we issued a hollow whiskey challenge, only to be forgotten. Weir climbed over a million feet in one year a few years back, and I attempted it in 2011. Pretty sure if we double-teamed it we’d run a train on that, no problem. If someone really wants to be a loner, be sore all the time, and lose contact with reality, I say, “Go for it.” Try and climb a million feet of elevation with a 38-tooth single ring and see if you got what it takes.

A little morning bike check, some heckling and joking around with my buddies are my pre-race rituals, and just trying to stay calm and not freak out and get all stressed like some of the knuckle draggers. Music and headphones are key for me. For about an hour before a race I’m listening to whatever I’m stoked on at that time. I also drink a lot of water, and breathe real deep before the start. There’s also a little thing we call the “German Schwank.” If you don’t know it, I guess you’re out of the loop …

The week before an event, I like to go hard for the first three daysof the week, then taper back and take a rest day right before race day. I never drink the night before a big race, though. Last time I quit drinking for a few weeks I couldn’t sleep; it’s like grandpa’s cough syrup fixes everything.

I plan to race any and all enduro races I can find. I’m stoked on the Enduro World Series and the North American Enduro Tour. I really want to gypsy around as much as possible and just live the life. Gonna be a solid year, and I’m super excited for the direction enduro is going! There’s been talk of a trip to China, but I don’t know; apparently we may have a pump track battle-off in my yard this year.

In the words of my good buddy Rich Nasty: “Ride those trails nice and smooth till you know you feel the finish coming, then open up the Hell Gates and hammer down till you see the lights flicker.” He doesn’t ride, but he’s like our drunken prophet around these parts.

Fact File

  • Ben Cruz, WTB-Cannondale Racing Team
  • Born: March 30, 1990
  • Lives: Novato, CA
  • Height: 5’7”
  • Racing Weight: 155lbs
  • Winter Weight: around 174lbs

WTB-Cannondale’s Mark Weir and Jason Moeschler on Ben Cruz:

WTB-Cannondale OverMountain teammates Mark Weir and Jason Moeschler riff on their young protégé, Ben Cruz, who continues to amaze them despite the 23-year-old’s youthful shenanigans.

What is Ben’s background? Where is he from, and how did he get into racing?

Jason Moeschler: Ben is an original Dirt Turkey from Novato, California. He showed up at a young age, lurking around Weir’s garage. He demonstrated a good work ethic and some impressive riding talent, which prompted Weir to help him out with some parts, and get him riding more. It took off from there.

Mark Weir: Well, he wasn’t so good at team sports, and I think biking was a great solution for all that untapped energy. He grew up down the street from me and always would come by to talk bikes and hang out. At first we all didn’t really care for him too much; he seemed a bit cocky, and he had trouble fitting in. Mind you, he was 12 and we were 28, not easy to fit in when you just hit puberty. Hell, I was far on my way to baldness at that point; two different places in life, but still we had something in common. I think he’s had a lot of help along the way; his dad was always making sure he got to the races, and as he got older, Jason and I did the same.

He’s an all-rounder and he’s young. What’s his potential?

JM: When you help a young rider, your hope is always that he will be a future champion. Ben has talent. He also has speed greater than his mind can calculate. So far, this has been a bad thing. He’s learning from his mistakes and developing nicely.

MW: The potential is up to him; I think he has endless potential.

Growing up where we did is very different. At that time, when I was full bore and he was cutting his teeth, we were considered outlaws. Bikes and the things we could do on them was not something that people of Marin understood. We had undercover trails and a tight-knit crew that never talked about what we did and where we would ride. Being this way makes you have to ride in some real unfriendly terrain.

Most of the stuff is straight up and straight down, and having the right bike built for speed meant that going uphill was going to be painful at times. We all rode single rings, chainguides and heavy overbuilt bikes. We never knew when we would have to turn and burn, so making the bike bulletproof meant that it would not be the best ascending bike. This on its own burned through not only possible up-and-comers but also weeded out the weak. Now with the NorCal High School League, the opportunity is great for young riders. Ben came from the school of hard knocks. It was just a different time back then, and I think that’s why he has so much potential.

Is he disciplined and serious about his preparation and racing? Do you guys train together often?

JM: At first, I would say no, Ben was not disciplined and serious. Honestly, I didn’t see any hope in him, and thought Mark was crazy to help him out. He drank too much, had a terrible diet, and had no idea how to go down a hill without flatting or breaking something on his bike or his body. When we rode together, I would always let Ben go first downhill, because I knew he was faster. But I always knew I would be the first to the bottom. The realization that he can actually make a living racing bikes has changed Ben’s mindset. He’s much more willing to listen these days, and really pays attention to his elders’ advice.

Mark, Ben and I are traveling constantly. These days, it’s a luxury for us to actually ride together. I think people imagine us destroying each other until sunset every day. The reality is that I work 60-hour weeks and race most weekends, and Mark is constantly on a trip to a race, media camp or dealer event. It’s even more complicated these days because I moved out of the Bay Area, up to Nevada City, so that I could be closer to Downieville and the Lakes Basin. Ben is really on his own at this point. He knows that Weir and I are always available to help him. The way we motivate each other is to constantly heckle one another.

MW: He’s gone through some changes in the last year. I think before then, he was serious, but still more into telling people about it and partying than really applying himself. Now he realizes he has to shit or get off the pot. He has every opportunity in his favor to make this his future and lifestyle. With Cannondale and WTB, he has the ability to go as far as he wants with it.

But like everything in life there has to be some accountability and justification for being where you are. That’s something I think he’s learning. Race results only get you so far in this sport; now you have to be way more than just a racer. As far as riding together, we don’t as much as we used to. I have life pulling me in more directions than just racing, so sometimes media trips, dealer camps and working in the office take preference over a long training day.

What are his current strengths and weaknesses?

JM: Ben’s descending skills are really incredible. He can jump, he can ride berms, and he can go fast down pretty much anything. His weaknesses are XC fitness, crashing and mechanicals. Believe me, he knows his weaknesses, because Mark and I constantly remind him. As he continues to develop as a person, the weaknesses fade.

MW: His attitude. And his attitude …

What can he do on a bike that most people can’t?

JM: He can go down most anything with a lot of pepper, yet he has the fitness to ride all day.

MW: He has a great memory; he can tell you just how rad he was getting in a corner better than most.

How many more years of racing do you two have in your legs and lungs?

JM: Long enough to earn back some results that have been stolen all these years by dopers that are just now getting caught. Can you tell I’m bitter? Yes.

MW: My legs and lungs are good to go as far as I know. It’s that fact that most of my trips are more tuned towards a lifestyle: I spend a lot of the season at PR/dealer camps and working with media. I can’t say I don’t miss racing full out, but I really like sharing the ride with people, something that would have been hard for me 10 years ago.

I’ll race for as long as my legs and heart will let me; the results I get will be what I deserve. I don’t mind being pack fill! It’s not the results that make me who I am, it’s the time in between at this point. All I know is, Ben better get it while he can because Gus Weir is coming in hot! I’m excited to have Ben around to teach my son, Gus, the lines when age has me on the ropes.