One of the toughest mountain bikers in the world is not a guy. Last year she gave up a dominating career in mountain biking to train for the BMX event in the Olympics, tore out her knee, put off surgery and gutted it out to a bronze medal. She’s Jill Kintner, born in Seattle, 1999 Juanita High grad.
Kintner is back on the mountain bike for 2009 and was on the slate for the Sea Otter Classic this weekend in Monterey. Curious how her comeback from ACL reconstruction and a separate meniscus scope was doing, and wanting to root her on, I went out to the dual slalom competition on Saturday.
Dual slalom is for my money the best of all cycling competition to watch. Road and cross-country races stretch out too far and too long. Downhill races run against the clock, an unflinching but faceless foe. Dual slalom offers a brutally fast and quick snaky course full of berms, twists and turns, jumps and pedaling. And it pits riders mano-a-mano, or in this case, femi-a-femi.
Sea Otter’s layout is compact and accessible. During the early afternoon the dual slalom track was empty, so I took a couple test runs down it. You think, as an experienced cyclist, you can at least ride pretty much everything the pros can ride, just not as well. Then you go out on the real ticket and find how woefully overmatched you really are.
The course was not just steep and lumpy, with off-camber troughs, wicked hairpins and thumping rollers, it was fast deteriorating in the baking sun. Normally the concern at Sea Otter is soaking rains that turn the course into a water slide. This time around the temps were into the 80s, it hadn’t rained a drop and the course was caked like a dry lake bed. It was a challenge just to stay upright through the top sections. To think about pedaling a tall gear as fast as one is capable through this stuff boggles the imagination.
The slightest miscue on the upper run was putting the world’s best riders into the dirt like school kids. Braking on the sketchy surface was highly problematic. If you misjudged a jump or got too far into the middle of the track, you were out of luck for any correctional maneuvers. As you gained speed down the turns, you had to hit the berms really high or you stood to wash out in the loose powder in the mid-section. The slightest bobble could cost you the race. After dozens of runs, no rider who had emerged from the zigzags behind his or her rival had managed to make up the difference in the downhill section, which featured two tabletops but was far too short to bridge a gap.
The dry conditions help explain why champions like Eric Carter, Nathan Rennie and Cedric Gracia bit the big one, handing their runs to lesser rivals.
The only rider who really mastered the course was Sam Hill, lunging into and ripping the corners as only a pro on top of their game can do. Even then, it was only on the final couple of runs where Hill clearly had things in command. He got better with each run, which is another great thing about the slalom. If you stick around long enough, you can grow into the course like a virtuoso. By the finals he was hitting the turns in a rooster tail of dust like a hydroplane spouting water on Lake Washington.
For most of the race, Kintner looked to be Hill’s counterpart on the female side. Clear through to the finals, her only encounter with dirt was to watch the competition go down. As foe after foe overreached, trying to make up lost ground, they spun out or took a flyer or just plain crashed. More often than not Jill was just coasting by the time she reached the finish line. It was looking easy. Maybe too easy.
On the other draw, 2008 national downhill and dual slalom champion Melissa Buhl was similarly cleaning up. But unlike Jill, Buhl was being pushed. It was coming down to a question whether Buhl would have the gas to motor in the final against a daisy-fresh Kintner.
Then things fell apart.
On the first run, Kintner had trouble on the top washboard, looking hesitant and unsure through the first berm. She re-righted and managed to keep it a race, but not in time to close the gap Buhl managed to open up at the top.
It was never clear exactly what happened, whether a mechanical, or slipped pedal, or just bad luck threw her off (she wasn’t quoted on anything specific in post-race interviews). But one thing undoubtedly contributed: Not having been pressed all day, she may have been playing it too cautious, counting as much on something going wrong for Buhl as seizing the opportunity to put down the hammer from the start.
I say this because the second run was nearly a reversal of the first. From the outset Kintner was the stronger rider, leading through all the turns and smoking Buhl across the tabletops. In her defense, Buhl may have been playing it safe this time, figuring all she had to do was stay upright and her first run would carry the day (one report also mentioned a mech up high for Buhl). The way slalom scoring works is that you have to make up the difference of the first run in the second. It doesn’t matter if you win the second, you have to do so by that crucial time differential.
And this time, Kintner fell short. An otherwise perfect day was ruined by a bumpy penultimate run.
Still, there’s no doubt that Kintner is back, and 2009 looks to be a great season. An early season disappointment might be just the motivation Jill needs to put her over the top through the rest of the year. Hopefully there will be more epic matchups with Buhl to come.
Some great video from PinkBike.