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'Caveman,' not Armstrong, favorite at XTERRA

Updated: September 21, 2011, 15:09

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Lance Armstrong may be the biggest name in the field, yet to win Saturday's XTERRA USA Championship at Snowbasin Resort he'll probably have to outlast a Caveman.

That Conrad "Caveman'' Stoltz is even a four-time XTERRA world champ is testament to his own perseverance.

Five years ago, the South African broke his back in two places and his left wrist in seven during a training ride for the national championship then held at Lake Tahoe.

"There was a huge blue lake, and beautiful mountains and I never get to look at the view,'' Stoltz said of off-road races. "I was riding easy to conserve my legs and said I might as well look.''

Big mistake.

His tire hit a divot on the downhill trail and he flew over his handlebars then landed on his head, suffering compression fractures of the T8 and T12 vertebrae. Because he also landed with his wrist pointed backward, doctors would need 12 screws and a piece of steel to hold together the shattered joint.

"I was lucky to come back,'' said Stoltz, who already was a two-time Olympian in triathlon and two-time XTERRA world champ.

The next year he won just about everything.

He captured the West, Southeast and East championships, the Pro Series and U.S. title, South African title and his third world crown en route to being named Off-Road Triathlete of the Year.

Entering Saturday's XTERRA in Utah, he has a record 42 wins. He also is the defending national and world champion and will be headed to Maui next month in his quest for a fifth world title.

"Everybody is buzzing about who's going to do what, and everybody has an opinion ... because of the Lance factor,'' said Trey Garman, vice president of XTERRA, which promotes the races.

"Lance has got amazing credentials, but what he doesn't have on his resume is a shorter race. This is a 2 1/2-hour, all-out sprint.''

Race director Dave Nicholas, who created the XTERRA concept in the mid-90s, said there's no peloton to pull a rider along, and no time trials where cyclists can put their heads down and go until their muscles and lungs are spent.

"Here you've got to come out of a (1,500-meter) swim, change to very different muscles and get on a bike,'' Nicholas said.

With a 17.7-mile, mostly single-track trail that climbs 3,400 feet, it probably won't be the biggest motor that wins.

"You have to go uphill, downhill, around tight corners, over loose rock,'' Nicholas said.

Then competitors have to run off-road for 6.1 miles.

"The guy runs like a deer,'' Nicholas said of Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner who was a championship triathlete when he was younger. "Is he strong enough to do it off-course?''

Garman said the biggest wild-card, however, may be Tim DeBoom, a two-time Ironman world champion competing in his first XTERRA.

DeBoom, who calls mountain biking his passion, is coming off a win in the Norseman Xtreme, where he needed more than 11 hours to finish one of the most grueling triathlons in the world.

"He proved he's got the endurance. It's a matter of how fast he can do it,'' Garman said.

On Saturday, Armstrong, Stoltz and DeBoom will be among 300 top professional and amateur XTERRA athletes from more than 40 states and 10 countries competing.

The race ends at Snowbasin, but it features a mass start - for men, women and all age-group winners - at the Port Ramp Marina at Pineview Reservoir.

Canada's Christine "Big Fish'' Jeffrey, a former four-year NCAA All-American swimmer at Arizona State, could be the first out of the water regardless of age or gender.

"It may be a situation where Lance has to pass Christine on the bike. I wonder how many times he's had to pass a girl,'' Garman said. "That's the fun thing about this. He'll be mixed in with kids from 15-year-old boys to 70-year-old men and 60-year-old women. And they all start the same time.''

Armstrong, who turned 40 on Sunday and is racing his first-ever XTERRA and first triathlon in more than 20 years, said he's ready for the challenge of something new.

The 37-year-old Stoltz, whose long-term goal is to be an Olympian again should off-road tri be added to the Games, is ready for just about anything.

Nicholas thought back 10 years when the wide-eyed XTERRA rookie arrived at the East Championship in Richmond, Va.

"We all realized immediately this tall, gangly kid who showed up on a 25-pound borrowed bike was the real deal,'' Nicholas said. Stoltz would finish second that day and win the world title that year.

The nickname only added to the appeal of Stoltz, a diverse man who speaks three languages, enjoys helping his parents on the farm in Mpumalanga but also raves about finding the perfect cappuccino in Athens.

He jokes that people call him Caveman because "everything I touch breaks.'' But he also is a lot bigger than most triathletes at 6-3, 180 pounds and calls himself a "primitive guy'' who can eat anything, sleep anywhere and still win.

"A lot of athletes are fine-tuned and if the weather is not right or the stars are not aligned, they don't do well,'' he said. "I'm a lot more rough-and-tumble. XTERRA athletes are known for being a lot more rugged. There's no room for prima donnas.''

Stoltz is tough as they get.

Consider the 2009 XTERRA in Richmond when he offered to move a stray buoy in the James River just three minutes before the race only to gash his foot on a rusty steel girder.

A first-aid crew quickly wrapped it in gauze and plastic and wanted to rush him to the hospital.

When a fellow pro yelled, "Race starts in 1 minute,'' Stoltz didn't think twice; he jumped back in the water.

A volunteer doctor changed the bandages and applied antiseptic after Stoltz finished the swim and transitioned to his bike. The doc jumped in again as Stoltz was first off the bike and headed to the run.

"It was like a pit stop at NASCAR where the cars come in, they change tires and fuel up ... and off he goes,'' Nicholas recalled.

Stoltz ended up winning, but needed seven stitches and later surgery when the gaping wound became infected. He spent three days in the hospital but raced three weeks later.

"He was `Caveman' before that, but that totally cinched it,'' Nicholas said.

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