The People’s Champ

by Nicholas Haig-Arack May 24, 2016




One of the first things you’ll notice about Sam Schultz is his easygoing, cheerful demeanor. A laid-back manner and easy smile is not what you’d expect from a battle-hardened, race-bred, cross-country speed machine who has been competing at the highest levels for his entire adult life.

This is a man who was selected for the UCI World Championships for nine years in a row, won the 2012 XC National Championships, and represented the United States in the Olympics that same year. But Sam’s soft-spoken disposition seems more golden retriever than greyhound. He’s precisely the type of rider we seek to represent us as a Kitsbow Ambassador: skilled on the trails, outgoing on the street, and always primed for adventure. Let’s find out more from Sam himself.

Tell us about your earliest memories of riding. What got you started in mountain biking?

I can vividly remember leaving daycare with my older brother and another older kid on some of my first unsupervised bicycle adventures. Our rides felt epic, even though at best we would make it to the actual trailhead. On one particular ride, we were running late to get home and somehow my brother convinced me that there was a tornado behind me so that I would pick up the pace. That was the fastest I ever rode on my old singlespeed Schwinn Mudmaster.

The progression to mountain biking came naturally.  I grew up with amazing singletrack out my door, and my dad rode a little. He got me out on the trails, but my uncle is the one who really showed me what was possible on a mountain bike. He was way into the sport and lined my brother and I up with some nice bikes one time when we visited him in Anacortes, WA. We rode great trails and I was blown away with what he and his buddies could do on bikes. After that visit, I was hooked on riding. I frequented the bike shop to ogle over the bike of my dreams, and eventually I squirreled enough money away (and convinced my parents that I wasn’t crazy for wanting a $1300 bike) to take home. It didn’t take long for mountain biking to become a favorite pastime of my whole family.

What motivated you to pursue racing?

The same uncle suggested that I try a race after seeing how into mountain biking I had gotten. In 1999 I entered my first race: Lone Peak’s Revenge in Big Sky, MT. I was 13 years old. I remember being terrified of the technical descents and nearly dying on the climbs. I didn’t do particularly well, but I was hooked. Something about looking back on all of that fear and suffering made it the coolest thing I had done. That was the last race in my area that year, but I bought a trainer that winter and convinced my parents to take me to as many races in my region as possible the next year.

What sacrifices did you make to pursue a career in racing? Any professional or personal goals that got pushed aside?

There are certainly a lot of sacrifices that need to be made to race at a high level, but I think one of the things I have done best in my career is to keep a good balance between taking it seriously and having as much fun as possible along the way.

I’ve always found that I’m at my fastest when I feel like I’m making the least amount of sacrifices and enjoying myself the most. Sometimes that involves making time to get out on the skis, the river, backpacking, riding a motorcycle- out recreating as much as possible, doing things that most anyone would consider fun- but sometimes you have to get creative in determining what joy is. Luckily I’ve always loved the process of training, recovery, racing, and traveling. I like how the balance of it all is just as much art as it is science. Certainly there have been sacrifices, but I feel extremely lucky to follow the path that I have taken thus far. I would say the hardest part is definitely when you put in the same amount of, if not more, work and effort but don’t see the results.  That can take a toll on you.

What keeps you humble?

It’s pretty easy to be humble when I consider that I’m just a guy who loves riding bikes. I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to pursue my passion to the best of my abilities, but that doesn’t make me any better than the guy who works his ass off at another job, yet still finds time and motivation to get out there and hit the trails or the race course. I’ve also had a good number of setbacks that keep me feeling pretty humble and human.



Tell us about those setbacks.

I haven’t actually had that many injuries. I have had a ton of crashes– a couple broken hand bones, fingers, scapula, but man, the one thing that has kicked my ass is chronic back pain. I battled it for 6+ years of racing, thinking it was just part of the sport. Little did I know I was doing some pretty serious damage. It got to the point where I wasn’t able to sleep, and I wasn’t functioning well either. Bending over to raise the toilet seat felt like a major ordeal. I had lost strength in my foot and was having episodes of shooting leg pain. Genetics, bad movement patterns, or maybe years of compensating for an old injury had led to some serious back issues.

When I first got an MRI the doctor told me I had the back of a guy in his mid-70’s. Significant degeneration of my lumbar discs predominately at the L4/L5 junction had caused bone plate changes on my vertebrae from rubbing together and the closing of the gap was putting pressure on my nerves. I was dead set on getting back to racing. After failing with every type of conservative treatment I could possibly come up with, I ended up going in for surgery. A non-instrumented fusion was the smallest procedure I could find to try to fix my problems. After surgery was the most focused period of my life. My only goal was to get my back working again. I thought I was getting better, but I think it was just denial, and in reality I was struggling. A year after my first surgery I went in for a second operation. When they cut me open they found my spine was full of pus from an infection I had picked up from the first surgery. They cleaned out the area and got me fixed me up with an instrumented fusion and a 6 week dose of 24 hour IV antibiotics.

I’m still working through that one, even though it was 16 months ago.

Did you decide to quit professional racing or are you still going for it?

As a result of the back issues, I’ve had to take a step back from racing. I tried again to get back to my normal training after my second surgery last year, and even did a couple races, but it didn’t go too well. This year has been the first year that I’ve been OK with not trying to race at the highest level. Shortly after deciding not to focus on racing this year, I tore my ACL while skiing. That really sealed the deal on not racing this year.

Luckily, up until I had surgery 10 days ago I was still able to spend a bunch of time on my bike. Notching back a bit and just riding for the fun of it has been great for my back and I’ve been enjoying riding more than ever. I’ve been thinking about some select events that I’d like to hit next year just for the love of the sport, and who knows, if I make it fun enough I might even be able to go kind of fast.



You’re learning to ride recreationally again. Has it been hard to not think of every ride as training?

Learning to ride casually has been a lot more natural than I thought it would be. I’m kind of a stubborn guy, so I would say deciding to take that step back was the hardest part. It sure didn’t take long to fall back in love with soul riding. Filling a pack full of snacks and seeing where I can end up on my bike is how I fell in love with the sport to begin with. Sure, I’m still competitive and I like to test myself to see how far I can go, or if I can make it up that climb, or down that rocky, rutted switchback, and I’ll admit that I was still throwing a few workouts in with my rides, but it’s nice to do it when I want and only if it feels good.

What advice do you have to other riders?

My advice to other riders is pretty simple: keep it fun.

Where’s your favorite place to ride?

My favorite place to ride has to be any high alpine ride in Montana.  Vistas with countless wild ridgelines, singletrack not much wider than your tires, huckleberries, and the big sky.  I’m pretty partial to my home state and I love that it isn’t very hard to find a trail that makes it feel like you’re really out there.


We’re honored to have Sam Schultz represent us as a Kitsbow Ambassador. Keep your eyes on the Journal for some of his upcoming adventures, and please give him a high five if you see him in Missoula.

The post The People’s Champ appeared first on Kitsbow.

Nicholas Haig-Arack
Nicholas Haig-Arack


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