March 08 — 2020
The Greatest of All Time
Words by: Joe Parkin
It could’ve been any major mountain bike race weekend in the early 1990s. Thousands of fans would assemble on the summertime slopes of ski areas, or in insect-infested woods somewhere in North America or Europe with a guarantee that they’d get to see their mountain bike heroes up close and personal, riders who’d been made famous in the pages of American mountain bike magazines.
Many of mountain biking’s most influential riders have come from skiing, bringing with them an affinity for steep terrain, high speeds, and the adventurous spirit that seems to always accompany those things.
Those fans’ other guarantee was that, barring a freak mechanical or strange act of god, they’d get to watch a woman named Juliana Furtado dominate another race. And what they were privileged to witness was some incredible cycling history in the making. Because Juli Furtado is, without argument, one of the greatest cyclists the world has ever known.
Nineties mountain bike racing was a charismatic collage of several different influences. Its closest relative, of course, was traditional old-school road biking, and the mountain bikes of the day still reflected most of the design DNA of their skinny-tire cousins. It also shared a bit of the look and feel of motorcycle racing, with both XC and Downhill athletes of the day rocking custom-painted helmets and giving themselves colorful nicknames more befitting a motocross track than the comparatively staid world of cycling.
The majority of the new sport’s gravity athletes were immigrants from BMX, and many of them went from success on the BMX track to global mountain bike stardom quite literally overnight. And there was also a strong alpine skiing influence. Many of mountain biking’s most influential riders have come from skiing, bringing with them an affinity for steep terrain, high speeds, and the adventurous spirit that seems to always accompany those things.
Juli rode herself into mountain bike mythology.
Juli Furtado, first and foremost, was a ski racer. Then and now, Juli’s character stems largely from the culture of alpine ski racing and the experiences she had as a world-class athlete in that sport. But injuries changed the course of her history and lead her to bike racing. She’s often said that the mental part of bike racing was easy because, despite the physical suffering dosed out in bike racing, she could make a few mistakes and still win.
Cycling was a good fit for Juli. She became U.S. National Road Champion in 1989. In 1990, she claimed the very first UCI World Championship title for Cross-country Mountain biking. And for the next six years, Juli rode herself into mountain bike mythology.
To put it into perspective, Juli got her name in the Guinness Book of World Records for an unmatchable string of consecutive major race wins. And it took the Norwegian MTB star and 2004 Olympic Champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå more than two decades to topple Juli’s record of World Cup race victories. Juli had done it in a scant six years.
Even in adversity Juli pulled off some amazing performances. In 1992, bothered by pain that would’ve made it impossible for her to effectively compete in the longer cross-country event, she entered the UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Championship and took the gold. And what history would record as the low point in her career, a 10th place finish in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games’ inaugural XC Mountain Bike event, was actually accomplished while Juli was suffering the effects of Lupus Disease, yet undiagnosed while she was competing there.
It could’ve been any major mountain bike race in the early ‘90s. Spectators, in the thousands, would’ve been lining the course. The tech area, where the teams set up vans, buses, box trucks, massive trailers and even semis, would’ve been teeming with fans of all ages hoping to talk to the riders, look at the bikes and maybe even get an autograph. And you would have most likely seen Juli Furtado crossing the finish line for the win, usually minutes ahead of her closest competitor.
History records the dates and times, but the real story of Juli Furtado is more interesting than her collection of trophies and medals. Sometimes criticized for a riding style so dominant that it almost seemed unsporting, the real story is that Juli was never really focused on beating her competition. Rather, she was racing the course, and herself, and trying to get as close to the winning men’s time as she possibly could.
“I knew they were judging me against the men,” she’s often explained.
In 2012, Juli presented the idea of a complete line of Juliana bicycles to the ownership and upper management of Santa Cruz Bicycles. She was the only woman in the room.
One could be forgiven for not having the faintest understanding of Juli’s mindset, especially considering the heavily social nature of recreational mountain biking. But if one can start to imagine the ultra-competitive nature of ski racing, her ability to concentrate on the racing herself, the terrain, and the person that went fastest on a particular course, on a particular day, it makes a lot more sense.
In the spring of 1996, the year that mountain biking was first included in the Olympic Games, USA Cycling assembled its Olympic hopefuls at the Olympic Training Center near San Diego, California, to discuss schedules, training, selection processes and other strategic planning. The coaching director of USA Cycling asked certain athletes to detail what they thought it would take to win their events.
Juli’s outlook was that she only needed to have a good day — she was only competing against herself and the course.
Marty Nothstein, who went on to take the Silver Medal that year in the Match Sprint on the velodrome, explained that he would be approaching each competition as an all-out battle.
Juli’s answer was completely different. Her outlook was that she only needed to have a good day — she was only competing against herself and the course. And her remarks drew some sharp criticism from Nothstein, as if he saw her nonchalance toward her competitors as a lack of any competitive spirit. But Juli was simply the best there was, and so the competition she had at the time literally was herself.
Lupus and the Olympics turned out to be a pretty cruel competitor for Juli. And her 10th place finish it the Atlanta Games signaled the end of her racing career.
It doesn’t matter who you are, and how successful a competitor you’ve been, or how ready you are or are not ready to stop — the transition from full-time athlete to retired athlete is difficult. Juli was no exception to this rule. But as much as she may have enjoyed just disappearing from her mountain bike legacy, she still had a lot to offer.
In 2012, Juli presented the idea of a complete line of Juliana bicycles to the ownership and upper management of Santa Cruz Bicycles. She was the only woman in the room. The idea she proposed was completely novel at the time. Understanding that most women are not as inspired to tinker with and modify their bikes, she argued that a line of bikes that were equipped specifically for women would make the ownership process more enjoyable for a group of the riding population that doesn’t spend all of its free time looking at mountain bike websites and obsessing over bike modifications. Her vision was bikes that were built for women to ride, no hassles.
It was an interesting proposition for a company like Santa Cruz, whose cutting-edge bike design and engineering has unquestionably changed the game with each new model it has introduced. A product offering and story not purely based on engineering was a ways out of the box for most of the men in the meeting, but they bought it. Juli remained in the office long enough to name the models, help with the spec, and get the initial full line of Julianas up and running. And then she moved on to a new challenge. She only competes against herself, after all.
It could’ve been any major mountain bike race in the early ‘90s. History, of course, will remember the numbers. Those who were there will remember other details, often things made more vivid or more important by the passing of time. Juli remembers a race in Spain, one of the first years of the World Cup. She woke up early and went down to the hotel restaurant for coffee. Juli drinks coffee likes it’s her job. She walked in thinking it was 6:00 AM or so, but found the bar/restaurant full of people dressed for a night on the town. They were all enjoying beers and cocktails and smoking cigarettes. She thought she’d overslept. “We’ve missed the race,” she thought. Turns out it was just the way things work in Spain, and the people were still enjoying the night before.
She made it to the race, started and then got a flat tire. In the ‘90s there were no pits, and riders were forced to make trailside repairs unassisted. Juli had never practiced this stuff. She was terrible at fixing flats. Fans lining the course screamed encouragement at her. And somehow she managed to install a new tube, mount the tire, inflate everything, and get back in the race. She won by “something like” five minutes.
These days, Juli has become much more involved with her old skiing community. And she’s learning about film production, even volunteering to work on film crews to further her education in this world. She still rides, of course, but now with flat pedals and with no desire to win anything. And out on the trails people approach her and comment on the bike she’s riding — the one that bears her name — likely with no idea about the woman riding it.
“Cool bike,” they say. She smiles. And it makes her proud.