The opening Can-Am Grand National Cross Country round in Florida featured a back-and-forth duel between last year's top two riders, Paul Whibley and Charlie Mullins. But at round two in Georgia on Sunday, Mullins FMF/KTM teammate Kailub Russell bested both for a win, showing he could be a third rider to contend for the GNCC title.
Russell crashed out of the Florida race and injured his shoulder, so his Georgia win signals a strong comeback. However, Mullins and Whibley went the full three hours at the opener and pretty much emptied the energy tanks while Russell sat in the pits nursing his wounded wing. Either way, you have to be tough in GNCC! Digitaloffroad.com's Jason Hooper dialed in Russell and provided this interview with the 22-year-old.
Okay, Kailub, before we talk about your win this weekend at the General GNCC in Georgia, let's back up a bit and talk about what happened to you just five days prior at the season opener in Florida.
I got a pretty bad start in Florida and I had started picking guys off and made my way into second and then I ended up getting hung up in some vines in a checkpoint out on the course. I got out of all that and I caught up a bit and then ended up having a big crash. I went down pretty good, but I rode two more laps, but my shoulder hurt really bad and it just kept getting worse and worse, I was having a lot of pain for sure. I ended up having a minor AC separation--I was pretty worried about that at first because we had Georgia just five days later and there's not a whole lot of time to recover to get your body back to 100 percent let alone if you have an injury. I hung out with Dr. Maresca all week and he worked on me and by Saturday I was feeling pretty good.
So you weren’t exactly 100 percent for the second round, how tough was it to race for three hours with an injured shoulder?
The track was really difficult in Georgia, there was rain on Friday and Saturday nights so it made the track conditions really slick and muddy in some spots. It was really rough, rooty and chewed out. I was pretty cautious to start out, just making sure I didn't run into any trees leaning over in a corner or anything to keep from hitting my shoulder and injuring it again. I didn't have much pain riding but I was worried that if I did hit it on something I would injure it again.
For the majority of the race, yourself, Charlie Mullins, and Paul Whibley were in a tight pack, what was it like racing for so long with those guys?
Really, it wasn't too intense--it might've looked pretty intense and stuff but we were just kind of cruising along. I don't feel like we were at a true race pace where each of us was going for it. We were all in that big group, but I kept making little mistakes, like falling over in mud holes and I'd go backwards and then have to catch back up. It was a fun day, but when the two lap board came out and I was up into second, and we got into the section right after the finish--a section of the track that I had walked--I thought I could maybe make a pass on Charlie [Mullins] and sprint away and that's exactly what I did.
After two XC2 Lites GNCC titles, Russell is in his second season in the XC1 class.
Krista Shaw photo
Even though you were injured, a lot of people were saying you were at an advantage because you didn’t race the full three hoours in Florida, so you used less energy than they did there. Do you think that’s the case?
That's a hard question to answer because I don't really know how they were feeling after the race, I just know how I was feeling. It could've played a part in it but, who knows. It was a pretty clutch win for me, I really needed it and it was a big points swing.
It is pretty crazy that after your 12th-place finish in the first round, you’re now sitting third in the championship points.
Yeah, for sure, I'm right there. I was 21-points down going into Sunday and I left with only 12-points behind, and that's not a very big deficit. We saw what happened last year when [Josh] Strang had an 18-point lead and messed up with one round and there was a 21-point swing in points in one race, and Charlie took the lead at Unadilla. I turned things around with this win in and I'm looking forward to keeping that momentum going into the rest of the season.
Your two teammates, Charlie Mullins and Cory Buttrick, are both racing the KTM 450 SX-F but you have chosen to race the 350, why is that?
It's all about riding style, really. I feel like it's a really good bike in the woods. At the beginning of the year I thought I might want to switch to a 450 and I thought I could maybe use that bottom end that it makes a little better. But, I had one and I rode them back-to-back and I was faster and more comfortable on the 350 so that's what I chose to ride. I'm not the biggest guy out there and coming off the 250F and onto the 350 probably had some advantage just in how I ride the bike.
Over the winter you spent a lot of time riding down in Florida with Mike Brown, how helpful was it riding and training with Brownie?
It was a huge help, it was a good experience. Mike is a pretty bad dude and I really enjoyed hanging out with them. It was really good for me because there's so much I can learn from him--he's been around so long and is still super fast--he can pretty much kick my butt any day on any kind of track! It was a good experience and I'm looking forward to keeping in touch with him and riding together as much as possible.
A shoulder injury at the opener appeared to have ended KR's title hopes, but his Georgia win gets him back in it.
Krista Shaw photo
Not only did you train with Brown, you went out West and mixed it up with him and some of the WORCS guys. I know you weren’t too thrilled with your results (10th overall at Glen Helen and Primm) but do you think there was some benefit in racing those shorter races, on totally different types of terrain?
I think it really helped my intensity out. I kind of learned some things over there and I made a few passes in the GNCCs the way guy were making passes out there. I didn't get a good start in Florida, but by 10 minutes into the race I was already up into second and then in Georgia I didn't get a good start but by the fifth turn I was in the top 5. Then I slid out and went to last and by the end of the first lap I was back up into that lead pack. I think it raised my intensity in the beginning and helped me with passing. I took those lessons I learned out there and have applied them to here and I feel like I benefited a lot from riding those first two rounds and I hope to get out there and do some more.
The Can-Am GNCC Series takes a break this coming weekend before picking back up at race close to your home in North Carolina. Are you looking forward to the Steele Creek round?
I've always like the first five rounds the best, I'm not sure why but they suit my riding style a little better. I've made myself learn to like the rest of the tracks up North and I've learned to like them as well. But, I've always liked North Carolina and ridden well there and I'm looking forward to racing there and getting a good result.
The GNCC tour resumes in two weeks in North Carolina, the same state where the Ohio-born Russell now lives and trains.
Krista Shaw photo