Few things get Sam Schultz riled up. The 26-year-old Missoula native and top-ranked professional mountain biker is known for possessing a surfer's laid-back attitude and a champion's poise. That makeup is partly why he's a favorite to lead U.S.A. Cycling's Olympic team in London later this summer and why he's a perennial contender on the UCI World Cup circuit with the Subaru-Trek team. But ask him whether this summer's jam-packed schedule could preclude him from defending his title in his hometown Pro XCT race and the clinically calm Schultz perks up.
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it for anything," he says. "No matter what, I'm there."
Schultz isn't the only one looking forward to the race. After drawing more than 1,500 spectators and 250 racers to its inaugural run, the 2012 Hammer Nutrition Missoula XC at Marshall Mountain is set to be one of the biggest cross-country events of the season. UCI, or the International Biking Union, elevated it to a C-1 race, its highest status, which doubles the prize money and increases the amount of UCI points awarded to winners. The race is also scheduled for July 14a week earlier than last yearmaking it the last domestic tune-up before the Summer Olympics. Both changes should attract more elite-level riders.
"I would expect both the full U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams to be there," says Ben Horan, the race's technical director and co-promoter. Horan's planning on as many as 400 amateur and professional riders this year and more than 2,500 spectators.
Aside from the prestige and attention, not much else will change for the 2012 event. Horan says the 6-kilometer "figure-eight" course will undergo minor tweaks, but largely remain the same. He specifically notes that the signature "A-Line" jump, Schultz's favorite feature and a crowd pleaser that produces big air as well as the possibility of wreckage, will be back.
"By all accounts last year was a huge success, and we heard nothing but positive feedback from racers, locals and sponsors," says Horan. "That made it easy to look for things to improve rather than things we had to completely fix."
All of which bodes well for Schultz. If things break right, he'll be able to gear up for London against top-flight competition, in front of a hometown crowd, on a course he helped design.
"It would be hard to top last year," he says, "but I'm certainly up for trying."