The Marvelous, Manic Drive of Juli Furtado

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1995

The Marvelous, Manic Drive of Juli Furtado

What fuels the world's most dominant mountain-bike racer? Doom and gloom and a steady flow of French roast.
By Sara Corbett

"On my god," Juli Furtado shouts, watching a delivery truck grind up the hill toward her house. "The La-Z-Boy guys are here!" It's early on an April morning, and the world's most dominant mountain biker is putting together her new digs. Arriving just after the dirt guys, who dumped a head-high pyramid of topsoil in the front yard, and just before the blacktop guys, who will pave the driveway, the La-Z-Boy guys wrestle the enormous, plastic-wrapped chair through the front door and into Furtado's beige-carpeted living room. She gesticulates as if guiding a bloated plane to its gate.

"Over here," she says, but as the men totter in the appropriate direction, Furtado halts them with a shout. "No--WAIT!" She pivots and dashes to move a scraggly ficus plant from a sunny corner. "Here. Yeah, definitely here." Everyone steps back to admire. A top-grain ebony leather recliner/rocker with a waterfall back and folded pillow arms. "Oh, yeah," says Furtado, beaming. "That's a damn fine chair."

Six cups of coffee later, her favorite Bonnie Raitt CD blasting, Furtado is a happy astronaut floating in the new recliner. "I never thought making a home could be this stressful," she says, swiveling back and forth. "Serious."

At five-foot-six and 130 pounds, she is small and solidly built, her deeply tanned, muscle-burled legs kicked out before her. Dressed in a rumpled purple T-shirt and faded denim shorts, a pair of fuzzy purple slippers on her feet, the 28-year-old Furtado hardly seems the fierce, dirt-loving competitor who's essentially been sweeping her sport for the past three years, twice winning the World Cup series and making cycling history in 1993 with 17 consecutive national and international race victories.

Yet even in light of her exceptional success, and even within the tightly constructed comfort of her new home--a two-story cedar affair that overlooks Durango, Colorado--Furtado appears somehow vulnerable, punctuating her boisterousness with shy, approval-seeking glances. She ponders something for half a beat, which given her super-caffeinated state is apparently long enough. "Don't you think," she says over the music, coffee cup dangling between two fingers, "that if Bonnie Raitt came to town she'd just want to hang out? I mean, like, Bonnie walking around, getting coffee and people-watching?"

No time to ruminate, however. With an abrupt leap out of the chair, Furtado decides to give me the tour. In the kitchen, she dumps the last dregs from the pot into her cup and then, as an afterthought, pulls out her bag of French roast and dangles it before me, noting importantly that she special-orders her coffee from Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California, and takes it with her around the world. On the refrigerator she has taped a list of every merlot she's tried recently, rating them from "average" to "great." Less than a week ago, Furtado won the World Cup season opener in Cairns, Australia. Between the French roast and the merlot, she says, she's hardly jet-lagged at all.

The three-month-old house has a stark roominess that Furtado is just beginning to fill. Her new houseplants, a few in every room, seem already to be in various stages of horticultural arrest. Her bed is unmade; a half-finished biography of Katharine Hepburn on the floor. The walk-in closet holds close to a dozen yellow-and-blue Team GT jerseys, and not much else.

But by far the most fussed-over part of the house is a nook in the upstairs hallway, which Furtado has festooned with memorabilia--the kind of nostalgic display that one's mother might set out on the mantel. Furtado, however, appears to be the methodical custodian of her own past, and the archive of neatly framed and hung photographs from each stage of her life--from Little League shortstop to adolescent ski sensation--suggests that she assumed this responsibility long before her mother's recent death. The wall conspicuously holds nothing from her cycling career.

Furtado hovers briefly, her eyes scanning the display, and then reaches up to tap a color print of a stringy-haired teenager sacked out on a beat-up couch, beer in hand, her left knee elevated. "That's me in high school," she says, leaning in to inspect the photo more closely. "The total me. My knee's blown out, and I'm making myself feel better with Meisterbräu."

Furtado turns to head back downstairs, leaving me alone for a moment in front of a photograph that she didn't pause over--one of her mother, taken when she was a ballet dancer, a fragile young beauty balanced elegantly on a satin point.

Back in her living room, the ballerina's brawny daughter is flummoxed when I ask about her own reputation as an animal. "People act like I'm the Terminator," she says with an embarrassed grin, twining a strand of dark hair around one finger. "Just because I can ride a bike fast..."

