VN Archives: Dave Wiens, the all-American mountain-bike champ

Looking forward to the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, we look back at one of the legends of American mountain biking.

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The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 49th birthday. With 49 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love. Today we feature a profile of Dave Wiens, the six-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race, in the lead up to this year’s event.

At six feet two inches and 185 pounds, Dave Wiens is not the sort of man to excel on long, dusty climbs at high altitude. But the Diamond Back mountain-bike racer won both Big Bear and Mammoth—famous for their grinding climbs and altitude—and also was the best-placed American at the Grundig World Cup race in Mt. Snow, where the course was muddy, tangled with roots, and only 2,000 feet above sea level. Wiens’s two wins and best American placing gave him three top points tallies in the Jeep National Championship Series, and this combined with
season-long consistency has made him the reigning national champion. The stars-and stripes jersey fits the “all-American ” rider perfectly.

After all, he’s been getting in shape for it for some time. On the rebound, Wiens was in the hunt for the overall win before—in 1990 and 1991, he was the series’ silver medalist. Then, last year, instead of fulfilling his promise, he dropped to fifth. As he tells it, it was a case of over enthusiasm at the beginning of the season.

Wiens was so motivated that he hooked up with Southern California trainer Jeff Spencer, rode the bike exclusively (instead of doing his usual off-season, fun focused cross-training), got into intense work immediately… and promptly fried his chances in the early-season Grundig World Cup events in Europe—the very races he wanted to excel in that year.

To begin it all, he drifted back to 72nd place in Houffalize, Belgium. “They were taking down the course banners when I came through on my final lap,” Wiens laughed, with an equal dose of humor and self knowledge.

When he sat down with the last two years of his training logs, the Gunnison, Colorado-based rider realized that he’d been training harder than he ever had at this point in the season, and that it was too much.

“I could never get going that whole season,” he recounted, though he doesn’t blame his trainer. Wiens said he was an equal partner in his workout plans, and he feels he would have overtrained even left to his own devices. But when the new year rolled around, he knew what not to do.

As usual, Wiens didn’t do well in the opening rounds of the World Cup in Europe. But once he got to the first race in the NORBA points series at Big Bear, he was four minutes ahead of second-place. He was back to his old training habits, and it worked. The dramatic proof of his inherent fitness and strength would come at the NORBA finals in Michigan, a race in which Wiens bonked so badly he was certain the series win was slipping out of his hands as he danced with the spots he saw in the singletrack. But the Diamond Back rider proved his inestimable worth by hanging on to seventh in the race and first in the series.

Part of Wiens’s problem was psychological.

“The day before, I stressed pretty hard,” he said, recalling in particular the finals in 1991, when he crashed in the early part of the race and fought his way back from 5th to 12th, but not the ninth place he needed to win the series. The stress was enough to steal valuable reserves from Wiens before the Michigan race even started, and so, as he told reporters afterward, he ”blew to the moon.”

He says he even saw a chain of disasters opening before him: “If I choked at this one, I’d choke at Berlin (the World Cup finals)…”

European races

Historically, Wiens has not done well in Europe; so we asked him what he thinks about the European racing.

“There’s a whole different feel and flavor,” he said. “It’s (usually) in a town, not a ski resort, and there’s a lot more interest from regular people, not just enthusiasts. There are old and young people, real nice local people. And there are more people out on the course cheering you on.”

Wiens described how at Houffalize, crowds of people, more used to watching road races, congregated around a steep climb and chanted for those who attempted to ride the terrain. Then, if a rider had made it three quarters of the way up, spectators unanimously offered their help, pushing the rider the remainder of the climb.

Wiens also cited Houffalize as one of the toughest races he’s ever seen because of its central location, it drew every ilk of talented racer, including cyclocrossers and road riders. The smell of leg creams was in the air, and Wiens, who has never been a road racer and doesn’t even shave his legs, knew he was going up against a tradition in cycling that goes back a century.

(Wiens has come to grips with cyclocross, and now practices it in the off-season.)

That depth he witnessed at Houffalize is producing exceptional mountain bikers, Wiens noted.

“The balance of power has definitely shifted. Just look at the Swiss alone—the Swiss are pretty tough,” he said. “The sport’s going to have a European influence for a long time, but the Europeans like the American aspects of the sport, the lifestyle.”

American lifestyle

The lifestyle is part of what keeps Wiens in the sport, as well. Mountain biking is the perfect place for an open, low-key athlete such as him. The day after his World Cup win at Mammoth, he was working on his bike at the Diamond Back box van, virtually unrecognized by the crowd that was there to see the Kamikaze downhill.

Wiens also has a distinctly American approach to the sport. When asked how his form came on for his win at Big Bear, he responded with a quote from an Almond Joy candy bar commercial: “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”

He added that his ultimate training secret is eating sugary cereals for recovery after hard rides. The basis to making this method work, said Wiens, is to mix your approach, as he does (on a slightly more serious level) with his training:

“Before Mammoth, it was Trix; and before Big Bear, it was Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms. It was Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch before Mt. Snow, too.”

It all began in Alaska

Eating junk cereals and not shaving his legs are perhaps linked to Wiens’s typically American mountain-bike heritage. His first mountain-bike experiences took place in Denali National Park in Alaska, where he was working as a river guide on a summer break during college.

“Like all young men, I was into toys, and the mountain bike was the elusive toy, mountain bikes being $600 to $700 in the early ’80s.”

There weren’t many people to ride with in Alaska, but when he got back to Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, the Tune-Up bike shop was populated with bike racers, and many of his college friends were into biking, too.

Wiens started in NORBA’s expert category, because he knew that’s where he belonged, based on his experiences with fellow riders. That first year, he won a few races and got a lot of top five placings, including fifth at the national championship finals in Durango. Tune-Up put him on the Diamond Back regional program for 1988, and he then turned pro. At the unofficial worlds in Mammoth that year, he got 10th. The next year, Wiens had some good results, and some lackluster ones.

But then he got third at the unofficial Mammoth worlds, and that single result launched his career. Diamond Back offered him a full pro contract, and he accepted. And as he finished his college degree in mass media and business administration, the Coloradan prepared for and raced the circuit.

The rest of his story has been a steady ascent up the mountain-bike hierarchy, with 1992 being just a brief dip down. And America couldn’t ask for a more gracious, or typical mountain-bike champion. As long as guys like Dave Wiens win the national championship, U.S. mountain biking will remain as down to-earth and gritty as he is.


Factfile: Dave Wiens

Born: September 7, 1964. Hometown: Gunnison, Colorado. Height: 6 feet 2 inches. Weight: 185 pounds. Started racing: 1987: Team Diamond Back. Hobbies: Skiing, working on his “fixer-upper house, buying CDs (he likes obscure music and heavy metal), fiddling with his bass guitar. Last book read: ‘The Sea Wolf” by Jack London. Last movie seen: “A River Runs Through It.” Favorite meals: Spicy food, especially Indian, burgers, sugared cereal.

Favorite courses
Houffalize, Belgium; Mammoth, California; Rage in the Sage, Gunnison, Colorado; Monarch Crest, Colorado; Mt. Snow, Vermont; Traverse City, Michigan; any course with a lot of thought put into it.

Training week
Monday: off; Tuesday: two workouts, including one short with hard intervals, and the other longer with lower-intensity intervals; Wednesday: endurance; Thursday: rest and travel to race site; Friday: ride two-thirds of race distance over course; Saturday: race; Sunday: easy spin and travel.

Cross training
Alpine skiing combined with hiking, cross-country skiing, kayaking, running, pick-up football and basketball, anything fun and different.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.