After 40 years racing, mountain biking legend Tinker Juarez soldiers on
There is a purity about David "Tinker" Juarez. All the man has ever wanted to do is ride his bicycle. For the past 40 years, he's done that better than almost anyone else, becoming one of the most decorated mountain bike racers to ever wear a United States national jersey.
But what truly sets Juarez apart is that, at 54, he's still getting it done. Even after suffering one of his most serious injuries in his four-decade career—a broken pelvis and fractured rib during the Mega-marathon in Torreon, Mexico, on June 28—Juarez was back in the saddle and racing before the end of September, nailing a second place finish in the Freetown 50 in southeastern Massachusetts.
Now, he's setting his sights on the 2015 World Solo 24 Hour Mountain Bike Championships in Weaverville, Calif. on Oct. 3.
"This is what I've done my whole life," says Juarez, who was elected to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2001. "I still love to train, and I still love the feeling of it. The rewarding part of it is, when you go to the race, you know that you've worked hard during the week, and you're ready to race.
"And I still have the opportunity to [race]," he says. "I know that one day I'm not going to be able to do this, and I will have to grow up and get a real job."
Don't expect that to happen anytime soon. Juarez got his start in BMX racing, signing his first pro deal in 1977, when he was just 16. For the next decade, Juarez cobbled together an impressive career in BMX (he would be elected to the ABA BMX Hall of Fame in 1993), but the lure of mountain biking pulled him in a different direction. In 1986, at 25, Juarez signed with General Bicycles, and began competing on the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) circuit, rubbing elbows against the likes of John Tomac and Ned Overend.
"One of my favorite stories was my first real cross-country race with him in '86, up by Mount Wilson [in California]", says Tomac, a long-time rival and former World Champion. "I took off with the lead in what ended up being a three-hour race. I tried everything to get rid of Tinker. I attacked him on the climbs, on the downhills, everywhere. I couldn't shake him off my wheel.
"Finally, about 30 minutes from the finish, he flatted and I won the race. From that point forward, I knew Tinker would be a very good cross-country racer."
Juarez's early sponsorship deals often left him with sub-standard equipment. That changed when he signed with Klein Bicycles, and later the powerhouse Volvo-Cannondale squad in 1994.
"Obviously, back then, it was just something I really loved doing, and it was just a dream," says Juarez. "To be doing it for as long as I have, I guess I just wanted to keep living that dream.
"A lot of it has to with sponsors," he says. "I've been really lucky to have Cannondale as my sponsor for almost 20 years now. That kept me really motivated every year to show them that I'm worth being on the team, and showing them the results that they want. It's always kept me pushing every year, to hold onto my place on the team."
Pushing is something Juarez knows all too well. Tales of Jaurez's epic, if eccentric, training methods are a part of mountain biking lore.
"I always thought Tinker was special because he looked like a Mayan warrior," says Tomac. "He had a Mexican heritage, but he seemed a bit different to me, like he had some ancient Central American native blood in him. He did things in his own way. His training and lifestyle was non-conventional for professional mountain biking back then, but it was quite effective.
"Tinker would ride hours and hours out of Norwalk, California, close to central L.A.," says Tomac. "He'd ride out of the concrete jungle and up into the San Gabriel Mountains. He'd fill his backpack with water and rocks, and just ride for extended periods. It was the stuff of legend."
Eventually, science explained the myth.
"Around 1996, we were doing some physio testing at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs," says Tomac. "We were doing VO2 max testing to failure, so you had to go all out until you couldn't continue. This test is really hard. It wipes everybody out. So it was something to see Tinker hooked up to VO2 cycling test machine; he really looked out of place and uncomfortable.
"And he really had the technicians stumped, because after the test they claimed that Tinker produced virtually no lactic acid," he says. "Which meant he really didn't fatigue."
The 1990s proved to be a watershed time for mountain biking, and professional cross-country racers, with media coverage driving the sport and sponsors competing to get a piece of the action.
"That era of mountain biking to me was like a cartoon superhero comic book," says Tomac. "We had all these characters with different personas and styles. Tinker was one these special characters. The way he did things was really special."
In many ways, Juarez is mountain biking's version of Barcelona's preternaturally talented forward Lionel Messi. Off the bike, he is reserved almost to the point of introversion, but a fierce competitor during races.
"He was tough," says Overend, who last got the better of Juarez when the two finished 1-2 overall at the Mount Washington Auto Road Hillclimb in 2011. "I don't know Tinker all that well. He's a super nice guy, but he's quiet. Even talking to him at races, he's super respectful, humble. And that's the thing. He's so shy, it's hurt him in terms of self-promotion over the years."
