As we count down to the start of the XTERRA Asia Pacific Tour on March 30 in Kenting, reigning and two-time XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour Champion Sam Osborne is looking to make it a three-peat.
If his past few years are any indication of future success, he’s a contender, not just in the Asia-Pacific region, but also for the ultimate crown of the sport at the XTERRA World Championship in Maui.
Since 2015, the Kiwi has been quietly working at chipping time off his splits and moving through the ranks. Already a successful ITU triathlete, Osborne jumped into XTERRA almost on a whim. The Osbornes have a family bike hire business – Planet Bike - in Rotorua as well as a coffee cart that they take to races.
“I was working at XTERRA Rotorua, making coffee with my dad and I thought, you know, I can mountain bike absolutely fine. I should take a crack at this,” said Osborne.
Like coffee, mountain biking is in Osborne’s blood. His father, Edd, was a “mad mountain biker way back” and has been taking Sam out to the trails in Rotorua since he was young.
In his first attempt at XTERRA Rotorua in 2015, Osborne was fourth. In 2016, he competed in 10 XTERRAs, was second in six of them, and finished second on the XTERRA European Tour. In 2017, he kicked it up a notch and won the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour title by virtue of wins at XTERRA New Zealand and Saipan. That year, he finished sixth at XTERRA Worlds.
2018 saw even more improvement with another AP Tour title as well as big wins in his backyard of Rotorua and in Albay, the Philippines, as well as a runner-up showing at the XTERRA European Championship in Germany.
At the 2018 XTERRA World Championship, he was third and sandwiched between five XTERRA World Champs. He finished just behind Rom Akerson (2018) and Brad Weiss (2017) and ahead of former XTERRA World Champs Mauricio Mendez (2016), Ruben Ruzafa (2014), and Josiah Middaugh (2015).
“No doubt it was one hell of a race in Maui last year and the conditions made it that much more epic,” said Osborne, who didn’t have the most auspicious entry to the race.
“My day couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start,” he admitted. “I fell at the starting line and was the last one in the water.”
Remarkably, Osborne was the first one out of the waves despite his initial handicap.
“After the first buoy, I saw Roger swim off the front,” remembers Osborne. “On the second lap, the waves were bigger, and I caught up to him. We had to swim into the beach and I just knew I had it. The wave was risky, but I decided to have a go and take a crack at it anyway.”
Osborne attributes his ability to navigate the waves to his time training with the surf club in Gisborne, New Zealand during a triathlon training camp.
“I swam with the surf life savers there and learned a lot about how to ride waves. There’s a lot to surf swimming and many athletes don’t know that,” he explained.
Training in the surf is just one-way Osborne has honed his craft over the years. At 25, Osborne represents the new generation of XTERRA elites who is making it clear that rather than just a discipline, XTERRA is an art form.
“In XTERRA, you are no longer getting big mountain bikers who will just ride away with the race. You have to be very consistent through all three disciplines,” said Osborne. “The sport has changed so much even in the past three years. No longer is there a day where a one-dimensional athlete can take the race. Look at Ruben. It used to be that he could just ride away on the mountain bike and win. But last year, he was one of the fastest runners on the XTERRA Europe Tour and only lost 40 seconds in the swim in Maui.”
When he’s not training, Osborne doesn’t just help with the family’s bike hire business and coffee cart. He also watches YouTube videos and learns all he can about latte art. (You can follow him on Instagram @the_deja_brew.) He has a very similar approach to his triathlon training in that he doesn’t just spend time training to become faster and stronger but also possesses an intense interest in the nuances that will enable him to become a true off-road artist.
“It’s really an art to have it all go well at once,” said Osborne. “Look, swimming and running are at odds with each other. To be a good swimmer, you are going to have some bulk on top, which could slow you down on the run. So being just a big runner or a big cyclist, you are never going to ride through that field. You have to find the art of balancing all three sports.”
Osborne has organically accessed the art of XTERRA through the steadfastness of his own curiosity and a pure love of the game.
