By his own reckoning, Xander Sugarman hasn’t won a bike race in a while. Not unless you count the summer dirt crit series at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa, which admittedly can be pretty fierce.
Well, the Santa Rosa High grad and sophomore at the University of Colorado made up for that drought mightily last month, sweeping the cross country, short track and team relay events at the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike Championship in Missoula, Montana. And for good measure, his Buffs won the club team title.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I didn’t win any collegiate races through the season. I guess the last race I won was Annadel in 2017.”
But don’t be fooled. Sugarman may not have won any races since the Annadel Classic in August of 2017, but he’s been getting results. Plenty of them.
Last spring he finished in the top 30 in the Subaru Sea Otter Classic, the U.S. Cup at Bonelli Park in San Dimas and the Bear Mountain Canada Cup in Victoria, British Columbia. He finished 14th at Baie Saint Paul Coupe Canada and ninth at VeloMotion Canada Cup in Mont-Tremblant. And at the USA National Championship in Showshoe, West Virginia, in July, Sugarman finished seventh in the men’s U23 race.
It was the fitness from all of those so-called non-wins that propelled Sugarman onto the national championship podium not once but four times in Missoula.
“I kind of went into the collegiate season … with a lot more fitness than I went into it last year,” he said. “I kind of came off pretty hot from the end of my normal season professionally.”
And, having a year of collegiate and international racing under his belt — as well as figuring out how to balance academics and athletics — put his sophomore campaign in high gear.
“Last year I got seventh in the cross, third in short track and I didn’t race the relay,” he said of the collegiate nationals. “That was my first year of racing elites. I was kind of shocked by the change in the level of all the people I’m racing…I was trying to get the hang of everything.”
I think it’s safe to say he’s got the hang of this elite and college-level racing thing.
In the cross country race, he finished in 1:39.35. Nick Lando, riding for the University of Vermont, finished second in 1:41:38.
To Sugarman, Lando is a competitor as well as a friend. So he knew how to read him during the race.
“That course is definitely more suited to my riding style — very long climbs, that suits me better,” he said.
Knowing he could hold rivals off on the climb, Sugarman tested himself on the descent. When he put a decent gap on the downhill on Lando and Zach Calton, who rides for University of Utah, his confidence rose.
It was just him and Lando at that point.
“I wanted to make him hurt as much as I could,” he said. “I could see he was fading. His body language on the bike, his head was bobbing. I was able to pop him off at the top.
“You can tell if someone is fading and I was feeling great, to be honest,” he said. “I put on a really good descent on the second lap and rode the third lap by myself. He was out of sight the entire time.”
And Lando is his buddy. They race together on Bear Development — the nation’s premier mountain bike development team. Imagine what kind of hurt he puts on people he doesn’t like.
And also imagine this: Collegiate racing is not even the mechanical engineering major’s mountain biking focus. In the last two years, with a string of strong results under his belt, Sugarman has rejiggered his goals.
In his senior year of high school at Santa Rosa, Sugarman won every varsity race in the NorCal Mountain Bike League season and then capped it with a dominant win in the state race. Still, when I talked to Sugarman after that win, he professed to want to take cycling seriously through college but call it quits on the super-competitive pro circuit after he got his degree.
Psssst … his plans might be changing.
“I did a little better than I was expecting when I last talked to you,” he said. “The mechanical engineering major? I want to finish that, but I want to take this cycling thing as far as I can take it. If I can get on a real pro team that pays me?”
He’s got the goods, according to Jason Jablonski.
“I think he has plenty of opportunity to make a living” in racing, Jablonski said.
He ought to know. Jablonski is head development coach at USA Cycling, high performance director for the Bear Development team and head coach for the junior development program.
“I don’t think he really has a limit,” he said. “He’s not even close to the top of his limitations, I know that much.
“Xander is pretty gifted,” he said. “I have kind of looked at what he’s done the last couple of years.”
Jablonski has been coaching Sugarman in recent months and he said it’s Sugarman’s work ethic and attention to detail that sets him apart.
“He’s driven,” he said. “I put a workout up and he’ll do anything I ask him. He’s sending me information, asking me questions. The best athletes are the ones that are asking questions, they want to be involved in the process.
“He wants this to happen,” he said.
Sugarman has already raced his way onto a number of U23 World Cup race rosters.
Jablonski has Sugarman signed up for a three-day skills camp with an eye toward springtime European races where courses are extremely technical.
And Sugarman is already in the mix of riders considered for the next round of national team and World Cup races, Jablonski said.
“We take riders who are not on the (national) full team to European races as part of the national team to race for us,” he said. “He did pretty well at the World Cup race at Mont Sainte-Anne in Canada.”
If all goes well over the winter and into spring, including a selection race in March, Jablonski thinks Sugarman could get the call-up to World Cup races in Germany and the Czech Republic in May.
With his game on the rise, Sugarman is a rider Jablonski wants to keep close.
“Xander is one of the athletes we keep an eye on,” Jablonski said. “He’s right there.”