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.'"
Schultz's humble nature started early in his career. He first entered a race at age 13, and the experience hooked both Sam and his older brother, Andy. The two competed in semi-professional regional events throughout high school, with Andy usually winning.
"When we first started racing I was beating Sam purely because of the two-year age difference," says Andy. "Then, near my senior year of high school, Sam got a little more serious, trained all through the winter on a stationary rider and, not only did he start beating me, he started beating local pros from Washington, Idaho and Montana. That was kind of an eye opener. At that point it definitely wasn't cool to have my little brother beating me."
Sam pushed Andy, and Andy pushed Sam. Both say the competition was always filled with more respect than sibling rivalry. Today, Andy races professionally for the Kenda-Felt team in two national series, and also works at The Cycling House. He credits Sam for keeping him in the sport, but also acknowledges a recent difference between them.
"Back when we first turned pro, it kind of went back and forth. In any given race, we could beat each other," says Andy. "But last year and already this year, Sam has started out at a whole other level. He's the next great American rider, for sure. He's ready to be the rider who takes America forward."
The brothers' uncle, Charlie Schultz, never anticipated Andy or Sam's current level of success. He introduced the boys to mountain biking at an early age, taking them on trail rides and teaching them basic skills. When both showed an interest, he fed it, supplying training books and racing jerseys as gifts for the holidays. When the brothers visited Charlie at his home on the coast of Washington, he'd borrow nicer bikes with proper suspension and easy gears for climbing, then challenge the boys with increasingly difficult rides.
"I remember one time Sam and Andy came out and we have this trail out here called 'The Beast' that's really steep," recalls Charlie. "So we go about three-quarters the way up and Sam can't make it. He's young, I don't remember how old. He turns to me and says, 'I'm going to make it.' Then he turns around and starts to go back again, and he doesn't make it. So, he turns around and starts back up again, and he doesn't make it. He's always had this incredible energy for the sport that's not very common."
For a stretch of his early career, that same drive worked both for and against Schultz. After conquering the regional races, he focused on the U.S. National Series and, at age 17, made the World Championship team as a junior. That success landed him a spot on USA Cycling's U-23 National Team, where he spent three years based at the team's training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., while balancing a half-time schedule at Colorado State University. Everything appeared to be dialed in, but Sam, still a teenager, started to push too hard.
"Living at the training center, focusing everything on riding my bike, nothing was going well," he says. "I was too single-minded. If you're too focused and things aren't going well, it's a snowball effect. All you think about is that it's not going well and it's not going to get better. It's not healthy."
Schultz switched coaches and refocused his efforts both on and off the bike. In 2006, he was named to the "long team" for the 2008 Olympics, meaning he was a finalist for a chance to compete in Beijing. That same year he was also crowned the U-23 National XC Champion. He signed with the Subaru-Gary Fisher team in 2007 and launched his pro career, promptly earning a series of top-five finishes, including second in the U-23 Continental Championships in Villa La Angostura, Argentina, and second in the U-23 National Championships in Mount Snow, Vt. Last year, in addition to the 16th-place finish in Germany, he placed second in the Continental Championships in Santiago, Chile, and third in the National Championships in Granby, Colo. He talks today as if the lingering pressures from his early success were nothing but lessons well learned.
"I realized that if you want to make a career out of it, if you want to be a normal person, you have to throw some balance into it," he says. "I was stupid about it. I think I'm smarter now."
The switch is apparent to those closest to him.
"There have been times when we've both struggled and talked it through with each other," says Andy. "There are going to be bad stretches. The thing with Sam is, you know he's going to push through. He has a way of taking any bad luck and finding some way to spin it into something positive or funny."
When he's asked for an example, Andy barely hesitates.
"Well, he probably doesn't want it in print," Andy says. "But last year he had this flight back from Germany..."
Kristen Dieffenbach studies athletes, and even she's stumped by Schultz, beyond categorizing him as "a rare breed." An assistant professor of sports psychology at West Virginia University, Dieffenbach met Schultz when he was still competing at the junior level with USA Cycling. For the last six years, she's served as his personal coach, sending him weekly training regimens via e-mail and talking with him every couple of days on the phone.
"In my job of working in sports and coaching psychology, we look at hundreds of athletes and what makes them successful," says Dieffenbach. "Sam's right up there with what you look for in the elite-level athletes for having the passion to put in the hard work, and still be laid-back when he wants to be. He's in that rare class for an elite athlete."
