Mountain bike hall of famer Nat Ross is making his mark on his new hometown of Bentonville and in the growing world of e-bikes.
By Lindsey Millar
IN 2008, the year he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, Nat Ross retired. He was 36 and had been racing for more than two decades, since he was a teenager. He’d been dominant as a member of the Subaru-Gary Fisher Mountain Bike Team, racking up 40 solo 24-hour races, including nine victories. He’d competed in the first X Games in 1997 (as both a pro skier and mountain biker).
He’d won national championships in marathon, 100-mile and 24-hour races and four world championships. He was part of the winning four-man teams in the Race Across America — billed as “the world’s toughest bicycle race” — in 2006 and 2007. “Why not go out on top?” Ross figured.
But your idea of retirement and Ross’ may be different. When Ross, who relocated from his home state of Colorado to Bentonville with his wife, Aimee, last year, spoke to a reporter April 1, he said he was beat up and bloodied, having just returned from Morganton, N.C., where he finished third in the second race of the year in the Specialized Turbo eMTB Grand National Cross Country Series.
eMTB stands for electronic mountain bike, a bicycle equipped with a battery-powered motor. Throughout much of U.S. (and as defined by Arkansas law), e-bikes are divided into three classes based on how the motor assists the rider and how fast it propels the bike. Class 1 and 3 e-bikes each require the rider to pedal before the motor provides assistance. Class 1 e-bikes have a governor that caps top speed at 20 miles per hour; Class 3 bikes can reach up to 28 miles per hour. Class 2 e-bikes have a throttle that doesn’t require the rider to peddle and have a top speed of 20 miles per hour. Class 1 bikes have become the most popular, Ross said, and they’re what pro racers ride.
Just as he was with professional mountain bike racing, Ross has been at the vanguard of e-bike racing. He’s been racing pedal-assisted bikes for seven years. As far as commuting and racing go, Ross estimates e-bikes are 35 to 40 percent more popular in Europe. In U.S. e-bike racing, no one meets Ross’ definition of “professional”: being fully supported financially through racing and accompanying sponsorship. But that may soon change. The Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing body of cycling, will award its first rainbow jersey for electric mountain bikes in August at the 2019 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships at Mont-Saint-Anne in Québec, Canada.
Though e-bikes have been successfully marketed to older people who need help powering over hills, Ross didn’t turn to e-bike racing for the mechanical advantage. The GNCC series races happen along with motorcycle and ATV races, and the moto track courses are often gnarlier than mountain bike runs. “It’s a lot more challenging than your standard cross-country mountain bike race,” Ross said. The field has been a mix of pro mountain bike racers and pro moto-cross riders. “Those guys who race motos all their life, they go fast through the trees, and they’re used to it,” Ross said.
For cyclists, adjusting to the speed can be a challenge. In the first GNCC race of the season, a pro enduro racer broke his handlebars on a tree. The average speed of the winner of the North Carolina GNCC race was 16 miles per hour, Ross said. The top cross-country mountain bike racers reach speeds of 13 or 14 miles per hour. (The UCI will limit top speeds to 25 kilometers per hour at the world championships, or about 15 miles per hour.) But it’s not simply a need for speed that attracts Ross to e-bikes, it’s the ability to go further and faster than on a traditional bike and to more easily answer, “I wonder what’s over there?”
Ross has become something of an evangelist for the industry. He’s hosting a festival in Bentonville Sept. 13-15 where “thought leaders” will consider “the future of cycling.” E-bikes will be central to this first ever Innovation Cycles Festival (innovationcyclesfestival.com); there will be more than 100 e-bikes of all types for members of the public who show up with a helmet to ride, including, Ross said, “workhorses, cargo, path bikes, gravel e-bikes, e-mountain bikes.” He said the biggest challenge for the industry is “the education piece. Bike shops are intimidating… cyclists are so gear and tech centric. We don’t make it easy.” The expo will make it easy for folks to get a sense of e-bikes.
Meanwhile, Ross is staying busy with his day job as a brand manager for Pirelli. The Italian tire manufacture, known for its high-performance tires for motorsports, began making cycling tires again in 2017 and, among its 12-person cycling division, Ross alone isn’t based in Milan. Between traveling to and from Italy, hitting the road to sell Pirelli tires, visiting bike events throughout North America to promote the brand and competing in e-bike races, Ross guesses he travels 250 to 260 days per year. He was looking forward to traveling just a short distance to the Joe Martin Stage Race in Fayetteville earlier in April where Floyd Landis’ Floyd’s Pro Cycling, which races on Pirelli tires, was participating. Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon team also races with Pirelli.
When he’s not traveling, he’s busy exploring Arkansas. “I knew the mountain biking would be good,” he said. “The gravel is blowing my mind.” He also found time to launch the Tough Guy Productions MTB Town Series, short-track cross-country mountain bike races at Bentonville’s Coler Mountain Bike Preserve that began in March and will continue through May on Tuesday nights. It’s open to all ability levels (and juniors) and designed to foster community in a fun way. See details at toughguyproductions.com.
Ross has a college degree in biochemistry. He worked, years ago, as a brewmaster with Breckenridge Brewery. He flexed those skills recently when he brewed a Pilsner, the Rebel 29er, as a collaboration with New Belgium and Bentonville’s Bike Rack Brewery. It will be released May 10.