Kicking the chair into full recline, Furtado shuts her eyes and lifts her chin, casting a shadow along the length of her extended legs. The previous moment's thoughts dispersed, she looks peaceful and free from anxiety. It was just six months ago that her mother committed suicide, leaving Furtado to grapple with a mountain of guilt that she's long ignored. And but a year away are the Olympic Games, where mountain biking will debut. Furtado's desire to compete is made even more acute by the heartbreak of her career as one of the country's most promising ski racers, which ended when knee injuries forced her out of the '88 Games.

The phone rings, and Furtado jumps up to answer it, knowing it's a neighborhood racer calling to plan today's training ride. As she stands by a window that looks out onto her deck, the light catches Furtado's cheekbones, and I'm reminded of the regal presence of the dancer in the photo upstairs.

"Ten, at Eric's. Don't be late," she says, drawing herself up to a fuller height. "I'll leave without you guys. I mean it."

If there are 50 things that can go wrong in a mountain bike race, Juli Furtado has imagined 100. A derailleur can break. A chain can snap. Mud can gunk up your gears. "If you blow one tire, you can probably fix it fast, but if you blow two, you're sunk," says Furtado. Add to this the possibility of jet lag, a fight with your boyfriend, a pulled muscle, an unhappy memory. On occasion, your competitors will simply have a better day.

Before a race, Furtado's world turns claustrophobic. Cameras intrusively try to read her game face; journalists demand her thoughts; the mob begs for handshakes, kisses, and autographs. As the other riders flit through their prerace stretches and kicks, Furtado grimly stands off to one side, hands planted on hips, eyes riveted to the ground.

"Juli's been doing the doom-and-gloom thing as long as I've known her," says friend and fellow racer Elladee Brown. "It's a weird negative energy, one that would probably kill most of us, but for Juli it works." Having dominated her sport so completely that she's expected to win every time, Furtado recreates herself as underdog over and over. Hers is the charm of a nihilist--a hard-edged pessimism that keeps her humble. Without it, she'd be lost.

What drives her, it seems, is the furnace of the past. Haunted by what she calls "the worst mother-daughter relationship you could possibly imagine," Furtado gears up by tearing herself down. She rides not with the grace of the champion she is, but rather with the raw fury of someone trying to break free.

"She's always carried around a lot of worries and guilt," says Furtado's close friend and former collegiate ski rival Kristin Krone, "so racing is her release. She needs to experience something big and powerful to get it all out."

On a downhill that has most racers dismounting, shouldering their bikes, and skidding down on their heels, Furtado rockets forward, boldly picking her way over logs, mud, and rock, sliding through steep corners, and hitting the flats far ahead of the others. At the 1992 world championships in Bromont, Quebec, Furtado crashed on the first lap of the 28-kilometer cross-country race, dislocating her kneecap. The following day, her knee swollen to the size of a cantaloupe, she entered the downhill event and finished six seconds faster than anyone else. "People don't realize it," she says, "but the whole secret to mountain biking is pretty simple: The slower you go, the more likely it is you'll crash."

This aversion to easing up has characterized Furtado's athletic career from the start. After becoming the youngest member of the 1982 U.S. Ski Team at 15, she overtrained consistently, blew out both knees, underwent six surgical reconstructions, and was forced to retire at 21. Before she finished her last ski season, however, Furtado barged her way into the elite world of road cycling, winning the national championships in 1989. The next year, she decided to give mountain biking a try.

"She was brazen, unsophisticated, and faster than everyone else from the beginning," remembers John Parker, whose Yeti Cycles was Furtado's first sponsor. Juli is the most ferocious competitor you'll ever see. She has a pain threshold that only some creatures in the forest have."

Furtado bolted from obscurity to win the 1990 cross-country world championships after having raced only a handful of times. In the four seasons since, she has twice won mountain biking's cross-country World Cup and twice been runner-up. She has won the U.S. national series four years straight. "Juli's not just winning," says former world champion Ned Overend. "She's tugged the competition up to a whole new level."

And in the winning moments, Furtado is elevated. She grins at her fans, mugs for the press. But as time passes and she gets further from the physical act of racing, the monsoon of doubt returns. Oddly self-conscious, she seems embarrassed by and unable to explain her brutish power--a sheepish Bill Bixby in shredded clothes where moments ago there stood the Incredible Hulk.

If Furtado is driven by her poor self-image, she is also defeated by it, particularly in important races. In the four years following her world championship victory, Furtado has been unable to recoup the title, falling prey to injuries, mechanical problems, and fatigue and earning a reputation as a racer who chokes.

