Busy East Coast run leaves biker spinning

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— The past month and a half has been a whirlwind for Steamboat Springs mountain bike racer Ethan Johnson.

But as strenuous as a stretch of races was for the 18-year-old rider, convincing him to take it easy for a few days might be even tougher.

"For the next 10 days he really needs to do some easy spinning, relax and not think about it," coach Robert Ames said. "The problem is that Ethan isn't the type of guy to pull his drapes, prop his feet up on a pillow and lay back. For him, this part of training is definitely the hardest."

But after living out of suitcases and absorbing the Eastern mountain biking scene -- which includes big, wet rocks that seem to be coated with Teflon, roots that can trip a cyclist up faster than a Ray Lewis tackle upends an NFL running back and mud that looks and feels like pudding -- it's hard to imagine taking it easy doesn't top the rider's list of things to do.

Johnson not only survived his latest trip, but even managed to collect top finishes in cross country races at Snowshoe, W.Va., where he was eighth, and Mount Snow, Vt., where he placed ninth.

The finishes, plus an 11th in Big Bear, Calif., boosted Johnson into the top-10 in the nation in the junior expert category. He expects to be ranked eighth or ninth when the next list comes out. Many of the elite field of 18-and-younger riders on the list were perfectly at home on the rain-soaked trails back East.

"A lot of the top riders come from the East," Ames said. "There is a large pool of riders who grew up on those slippery single-track trails, so they are all good bike handlers. Very few riders around here realize how difficult it is to do well back there."

Johnson isn't one of them.

He has made the trip east for three consecutive years, so he knew what to expect this time around.

"It was rainy, muddy and slippery," Johnson said. "I'm glad to be back home, but I know I can ride with those guys back there, too."

In Snowshoe, Johnson encountered trails that were covered with up to 6 inches of mud that was so thick he could watch it fill in behind the rider in front of him like quicksand.

Johnson said there where parts of the trails, which were unsafe to ride. Many times he was forced to jump off the back of his bike and slide down steep sections of single track that were too slick to navigate on a bike.

"You had to stay focused all the time," Johnson said. "You would go to turn, but you never really knew where your front wheel was going to take you."

After peaking at the race in Vermont, Johnson now needs to rest, his coach said.

In the past Ethan has resisted this part of training, but Ames said the young rider has come to understand the importance of training cycles and knows there is a time to ride hard and a time to let your body recover.

"Ethan has really matured over the last 18 months," Ames said. "He has discovered that there is a lot more to racing than just going out hard. He has learned that there is a strategy to training and racing."

Ames said he works with Johnson to develop a training plan and that both coach and rider are committed to.

"I feel pretty good right now," Johnson said. "It's not like I'm wiped out or anything. Still, I know I have to take it easy if I want to be competitive down the road."

Earlier this summer, Johnson was named to Team Devo, which is one of the most elite junior mountain biking teams in the country. Ames compares it to a young skier being named to the U.S. Ski Team.

"There are 400 or 500 kids in American that would do anything to be in Ethan's shoes and be a part of this team," Ames said. "It's really a great honor for a kid from Steamboat to be a part of it."

Johnson next major stretch of races will follow the Fourth of July holiday.

The strategy for his next training cycle focuses on a major national race in Sandpoint, Idaho, on July 11 and the national championship event in Durango three weeks later.

"We are working to peak a little at Sandpoint, but my main focus, and the race we are really working for, is the national championship race," Johnson said.

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