EvolvEd intern Johnathan Dean gets the chance to sit down with cycling extraordinaire and mountain biking beast, Taj Krieger. Taj touches on his training, the different types of biking he enjoys, and some tricks he can do.
How and when did you start cycling?
I’ve probably been cycling or riding bikes since I was four years old, I think. So I started, and my parents are both pretty active so they’d take me mountain biking with them, and I just got into it like that. I also live right next to a state park, it’s like right in my backyard so I just go back there and make trails and stuff.
Would you say mountain biking is your favorite kind of biking?
Do you dabble in other sorts of biking, like on the road? I know you mentioned in your subject on EvolvEd that you enjoy several different types.
I really started getting into it in high school, we had a mountain bike racing league. Then through that, I used road biking as training for mountain biking–because it’s easier to get in miles–and then I joined a team called Team Swift at the end of my senior year, and I really started liking the road biking scene a lot.
What are you mostly up to now? Are you still competing for Swift or some sort of mixture for training?
Now, since I’m going to college, I’m on the collegiate team at Humboldt, and it’s mostly mountain biking over there because there aren’t that many roads up north. So now I’m just training for nationals and hoping they stay on in October.
Could you also talk a little bit about your career biking competitively and also what you’re looking forward to?
Freshman year [of high school] I started racing and got almost dead last in the first couple races [of cross country mountain biking]. I wasn’t very good at it. I was also trying to manage school, and all these other sports. I had ice hockey most weekends, so I didn’t get that much time to ride. Sophomore and junior year I dropped some of the other sports and I just stuck to mountain biking and ice hockey, and then all of a sudden I just moved up to the top ten. Senior year I went all in on the cycling. I was on the varsity team, and I podiumed once or twice and decided that I wanted to keep cycling as my main objective.
You also mentioned that you like to do tricks! Could you talk about that?
Yea. So when I would do mountain biking with the high school team all the coaches were pretty strict about no wheelies or tricks, so when I went to school this year for my first year up at Humboldt they have all these downhill tracks and jumps in the forest behind the school, and I just followed the kids who had been there last year and [they] taught me how to hit giant gaps and tricks in the air and stuff. Then, actually, at some of the races that we went to we [brought] these tiny little bikes called pixie bikes (that are probably for eight-year-olds) and we [rode] them down the tracks and that’s kind of where I learned. I would do bar spins and tail whips. You take it from a small bike and bring it to real bikes.
How has the coronavirus affected your racing schedule and training?
Training-wise, I haven’t really slowed down that much but in terms of the races, most of them have been cancelled or postponed until next year. When we first started I was hopeful that it would only be two months, a little bit of lockdown, and we’d get back into stuff slowly, but it hasn’t really improved at all. I’m still hoping that nationals in October are going to be on and that [will] be my only race this year. Compared to last year, I did 25 races or something. And they are important to know where you are, so this year I’m not going to have any benchmarks against other people whom I don’t normally compete with.
What’s the qualification process for nationals? Is there a leaderboard?
In the collegiate league, you have to get up to the A-rank, from B, and C. I was in the C category in the first race I went to because it was my first race and I got first [and] beat everyone in B, so I petitioned to move up. But usually you have to complete three races in the A category before you can get to Nationals and then depending on the coordinator for that area. So I’d be in the Western collegiate conference which is California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. It’s a big conference with a lot of kids.
Can anyone compete in the A category or is it divided by age?
If you’re in college, you’re in the A rank. I don’t know how fair that is, but it’s definitely hard if you’re 18 trying to race against guys who go to school to race. This year when I went to Nationals in Big Bear down in Southern California, they had 80 kids in the cross country short track races, and the kid who won one of them and got second in another–his name is Sandy–he was on the US National Team for mountain biking, and he’s 23 years old. So it’s tough sometimes with these older kids that show up.
So it seems to me like it takes time to reach peak performance in biking, since many of the older, mid 20s athletes have an advantage. Is that right?
Yeah. Right after 23, people tend to get the fastest. That’s just from me watching professional biking, they are usually around that age. Mountain biking is very explosive, and you have to have a lot of power. You have to have a lot of endurance obviously. It takes a while to build the engine that you have to use. The kids that are really good at it start racing when they’re like 5 and they don’t stop, and they usually live at elevation too.
