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Riding High: Ashland's Sullivan hits 1 million vertical feet

The thought of ascending 1 million feet in one year on a mountain bike once seemed preposterous to Cory Sullivan.

The Ashland professional racer first heard about this feat of feet in 2012, when a mentor of his and an icon of the sport, Mark Weir, accomplished it on a bike meant to go downhill, not uphill.

“I remember going, ‘Holy cow, that’s impossible,’” says Sullivan, 31, and a 2007 graduate of Ashland High. “There’s no way some guy climbed a million vertical feet on a mountain bike in one year. It was absurd to me.”

His tune is different now because he, too, has accomplished it.

It was a painstaking, arduous endeavor that required great discipline and no small amount of luck — keeping free of injury was paramount — but Sullivan completed his goal with a ride in the Ashland watershed on Nov. 29, well ahead of schedule.

For perspective, 1 million feet is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest 34 1/2 times. Earth’s highest mountain is 29,029 feet.

At the time Sullivan heard about Weir, a 3,000-foot climb on a 20-mile ride left him spent.

But as his biking career continued and his strength and stamina increased, he deemed it an attainable goal.

Using a GPS and tracking app, Sullvian began recording his progress on Jan. 1. When COVID-19 took its toll on the cycling community, eliminating long-distance travel and races, he doubled down on his commitment.

Sullivan typically enters about a dozen races a year, including some events abroad, and has competed in as many as 17 in one season. But that type of schedule was scaled down considerably in 2020.

When his quest began, he figured he’d ride five or six times a week and needed to average nearly 2,800 vertical feet for all 365 days of the year. If he took one day off, he’d have to climb 5,600 feet the next day to make up for it, or, for perspective, much higher than the 4,310-foot Siskiyou Summit, the highest point along Interstate 5.

Many of the rides were in Marin County, California, regarded as the birthplace of mountain biking. Sullivan, who works for e*thirteen, a mountain bike components company, and his fiance, Cait Vanleer, moved from Petaluma, California, to Ashland two months ago.

Before returning to his hometown, Sullivan and Vanleer toured a handful of Western states in a van, and he took advantage of new terrain and scenery while adding to his ascent total. His equipment included bear spray; he didn’t see any grizzlies, he says, but he did spy a good-sized black bear.

Sullivan knew he’d have to make up for any rest days he took.

“I was going to have to do days where I’d do a lot of climbing,” says Sullivan. “I had days where I climbed over 10,000 vertical feet in a single day.”

On the day he hit 1 million — he’s not sure exactly where that occurred — he and riding companion Nathan Riddle started in chilly, foggy weather and emerged high above the valley, greeted by spectacular vistas.

Wherever they reached 1,000 feet, that was the million mark.

Riddle, 45, is also a pro mountain biker in Ashland. He teaches at United Bicycle Institute, a school for bike mechanics and where Sullivan got his start in the industry at age 16.

“I only ride with Cory a few times a year,” says Riddle. “I was lucky that day that he cracked the number. Yeah, that’s a big deal.”

The duo went, in part, along Hitt Road, which has degraded into a mountain trail, says Riddle.

“That day, it was like freezing fog in town,” says Riddle. “Starting out, we were in really, really cold, frozen fog. It wasn’t dark, just, like, no sunlight. We climbed up a ways and popped out of all the fog and it was just beautiful blue skies. The fog was like an ocean over the valley, covering everything in Ashland.”

He took celebratory photos of Sullivan holding his bike overhead and with picturesque Southern Oregon spread out in the background.

“It was a great day to ride, a perfect day to ride,” says Riddle.

Sullivan had plenty of those along his journey, which amounted to more than 6,000 miles in total distance and 620 hours on his bike.

It’s notable that he did it on a mountain bike as opposed to a road bike, which is much lighter, has small tires with full air pressure and travels on pavement with far less friction.

By contrast, his full-suspension bike is 32 pounds.

Sullivan considers riding a form of meditation, and that alone motivates him to hit the trails.

“I can just get out and get away from stuff that’s going on in the world or in my life,” says Sullivan, a former baseball center fielder and snowboarder at Ashland High. “It’s just a healthy way to get out and be in nature. It kind of makes me feel good about what’s going on no matter what the circumstance.”

Becoming a pro rider wasn’t something he immediately pursued after high school.

Sullivan moved to San Luis Obispo, California, and worked in a bike shop. It wasn’t until the store owner lent him an endurance bike he could pedal uphill that Sullivan got the bug to ride again at about age 20.

Within a couple years, he earned his pro license and regularly raced downhill and enduro — where riders have to climb hills on their own, without shuttles, then race a downhill stage, which is timed.

“You’ve got to earn your turn,” says Sullivan, who enjoyed much success in 2018 and ‘19. “You’ve got to get up to go down.”

“It’s a newer style of mountain bike racing,” he adds. “It’s kind of a mix between cross-country and downhill.”

Races can range from one-day to weeklong events.

The Trans-Provence, in France, was among the most difficult, and Sullivan raced it in June 2019. It was the last time it was held, and required eight or so hours a day on the bike.

“Sometimes,” says Sullivan, “you’re literally hiking up a mountain with your bike on your back to get to these stages. We were in the Alps.”

There are dangers to mountain biking, speeding downhill on unfamiliar trails that have rocks, stumps, jumps and turns. In this particular race, Sullivan was in about fifth place when, on a steep, rocky section, he tried to overtake a rider. His pedal caught a rock and sent Sullivan crashing to the ground, shattering and double-dislocating a wrist.

He spent a week in a French hospital and endured a five-hour surgery.

It was the second time a significant crash sidelined him. He broke a collarbone in the six-day Trans BC two years ago in British Columbia when, while leading the race, his front tire washed out in a tight turn. A plate, 12 screws and two weeks later, he was back on his bike.

Tough?

“I guess,” he laughs, “or stupid.”

Such incidents have given Sullivan pause about racing. Those pauses don’t last long.

“Then I look at all the joy and positivity it’s brought to my life,” says Sullivan. “It’s like, am I going to stop doing what I love so much because something might happen. For all the times I’ve been out there and not had anything happen, I’d say I’ve gotten away pretty lucky.”

The two years prior to this, Sullivan was consistently in the top five, earning a spot on the medals podium. In this limited year, the results haven’t been as good.

In a race on Mount Ashland, which is part of the California Enduro Series, his derailleur, which holds the shifting mechanism to the bike, broke. He fixed it enough to coast down the hill, then won three stages in ensuing days but didn’t make the podium.

That was in October, the final race of the season.

Racing is done, but Sullivan isn’t. He’s adding to his feet count.

He originally hoped to surpass the 1,175,000 feet Weir finished with in 2012, but will settle for about 1.1 million. Poor air from wildfires this year prevented him from staying on pace for anything more.

Sullivan’s next big challenge might be “Everesting,” or climbing the equivalent of the mountain in a single day.

“I’m going to need a little bit longer days and some bike lights to do that one,” he says, noting that he’d have to ride up Mount Ashland about six times to complete it.

Until such a time, he’ll bask in his million-feet success.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Sullivan, “definitely one for the record books for me.”

And not preposterous after all.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

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