Curtis Keene spent 10 years dominating the fast-paced world of downhill mountain biking. Then, in 2012, he decided to give the growing sport of Enduro mountain biking a try. The new discipline clearly suited him, and that year he took home the overall championships title in the North American Enduro Series. Around the world, Enduro is still mostly made up of European competitors, so it’s no wonder the nickname American Dream has stuck.
Growing up in Fremont, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Keene played baseball as a kid and rode his bike for fun. He never imagined that one day, he’d ride bikes for a living.
After graduating high school, Curtis, who was then a tall and skinny 1.83m tall and 73kg, began lifting weights in the gym. He bulked up to a meaty 97.5kg.
He attended college for a few years, but decided that wasn’t for him and began working full-time in the family business as an electrician in Fremont. When he was 22, in 2001, a friend invited Curtis to Downieville, California, a tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that’s become legendary for its downhill mountain biking trails. It was his first glimpse of the mountain biking world and he'd found his calling.
“I just loved it right from the beginning,” says Curtis. “I had such a blast.”
A week after that trip, he walked into a bike shop and paid US$6,000 for a downhill mountain bike. A month later, he signed up for a local race in the Bay Area. Curtis ended up winning his division in that event, beating everyone in the field except one pro.
Not long after his first win, Curtis entered the downhill race at Sea Otter Classic, a bike festival and contest held each year in Monterey. He signed up for the expert class, the highest level he could without being an official member of USA Cycling. He won again.
The following year, in 2002, he joined USA Cycling and got upgraded to the semi-pro division. He ended up winning a handful of national events in the semi-pro field and, by 2003, he was upgraded again, this time to the pro division.
Curtis eventually started earning top-10 finishes at major races around the world, and for three years he was a member of the American team at World Championships. In 2004, he picked up the nickname American Dream for his dreamy Hollywood good looks and because he was one of the top American contenders in a sport mainly dominated by Europeans.
“Nicknames choose you, you don’t choose them,” says Curtis, who was at first embarrassed by the moniker. “One guy started calling me that and then everyone else just latched onto it. They never let it go and as time went by, I just had to embrace it.”
Each winter, when he wasn’t competing and travelling the world, Curtis would return home to California and work as an electrician. But by 2008, his bike career was flourishing and he knew he needed to dedicate 100 percent of his time to training year-round. So he gave up his electrician job and he moved to Santa Cruz to be closer to mountain bike trails.
“That was a scary move,” says Curtis. “Having that job gave me a sense of security and once I left it and committed to training full-time, I didn’t have that safety net anymore. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going full steam ahead.’”
Money was tight for a couple of years, he says, but the more energy and time he put into racing downhill bikes, the more he got out of it. In 2008, he placed fourth in the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals in downhill, followed some top 10 finishes at races like Sea Otter Classic, FluidRide Cup, and more. In 2010, he finished fourth in the Garbanzo Downhill at Crankworx and the following year, he earned four podiums in the ProGRT series and an eighth place at Sea Otter Classic.
“It all worked out eventually and every year since has gotten better,” says Curtis, who moved south to Santa Monica, California, in 2011. “I’m living the dream now.”
Curtis heard about Enduro mainly through his team-mates at Specialized Bicycles.
“The Specialized guys were like, ‘Enduro is the next big thing and it’s coming to North America,’” says Curtis. “They know my style and strengths and they were like, ‘You should try it.’” So he did.
In 2012, at age 32, Curtis juggled a season of Enduro races with downhill races, which resulted in a packed schedule. He ended up winning the overall title on the North American Enduro Series in his rookie season.
In 2013, the first-ever Enduro World Series was introduced and Curtis rode into the big leagues. He is still dominating events on the North American series – with podium finishes or wins at nearly every race he enters – but now he is focusing his energy on the world tour. He is still one of few Americans competing at the elite level on the Enduro World Series. In 2014, he landed on the podium at an EWS event in Whistler, one of the first Americans to do so.
“You change as an athlete and training is a never-ending process,” he says. “Every year, every race, you learn something and carry on from there.”
His plan for the future? Keep going for wins and continue to help the sport of Enduro grow.
“My plan is to continue doing this for who knows how long. As long as I’m still having fun and helping the sport grow, I’ll stick with it,” says Curtis. “It’s part of my life, it’s who I am. So I’m not going anywhere.”