In the late-'90s, anything seemed possible in the world of mountain biking. Photo: Scott Clarke | ESPN Images
In the final years of the last millennium, the horizon seemed endless for niche action sports. Skateboarding, snowboarding, street luge, super-modified shovel racing … if you could dream it, eventually, it had its 15 minutes on ESPN’s X Games. Even mountain bike racing got a chance to shine before it hit the skids when major sponsorship dried up.
Don’t go looking into the Summer X Games archives though. No, no, no! This was the ‘90s. It would be so lame to just mountain bike on dirt. We had to make it extreme-er. Yes, that’s right, from 1997 through 2000, mountain biking, in a few formats, was part of the Winter X Games. For the most part, it was a weird failure.
But riders like Jurgen Beneke and Myles Rockwell came away from it all with great stories to tell — and some hardware.
Carolyn Curl brought all of her aero expertise to the X Games, having set a world speed record on the snow at 122mph in 1997. However, that did not translate into at medal at the Winter X Games. Photo: Scott Clarke | ESPN Images
Credit to ESPN for not immediately sending the mountain bikers down a snow-covered mountain. The 1995 Extreme Games (the precursor to the X Games) included boring, old dirt mountain biking. If you’ve ever watched old-school downhill or dual-slalom racing, these events will look familiar. The color commentary leaves something to be desired, despite Davis Phinney’s best efforts. That lasted one year. Granted many niche sports didn’t make the cut. (Allow me to extend a warm welcome to fans of Eco-Challenge!)
Some, like Rockwell, thought that the far-flung venue made mountain biking a non-starter in the summer games. He raced that ‘95 event and noted how Mount Snow, where the mountain bike racing was held, was impossibly remote, relative to the urban-friendly sports like skateboarding, which were held in Providence, the actual host city.
“It just seems like it's probably logistically easier to put on a lot of things at one place,” Rockwell said. “But then this mountain bike venue in the summertime would be off in the distance.”
Counterintuitively, he saw how mountain biking might actually be a better fit in the Winter X-Games, at least in terms of accessibility for spectators and fewer logistical challenges for the organizers. “It seems like ski resorts in the winter are far more frequented,” he added. “And not only that, but to be able to do all of the events at one time.”
"If you go anywhere to do this they’d just arrest you and pull you off the mountain.” — Jurgen Beneke
Whether or not that was the exact reasoning in ESPN’s Bristol boardroom, it made more sense than a rural venue three hours from the X-Games epicenter. So when the inaugural Winter X-Games came along in 1997, mountain biking was in.
It sure didn’t look like mountain biking, though. There was no cross-country racing — that had just debuted in the ‘96 Olympics, basically the antithesis to the X-Games. So we had gravity racing, in the most literal way imaginable. The Speed event and the Dual Downhill events basically just sent riders straight down the ski slope. Fastest rider wins. If you go deep enough down the rabbit hole, you’d find similar events held on glaciers in Europe, but this was far from the mainstream approach to mountain biking.
“It’s fun because you never get to do this,” Beneke said. “Just bomb down a hill fast as possible. If you go anywhere to do this they’d just arrest you and pull you off the mountain.”
Philip Tintsman and Cheri Elliot won the Speed events, while Missy Giove and Shawn Palmer won the Dual events that first year (results). In 1998, Winter X-Games moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, and Beneke won gold in the Speed Downhill.
“The faster you went, the easier it got, that was the lesson of the whole thing,” Beneke said, adding that riding on snow was akin to mud, even in terms of the tires he chose. “Getting to the finish line was not the problem. Getting from the finish line to stopping was the hardest part actually of the speed event.”
He found that the start was the most crucial moment of the short race. Then, you just tucked into the most aerodynamic position possible and held on.
Jurgen Beneke preferred to tuck behind the saddle when he hit speeds near 60mph in the Speed Downhill competition at 1998 Winter X Games. Photo: Scott Clarke | ESPN Images
“Tucking at 60 miles an hour is different,” he said. “I think Joe [Lawill] did this weird tuck where he put his elbows in and his head out front over the stem. The one thing I definitely wanted to have was control. I’m not going to put my head over my stem. I’m not going to f—king do that at 60 miles per hour!”
Perhaps for the benefit of competitors and spectators alike, the speed and dual events were discontinued for 1999. They were replaced by a far more modern and TV-friendly racing format: Biker X.
"The berms, they were horrific. They were good in the morning, then you have six people run through it, and it looked like a bomb went off.” — Beneke
Much like SnowBoarder X, Biker X sent six riders down a course riddled with jumps, rollers, and berms in a head-to-head race to the line. Unlike the sliding sports, it soon became clear that mountain bike tires weren’t ideal for the surface, no matter how much the groomers packed in the snow.