“I used to do anything to get out of school,” he admitted. “I was pretty good at running and had two teachers who encouraged me to get into triathlon. I was pretty keen on doing that and realized I had better learn how to swim when I was about 13.”
“It was the thing that came most unnaturally to me,” said Osborne. “But I spent a huge amount of time working on it. Enough years of ‘chopping wood, carrying water,’ and I’m reasonably happy with where I’m at.”
During this time, Osborne wanted a coach but was told he was too young. So, he took matters into his own hands and began training with a local running club.
“I went to the running club every day after school and so enjoyed it,” he said. “I did some marathon buildup training my last two years of high school. It was incredibly unscientific. I just showed up and did whatever I could to hold onto the pack. I was definitely asking for trouble injury-wise, but I got lucky.”
What his early days chasing older runners may have done is to instill a deep training ethic into Osborne as well as a high pain tolerance. He spent the next few years chasing every opportunity he could. In addition to training with the surf club, he attached himself to the Slovakian National Team in 2014 and trained with them in Europe, simply because he knew the challenge would make him better.
“They came to Rotorua by chance one summer,” remembers Osborne. “I could see they had a bloody good program, so I said, ‘What are you guys doing for training? Can I join you?’”
Osborne also spent a considerable amount of time as an ITU triathlete from ages 13-22 and trained with the New Zealand National Team during their build up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He acknowledges that during that time, he gained speed in all three sports even though he had been mountain biking since before he could remember.
“Mountain biking is so massive in New Zealand that parents will just take their kids into the forest and put them on a bike,” he said. “It’s just part of our culture. Lots of people have said, ‘Sam’s picked up mountain biking really well.’ And I laugh because that’s the first thing I learned how to do. Nobody sees your bike handling skills in ITU. But in XTERRA if you give someone a technical course, it changes the racing.”
The last few years before Maui, he and 2017 XTERRA World Champ, Brad Weiss, train in Boulder at altitude, even though the XTERRA World Championship takes place at sea level. But Osborne clearly sees the benefits of training at a mile up into the air. He attributes his excellent swim at Maui last year to training at oxygen debt.
“I just felt good in the swim and that was one of the benefits of altitude,” said Osborne. “I never felt like I was over-investing. I was just sitting on the limit and I felt like I could just hurt all day."
He admits that training with one of his biggest rivals was a bit of a gamble.
“It started as a couple of throw away comments at one of the races in the Philippines and Brad and I made it happen,” he said. “It was a risky move really as we had never trained with each other before, so it definitely had the potential to be disastrous.”
On the contrary, the partnership between Weiss and Osborne is one of the great success stories in the sport. It buoyed Weiss to a world title in 2017 and nearly did the same for Osborne last year.
“We are good mates and train really well together,” he said. “We follow the mantra, ‘Build form, don’t show form,’ and we have a huge amount of respect for each other. I think it’s important to be able to switch off the racing mentality during training. In the race, very few words are spoken between us but along the way, someone is going to throw down a lot of hurt and the best man wins. We’ve had some epic battles and I hope it continues. I live for that kind of racing.”
In terms of his approach to the 2019 XTERRA racing season, Osborne has no plans to change what has been working so well for him. He will continue to chop wood and carry water as far as he can go.
“2019 is going to be much the same as 2018,” said Osborne. “I would like to defend my XTERRA Asia- Pacific title first off and with the new rules, it might be possible to chase the XTERRA Pan Am Tour title as well. The two biggest races of the year are Cross Tri Worlds and XTERRA Worlds. I’ve podiumed at both which makes me hungry for the top step. I’m a big believer that good consistent work for long enough will get me there and I’m pretty happy with the training setup I have now.”
Osborne truly loves to race and said he would do it every weekend if it were possible. But even more than racing, he loves being an off-road athlete.
“I think anybody who has been to Rotorua and has been on the trails will probably understand how good it is,” he said. “Honestly, even if I wasn’t racing, I would hope to still be doing what I’m doing right now and be on the trails every day. I just wouldn’t be pinning a number on.”