Dieffenbach describes Schultz's early challenges as typical of a "very talented teenager." He used to overwork, lie about injuries and fight with his coach about going too easy on him. Now, he's proven more patient, savvy and in tune with his body. "He's gotten better with the big picture," she says.
Schultz offers a perfect example of that perspective when talking about the highlight of his 2009 season. During a rain-soaked World Cup race in Bromont, Canada, last August, he navigated the narrow, rock and root-encrusted course and found himself near the leader's wheel midway through the race.
"Everything was completely clicking, shaping up to be the race of my life," says Schultz. "I was in fifth position and feeling really good."
Then he felt his back tire go flat. Later, mechanical issues slowed him even more. The race of his life left him in 39th place.
"It didn't end up with the best result. In fact, it was a pretty horrible result after the problems," he says. "But it was a breakthrough for me personally because I can actually ride with those guys at the front. I was comfortable because I was completely riding within myself, and I was mixing it up with some of the best guys in the world. I realized, you know, I can be there."
Dieffenbach says that attitude—the one that allows Schultz to call a frustration-filled 39th place finish the highlight of his season—comes entirely from the rider. Genetics? Mental make-up? Training? She's not sure what instilled that ethic in Schultz, but it's what sets him apart.
"There are always going to be mechanical mishaps, flat tires, other things that can derail a rider in competition," she says. "Sam seems to have the ability to go, 'Huh, okay,' and then cope with it. He can battle through that and still keep that—how do I say this...Let's just say he's always got that big grin on his face. I don't know how to explain it. Sam's special. It's the sort of thing people in my field spend a career studying."
Schultz collected another classic story on the eve of his current season. During a routine drive across town for his morning training ride in Tucson, a swerving Buick cut off Schultz's team-issued, stickered-up Subaru. Schultz mustered a scowl when he eventually passed the Buick, and instantly received a double-bird in return. At the next light, the driver of the Buick hopped from his car, approached Schultz's open window, and sucker-punched him with a one-two combination.
"He asked if I wanted to fight, and I said no," says Schultz. "I guess I should have said yes."
The punches left Schultz with a bloody nose, scratched face and the unexpected pride of taking his first two hits.
"I had no idea I could take a punch," he says. "It's actually comforting to know that I can. I mean, I waited 24 years to learn this. It feels pretty important to finally get it out of the way."
Schultz missed the license plate number of the Buick. He reported the attack to local police, but knew nothing would come of it. He stopped the bleeding and inspected the damage, which wasn't more than a cut on his cheek and some swelling. Then, in typical Schultz fashion, he figured the best thing to do was go on his scheduled five-hour training ride.
"It was great," he says without a hint of sarcasm. "I don't know if it was the extra adrenaline or what, but it was one of my best rides."
Schultz's ability to channel a crazy brush with road rage into a positive training experience is already paying off. During his first ride of the 2010 season, a cross-country race in the inaugural Triple Crown national series, Schultz reached the podium with relative ease.
"The first race of the season is all about seeing where you're at, how your training stands up to the competition, and I felt really good," he says of the third-place finish. "I was able to stick with the leaders, make a few moves of my own just to see how my legs held up, and I felt solid. I couldn't have asked for a better start."
The biggest tests for Schultz will come later, when World Cup races in Belgium and Great Britain measure him once again against top international competition, including an Aug. 28 race in Windham, N.Y., the first such event on domestic soil since 2005. The July 15-18 Mountain Bike National Championships back in Granby, Colo., are also circled on Schultz's calendar.
"With the way last year ended, I feel good about things," he says. "I'm never really completely happy with my results—I always want to squeak out a little better finish—but looking back, I definitely have something to build on."
But first things first: Back in Tucson, Schultz had more pressing matters. The assistant chef needed to help his brother finish dinner, and a full slate of guests at The Cycling House needed to hear how, exactly, the world-class mountain biker acquired a bruised cheek and swollen nose. Holding court among hardcore fans and lifelong friends and family, the resident storyteller couldn't have been more in his element.
"He tells the story, and the whole time he's smiling," says Gue. "He gets attacked, and he's laughing about it. With Sam, even when you get punched in the face, it can be a really good day—as long as you got your ride in."