Most of the attention at this year's Grand National Cross Country Series has been focused on the intense battle between title contenders Charlie Mullins and Josh Strang - and it has been a very exciting battle! However, making his presence known after somewhat of a slow start to his first year in the XC1 class is Kailub Russell, who proved to be the series phenom while winning back-to-back XC2 titles in 2009 and 2010.
After struggling to get going during the first part of this year's schedule for various reasons, Russell has come on strong during the last few races, which produced runner-up finishes at Unadilla and at the John Penton. Most GNCC insiders agree that it's only a matter of time before this North Carolina rider claims his first win.
Cycle News sat down with Russell at the Mountain Ridge GNCC to get his thoughts on the season.
You've had a couple of really good races at the last two rounds, but the season got off to a slow start for you.
Yeah, at the beginning of the year I didn't get going as good as I thought I would. I felt if I had decent results at the first two rounds I probably could be battling right now with Whibley in the standings or maybe be a little closer to the championship chase. But I've definitely turned things around and I've been riding with more confidence. I know I can be up there now and that's made a big difference.
What's the difference between how you're riding now and at the beginning of the year?
I think the biggest thing is I'm going into the races not second-guessing myself now. Going to bed the night before, I was wondering what my result was going to be the next day, and now I know I can do it and I have the knowhow to be up front. I've got a feel for that the last few races and I've learned a lot riding with the top guys at those races and that's where I feel I belong now and that's where I'm going to try to keep myself.
You came into the year with a lot of hype since you had just won back-to-back XC2 titles. Did that put any pressure on you?
I don't think it put pressure on me, but I don't think anyone expected me to come in here and ride like a rookie. I expected to do well straight away, just like a lot of others have been expected to do well straight away. But it didn't happen. I was confident at the opener in Florida and I thought that a top five would be good and I was in that position until I had a bike issue. And then in Georgia, it was just another misfortune for me, getting food poisoning the night before. That kind of drained all of my confidence and I felt like all the hard work I'd put into this season was tossed out the window. I needed to build a foundation and that's what I did the last few races. I got a second at the John Penton - which it was hot and probably one of the toughest races of the year. After that, I figured out if I can do it there I can do it anywhere.
Has anything surprised you since moving into the XC1 class?
I think I struggled with making passes and picking guys off in this class, where I didn't have that problem in XC2. I was a little overwhelmed at first, but I feel fine now and I feel like the season has turned around for me and I think I'll be fine the rest of the season.
You were so close to getting that first win at the John Penton, do you feel you just need a little luck to go your way?
No, I feel you make your own luck. At the John Penton, Whibs did that little double jump going into the corner and I didn't think he was going to do it so I didn't jump it and it cost me the win. At Unadilla, I felt good all day - I pumped up a little at first but I think it was just how fast we were going and how slick the track was. The bike was jumping around on me a lot more than I expected. I tried to hold Charlie [Mullins] off for as long as I could, and he got around me once and I got back around him. I held him off for another lap, but I was still pumped and he got me back. I finally shook it off but Charlie had already gapped me by that time. But I felt I rode a good race and I rode strong and that was a good confidence builder for me.
Do you feel you ride better in certain types of terrain?
Over the years I've become accustomed to all types of tracks. My favorites, for sure, are down south, because they're a little faster and more what I ride all the time. But the northern races I've struggled with in years past, but I've worked on my abilities in the mud and rocks and I feel like I'm just as good in that as I am in the dry. Snowshoe is crazy-tough, and this year I felt was the best I've ridden there, even though I finished sixth. But that felt like a win to me.
You grew up as the son of a top off-road racer, Jeff Russell. Did that have a big influence on you?
Yeah, he had a pretty big influence on me. We started out riding motocross on 50s and that never really panned out because my mom didn't want me to race motocross, so I got into riding off-road. I never really was that good at it, though, and I think 2001 was my first full year in the Youth class and I still struggled. I think I picked it up the next year and won the class championship, but then I struggled the next year when I moved up to a bigger class. Finally, when I was about 10 or 11, I decided this was what I liked doing and it's what I wanted to try to do. It was fun and it's what I wanted to do, so that's when I started getting faster.
You said your mom wouldn't let you ride motocross and the last two years you've ridden a national motocross round. Do you wish you had been able to keep at motocross as a kid?
I don't know, everything has been so good for me in the off-road races. But doing the motocross races is fun, it's like the only time I try to go race a motocross is at the nationals and I do it last minute. If I ever do one again I'm going to get my stuff together and actually try to do it seriously and get things in order, instead of deciding to do it the week before.
What's the hardest part about GNCC racing?
I don't know, there are a lot of hard parts. Probably the various types of terrain we see in a season. We set up our suspension at the start of the year in California and that's pretty good for the southern races on the schedule, but I struggled pretty bad when we go up north. That's probably the toughest part, just adapting to the bike at different courses. I think where a lot of new guys coming into the series from other racing struggle is just lining up and going fast over stuff you haven't seen before. Where in motocross you get to ride practice, here you just have to go fast on stuff that you had a chance to practice on. You might have walked part of the track, but it looks a whole lot different when you're on the bike. It's a lot harder than you think to just hop on the bike and hope the suspension is set good enough for what you're getting ready to ride and then go as fast as you can for the next three hours.
What do you enjoy most about GNCC?
I think it's just a competition thing for me; I'm super competitive and I want to do good at anything I do.
Antti Kallonen told me that when the off-road KTM guys did their physical evaluations you scored the highest. What do you do to stay in shape?
I really stepped up my program this year, but I don't put myself on some kind of crazy schedule like some guys do. If I wake up and want to ride, I will go ride. If I feel like I want to go run I go run. Usually, I ride and run every day. I go mountain biking with my buddies. Lifting weights is just no fun for me; I hate to go to the gym. It's just not something I'm interested in. There's no competition in it so I don't like it.