24 Jan
"Mad Max" Stöckl attempts to break the World Serial Mountain Bike Speed Record on a remote Nicaraguan volcano

Austrian downhill mountain biker Marcus “Max” Stöckl has been training to claim the record as the fastest on Earth. To seize the title, he’ll have to beat renowned French rider Eric Barone’s time of 101.68 mph — a record Barone established a decade ago on the unforgiving Cerro Negro volcano in northern Nicaragua. It was a run that almost claimed his life, and now Stöckl has returned to the Black Moutain to give it his best shot. This is his story. Read volume I of Black Mountain Crusaders HERE.

Monday, March 7, 2011                                                            Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

The road out to Cerro Negro from the closest village of León is a dusty trip through the vintage lens of Spanish colonialism. Traveling the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere assures that once you’re off the main artery to Managua, you are witnessing a way of life that has changed little in centuries. On this dirt road ox-carts outnumber trucks 10 to 1. Caballeros on horseback herd their various livestock, and wave as you drive by, curious. You rumble past dry fields of yucca, corn, beans and sugar cane — their young saplings poking through the soil like hundreds of green Sideshow Bob heads — while giant pigs with yolk-like sticks tied to their heads wander freely. Happiness, for some, is riding in the back of a pickup in the distant wilds of Nicaragua.

Then we arrive at the base of the towering Cerro Negro, a lone black monolith reaching far into the sky. The chain of volcanoes in the Cordillera de los Maribios disappear into the distance, all smoldering white smoke into the atmosphere. This range contains the most populated number of active volcanoes in the world, with five stretching to the Honduran border. It is ominous. Portentous. Although the youngest volcano in Central America, Cerro Negro is incredibly active. Since first appearing in 1850 the Black Mountain has erupted approximately 23 times — thrice in the 90s, the most recent in 1999. Markus “Max” Stöckl doesn’t seem phased; he leaps from the Toyota cabin and surveys the surroundings. Under the silhouette of the looming mountain, Stöckl looks a bit like a conqueror — all broad-jawed visage and wide shoulders. If you were filming a movie about the Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages and needed a quintessential Visigoth hero, you’d be ecstatic if central casting sent a man that looked like Markus. There’s a reason his nickname in the mountain biking community is “Hercules”.

Max is here to do one thing: break Eric Barone’s Serial (otherwise known as “stock”) Mountain Bike Speed Record on dirt. Established, ironically, on that fateful day that ended his career nearly 9 years prior on this very same slab of rock. Adding to the irony is that Eric Barone himself is here to coach him to success. But it won’t be easy.

Hit the Jump to continue reading “Black Mountain Crusaders, vol II”…

The central plaza in the sleepy village of León

This is the second day of test runs at Cerro Negro, the prior day spent acclimating Stöckl to the terrain, slope and heat. When it comes to Mountain Bike Speed Records, the Austrian is no amateur himself. Eschewing the expensive customized prototype bikes that Barone used to capture his various speed records (the fastest of which was on snow at Les Arcs in France, where Barone snatched a 138.08 mph speed), Stöckl prefers to use serial production stock bikes on his attempts — as with this event’s Evil Revolt frame. Presently he retains the Serial Mountain Bike Speed Record on snow, which he achieved at La Parva in Chile in 2007 when he clocked 130.74 mph. But this is on dirt, a decidedly more difficult and dangerous terrain.

“When we went down yesterday at maybe 60-70 kms, it felt really unstable, loose. Today from the first run it was perfect, so we know if we go faster it stabilizes more; you’re not sinking in the sand, you’re on top of it,” notes Markus after this day’s first attempt.

Eric Barone is sitting on a cooler nearby, gingerly trying to fit Max’s shoes over his bandaged feet, badly frostbitten and bloody from a recent ski trip. As his shoes are too small to fit over the bandages, he’s borrowing Max’s considerably larger sneakers. Max ponders the scene. “Just like he’s trying to fit into my shoes, let’s see if I can follow in his footsteps,” Max says smiling, his limited English capturing the moment adroitly.

Eric grins, quite the image dressed in a black Metallica t-shirt and extremely tight biker shorts — the type only a Euro would be caught wearing in public. His muscles are bulging, his features exaggerated, he almost looks like the caricature of a super athlete — a Cold War-era Captain America. His hands and calf muscles are enormous, his jaw an anvil, his feet flat and wide like iron plates. But this massiveness is betrayed by an omnipresent joviality — Eric is not just helping Markus attempt to beat his record, he’s sincerely enjoying every second of it with selfless glee. It’s a contagious good will.

“It’s going to be a hard target. A record is a record for a reason,” says Max zipping up his Evil duffel bag, overstuffed with helmet, shoes, water, etc. Then he throws it over his shoulder and begins yet another long climb up the unforgiving face of Cerro Negro.

The hike up to the peak is an absolutely brutal affair. Not only is it 106 degrees in direct scorching sunlight, but the grade of the volcano is incredibly steep. What makes it insufferable, however, is the looseness of the shale; every 2 steps you take you lose a step as the ground caves around your feet. There’s no firmness, no support. It’s like climbing up quicksand. And there goes Eric — bandaged feet and all — following Marcus steadily, carrying his bike up the mountain like a crucifix, paying a horrible penance for a crime he didn’t commit. His piston-like legs churn up the incline like a mountain goat.

The brutal hike up the face of Cerro Negro…

When all is done, the day’s test runs improve steadily, a welcome site after the first day’s discouraging times. First Stöckl changed from a more protective leather suit to a more aerodynamic Lycra suit. Then they moved the starting point up another 20 meters to get more speed. Then they gave him a push at the start, each step improving the time steadily — from 131 to 141 to finally 155 km/h on the day’s final run. “Today went well, much better than yesterday,” says a sweat–drenched Max as we pack up for the day. “I hoped that with higher speed it would be more stable; it’s nice to be right this time.”

That evening over large plates of steak with jalapeno cream sauce (a Nicaraguan specialty) many beers are imbibed as the team looks over photographs and breaks down how to improve Max’s form. As will happen in a table full of Austrians dining with a Californian, soon the conversation turns to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I assume is a great hero in his native land. “Do they have statues erected in his honor? Is he like a demi-god over in Austria?” I ask naively. “He’s from Styria,” notes Max sternly. “The Styrians are products of when men make love with sheep.” The conversation quickly devolves from there, spiraling quickly with the number of empty Toña beer bottles that begin piling up on the table, hitting its nadir when the Austrians admit to a custom of putting sheep in rubber boots to, well, keep them from escaping certain amorous situations. “But we learned that from the New Zealanders,” interjects Andreas Ehrensberger, Markus’ best friend and official timekeeper. Unsurprisingly, this punchline would find itself resurfacing repeatedly throughout the week of training. It was time for bed.

To keep reading Black Mountain Crusaders, continue onto volume III and find out if Stockl found success in his quest to be the Fastest Mountain Biker In the World…

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