Instead, Juarez let his results speak for him. At 5'8" and 140 pounds, he is slight, even by cycling standards. But Juarez still races with the same big heart and unmistakable flair that helped him capture two World Cup titles, three NORBA titles, four 24-hour national solo championships, and a 24-hour solo world championship.
"I've always been a competitive guy," he says. "Every time I go to a race, I try my best to get on the podium. Winning was always the thing. But I was never the person who said I needed to win. I just wanted to do great."
Plus, Juarez's trademark dreadlocks make him perhaps the most identifiable mountain bike racer ever.
"If we walk through the airport with Tinker and some of the younger riders on our team, it's not the current Olympians and national champions who get recognized," said Rory Mason of Juarez's Sho-Air/Cannondale team. "It's Tinker, by a wide margin. We're talking about a guy who is in the Hall of Fame in two sports, BMX and mountain biking. Add his third-place RAAM ride in 2006 to his first World Championship at the tender age of 49, and you get an incredible legacy that will be tough to rival."
Of course, Juarez lists "Olympian" on his resume as well. He represented the United States in the inaugural Olympic cross-country race at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Four years later, at 39, Juarez was tabbed again for the Sydney Games in Australia. Though his placing in those races—No. 17 and No. 30, respectively—were disappointing, Juarez admits that making Team USA was a career highlight.
The Olympics coincided with a general change in the cross-country format. Once the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) took control of mountain bike racing, the cross-country courses became shorter, and the races themselves became more of a sprint. However, that change led to the creation of new disciplines, including marathon and ultra-marathon events. The longer disciplines, which resembled older style cross-country races, suited Juarez.
"He was so steady racing, always strong, and he would not really ever crack," says Tomac. "His strength was his consistency. His only weakness was really top-end speed, or explosiveness. But honestly, at his best this weakness was minimal. Over time, I just became more tuned in to who he really was. He is a unique character, and it takes time to kind of absorb everything that he is."
Tomac, like many of Juarez's contemporaries, are awed by the man's ability to continue competing at such a high level.
"Tinker and Ned Overend are timeless freaks of nature," says Tomac. "They continue to race and train into their 50s as if they are 30. I believe they both simply really love the sport, and love everything about the training and racing and the lifestyle that goes with that. I also believe both of them are exceptionally talented with cardiovascular fitness and efficiency at the sport."
Even the 60-year-old Overend, who works full-time with Specialized and is more selective about when he races, admits that Juarez is exceptional.
"What Tinker does is harder than what I do," says Overend. "Because one of the hard things about getting older is the amount of recovery you need. I do less volume, because when I do high volume it's really hard to recover. So the fact that he's racing those ultra-long events, to me, is impressive."
Juarez's autumn calendar is proof. After the 24-Hour Solo World Championships, Juarez is aiming to compete in the Chupacabras 100 in Mexico, a Vision Quest race in California, the brutal La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica, and maybe even a late-season race in Chile.
"People still want me to come, and they still love to line up against me," says Juarez. "And I like lining up against these people, because I know they all want to beat me. That gives me motivation. It's a good balance. I'm not going there just to be Tinker. I'm going there to show them that I've still got it.
"This is what I've done my whole life," says Juarez, who was elected to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2001. "I still love to train, and I still love the feeling of it."
"I always wonder if they think I'm just going to be this easy mark. But I'm always there, and I'm ready for the challenge," says Juarez.
As of late September, Juarez's status with his Sho-Air/Cannondale Racing team for next year was still unresolved. Overend, while noting that he wasn't speaking for Cannondale, indicated it would be wise for the company to keep Juarez in the fold.
"They should utilize Tinker's history with them, because the history of a mountain bike company is really important," said Overend. "It's certainly really important to Gary Fisher, and Tom Ritchey, and Specialized. Cannondale has a long history, and Tinker is synonymous with it."
Juarez says he wants to stay on with Cannondale—which gave Juarez its "Icon Award" in 2005—in some capacity, especially if it means the chance to keep racing.
"I've never really wanted to change anything, other than what I've been doing," says Juarez. "Now that I'm at this age, I wonder what I'm going to do after cycling. That's why I want to keep turning the wheels. That's the reality. There comes a day when you have to find something else, other than riding your bike full-time.
"I would love to be more of an employee, and will do whatever it takes to stay in the sport, and keep giving back."