“The skinny tires would tear up the take-offs,” said Beneke. “You build a jump and can jump it once. Then you have to change your line every time you jump. They had to groom the jumps every run. This was a nightmare for maintenance. The berms, they were horrific. They were good in the morning, then you have six people run through it, and it looked like a bomb went off.”
Despite that, Beneke admits it was pretty fun, and he won bronze in the 1999 Biker X.
Sketchy conditions and head-to-head racing led to carnage in Biker X, which was held only two years at the Winter X Games, 1999 and 2000. Photo: Eric Bakke | ESPN Images
Rockwell also found the snow conditions to be rather unpredictable when he raced Biker X in its second and final running at the 2000 X Games at Mount Snow. That didn’t stop him from making a big gamble to win gold, though.
“All the other guys were scared and I was just like, nope, I'm going to send it,” said Rockwell. “There was like a 50-footer after the first roller. And it was like, everybody would check-up, and I was just sending it. And that's how I went from last to first on the first big jump in the final. Yeah, it was cool.”
And that was only the beginning of Rockwell’s one and only experience at the Winter X Games. Later on, he found himself backstage at the afterparty, gold medal around his neck, hanging with rap group Cypress Hill.
Myles Rockwell (center) says he would have raced Biker X at the Winter X Games again, if the event hadn't been cancelled. Granted, he had a pretty excellent time at his one and only Winter X Games appearance. Photo: Eric Bakke | ESPN Images
“They're smoking a big fatty. And so I jumped in and I'm like, ‘Hey, what's up?’ So I’m puffing down with Cypress Hill,” Rockwell said. “It was one of those crazy moments where all these weird things happened: You win a race on the snow. And then, you hang out with Cypress Hill. You get a big check … Ten or eight thousand, it was pretty good!”
While Beneke didn’t cop to any wild afterparty antics like Rockwell, he made sure to watch a number of other events at Winter X Games. Although, seeing sports like snowboarding in the limelight left him a bit pessimistic about mountain biking’s future.
“It made me realize how we aren’t going anywhere while snowboarding is going places,” he said. “It was slightly depressing. You could see where the chips were falling as far as where money and sponsorships were going. It’s almost like an insult to put mountain biking in the Winter X-Games. They don’t make the snowboarders go and do the Summer X Games on sand dunes, right?”
Rockwell, on the other hand, is a bit more circumspect about mountain biking’s brief moment on the snow.
“It takes quite a while for things to get to the place they're in, I mean the evolution of every sport we see,” Rockwell said, noting snowboarding’s longevity in the Winter X Games lineup. “So it's been a really long road — it can take 30 years to get there. Snowboarding's about the same age as mountain biking, you know.”
“It was one of those crazy moments where all these weird things happened: You win a race on the snow. And then, you hang out with Cypress Hill. You get a big check … Ten or eight thousand, it was pretty good!” — Myles Rockwell
Both he and Beneke admit that Winter X Games gold medals didn’t mean much for their overall careers. Rockwell went on to win World Championships later in 2000 and was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Beneke was already decorated as the first Downhill World Cup winner. Their X Games results were mere blips next to those accolades.
That wasn’t the case for every rider who lined up for this wacky winter race format, though.
Ken Avery (foreground) was the youngest competitor in the 2000 Biker X race. He didn't qualify for the finals but still looks back fondly on the experience. Photo courtesy Ken Avery.
In 2000, Ken Avery was a college intern at Iron Horse Bicycle Company on Long Island, New York. Out of the blue that winter, ESPN called Iron Horse to invite Avery to race the Biker X event. The producers thought his story as a student-athlete would make for good TV.
“I was barely qualified to be in there if I’m honest,” Avery admitted. “It was the closest thing to being in the start gate of ‘Rad,’” he said. “It was a ridiculous, made-for-TV thing like ‘Helltrack.’”
“In reality, it didn’t accurately portray what the sport was. Whatever it was, it was a whole lot of fun.” — Ken Avery
But it was a huge opportunity for a young racer with a freshly minted UCI racing license and a dream of working in the bike industry. He says that the experience helped him land a job with Maxxis Tires a few years later.
“It validated me in that way to Maxxis,” Avery said. “They wanted somebody who could walk the walk and talk the talk. It wasn’t the sole reason they hired me but it was definitely a checkmark. I worked for Maxxis for 10 years, and most of what they still sell, I designed.”
The 2000 Winter X Games would be the last to include mountain biking after a short but memorable stint on snow. Photo: Eric Bakke | ESPN Images
Today, Avery is Vittoria’s Senior Vice President for Product Development. Maybe that wasn’t the end goal when he drove up to southern Vermont that winter day in early Y2K, but things did work out pretty well in the long run.
“You’re at an afterparty with Eminem, and there are cameras everywhere,” he said. “You’re just some guy riding a mountain bike on snow for some reason. It was really odd.
“In reality, it didn’t accurately portray what the sport was. Whatever it was, it was a whole lot of fun.”