Do you have a specific training regimen that you’re following right now, or do you just get out the door and see how you’re feeling?
When I was in high school, I would just ride whenever I had time. Then in the week before the race, I would do a hard ride at the beginning of the week and just kind of recover and taper off [before the race]. But now I have a coach and he puts stuff into the calendar. Typically, right now would be off-season, or second off-season, so it’s a lot of base miles, low intensity, building up aerobic capacity, and stuff like that. Then as you get closer to your race season you want to start working your anaerobic system a bit more.
How many hours are you on the bike a week?
The last couple weeks, I’ve been doing 16-18 hour weeks, at medium intensity, zone two to tempo, and then last week I went up to Tahoe at elevation, had a couple long rides there, and now I’m back down here, and I can definitely feel that there’s no elevation anymore, because Tahoe is at like 6,000. So I’m down here and I’m like “Oh that’s so much air to breathe.”
So you can really feel the difference in elevation?
Yea, definitely. I was there for seven days. I did a couple of the passes that go up to 9,000 feet, and when you start going hard it’s way harder to recover and get back out of the red-zone.
Is training at altitude a popular training strategy for elite bikers?
Yeah. They typically will do altitude training right before a big race, a lot of the people who race in Europe and stuff, they’ll like stay for two or three weeks at altitude. It helps build hemoglobin so they can carry more oxygen in their blood. But I really just went up there just to ride mountain bikes and have fun. I think I’ll definitely be going back up to elevation before nationals, because nationals are going to be in Colorado at like 8,000, which is kind of unfair.
Do you foresee yourself continuing to bike for as long as you can, or transitioning to another similar activity?
I’m not really sure what the future looks like. As long as I’m in college I definitely want to be racing bikes. Right now I’m doing exercise science with a little bit of physics so I can do biomechanics after. I’m just riding bikes as much as I can. I’m trying to get on a pro team for next year. There’s a development pro team. But I’m definitely down to do road biking as my forté, I guess. I like both, but I definitely like road racing more than mountain biking, it just hurts less.
Why does road biking hurt less than mountain biking?
It’s less abuse on the body. Mountain biking is very intensive. Sometimes my ribs will hurt after a race because there’s so many bumps. It gets pretty dusty too.
How often do you fall when mountain biking? You must be good at recovering after falls. Have you ever had any bad crashes or injuries?
Typically if I go for a chill ride, I won’t really fall, maybe skid out or something maybe, but not fall. The last time I had a bad fall I got a concussion. I went into a sand pit and my front wheel went away so I just biffed it onto my head.
Ouch, that’s tough.
Just practicing my downhilling ability. I feel like biking is this big encompassing thing, and then you have all these little skills that you can put into it. For mountain biking, downhilling is super important, and learning how to climb steep stuff with loose gravel definitely helps on the road bikes too. I get more scared on my road bike when I go downhill, because it’s pavement and there’s cars coming and I’m like, “Stay inside the lines!”
That’s an interesting point you make about how biking is this all encompassing thing where you can work on different parts to make yourself better.
There are so many different disciplines, too.
Would you say that you have a particular strength?
For me, the uphill is my best place, because I’m super light and small. Most people have to carry more weight up the hill with them but I definitely have been trying to improve my downhilling on the mountain bikes. It’s a bit harder on the road bike because it’s more about aerodynamics and weight than skill, but there’s definitely some components to that. For me, I usually try to get as low as I can because I can’t put as much power as a smaller rider on the road bike. So on the flat stuff I have to get as “aero” as I can. But when it starts to pitch up I definitely have an advantage over a lot of people.
More along the lines of EvolvEd and teaching, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s trying to start cycling?
First off, plan what your goals are. Many people just pick up the bike and they just want to have fun and that’s a really good goal. When you break that down, how is it that you have fun? If how to have fun is to ride longer so you can go on more trails, then just being consistent with riding your bike will make you stronger. If people are looking to learn tricks or something, then just practicing and consistency.
Are there any resources online that you’ve used and would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about cycling?
I know there’s GCN, or Global Cycling Network, you’ve probably seen a couple of their videos, then GMBN which is the mountain biking version of that, and then there’s tons of channels on YouTube that teach you how to bunny hop and other tricks like that, or how to make things out of wood to practice manuals and stuff. There’s a lot of resources out there for learning skills and specifics.
Check out Taj’s subject on EvolvEd here!