Furtado also has to defend against a fast-gaining group of rivals, foremost among them Canadian Alison Sydor, the current women's cross-country champion. After taking the gold medal in the Pan American Games last March in Argentina, Sydor soundly beat Furtado again a week later at the Cactus Cup in Scottsdale, Arizona. Since then Furtado has won two Wold Cup races only to finish behind Sydor in the next two. "Juli sets the standards everyone's trying to reach," says Sydor. "If she doesn't win every time, it's seen as a failure. If I'm lucky enough to win a race, I don't hear, 'Oh, you won a race.' Instead I hear, 'Oh, you beat Juli.'"

And as each race this season becomes another crucial dress rehearsal for the '96 Olympics, Furtado's proliferating self-doubt grows more and more threatening. "Getting to the Olympics is my biggest goal ever," Furtado says, growing flustered. "I'm going to get myself in trouble by thinking too much about it, but I can't help it. It's all I ever think about."

Furtado strolls out of the Seaming Bean, a cavernous hangout on the south side of Durango's Main Avenue. In one hand she carries a frappucino--"a caffeinated Slurpee," she explains--her second of the day. In the other hand she holds a weathered leash with Zack, her laconic Newfie-golden mutt, loafing on the other end.

Freshly scrubbed and buoyant after a 60-mile road ride with her pack of "best buds"--six or seven male mountain bike racers--Furtado is describing what it's like to train with the guys. "Testosterone city!" she says loudly enough to turn the heads of two plump women window-shopping nearby.

Furtado sucks deeply on her straw and keeps walking, nonplussed. "Anyway," she says, "men talk about different things than women do when they're riding. They talk about what kind of motorcycle they want to buy." This makes her grin. "Women tend to be more--I don't know--emotional?"

Furtado is a tomboy, right down to her chip-on-the-shoulder swagger. A self-proclaimed ESPN junkie, she's a follower of anything sweaty, from tennis to the 100-meter dash. She can throw a football with a perfect spiral and ushered in spring by buying herself a new baseball glove.

Yet at moments she's intentionally girlish, feigning ignorance when it comes to bike repair and worrying about how her hair looks in pictures. She will tell you she got into bike racing because the guys were cute. Having recently been dumped by her longtime boyfriend, professional racer Daryl Price (with whom she still trains), she says she's been glugging extra merlot at night to fend off the blues. She's passionate about rice cakes and prepackaged bags of salad. When I ask why she would push herself through a mountain marathon to the point of vomiting blood, as she did in Boulder several years ago, she answers without hesitation, "To burn calories, totally."

We cross the railroad tracks and several commercial streets to settle on a rocky bank of the Animas River, where Furtado turns to talking about the unquiet part of her life, her role in the public eye. "This fan thing is pretty ridiculous, because all those people don't even know me at all," she says, resting her elbows on her scarred knees. "But I guess we all do it, right? You see someone who's famous, and you want to be their friend."

Pulling in close to $400,000 per year from winnings and a collection of 19 corporate sponsors, Furtado is incessantly photographed, interviewed, and advertised. She gets marriage proposals, birthday cards, and party invitations from fans halfway around the world. Strangers want to compare knee problems. When she races in Italy, she is chased by flower-bearing lotharios.

Sitting by the river, Furtado looks smaller than she does on a bike. "So there I am, after the race, skiing right behind Ingemar Stenmark," she says, her thoughts having pinballed to a World Cup ski race she saw when she was 12. "I'm totally in heaven. I follow him down the mountain, over all these trails. And then he skis into the woods. Next thing I know, he's taking a leak. Serious! I was like, 'You're Ingemar Stenmark! How could you?'"

Skiing seems permanently lodged in Furtado's mind; its athletes are her heroes and best friends. Her eyes turn to the river. "You know, I don't want you to think I live in the past or anything," she says. "It might seem like I do, talking about skiing and everything, but I don't, I definitely don't."

Still, the subject is a hard one for Furtado to drop. She rips a piece off a fallen tree limb and hurls it upstream. "See, the ski team was like a different family to me," she says, watching Zack chase the branch. "I loved traveling. I loved being anywhere but home, really." With the mention of home, her voice trails off.

Furtado's flight instinct was cultivated in childhood by the violent divorce of her parents, Tommy Furtado, a Manhattan lounge singer--a crony of Sinatra's who sang the national anthem at Yankee and Shea Stadiums--and Nina Armaugh, a ballet dancer who abandoned her career to raise their three children. Shortly after the divorce, when Juli was six, Armaugh moved the children from Teaneck, New Jersey, to Londonderry, Vermont, a mill town at the foot of the Green Mountains, where she worked as a potter. Armaugh grew increasingly depressed and angry. "She was always down," says Furtado. "And she hated us kids--because we came from that horrible marriage. After a while, I just wanted out."

For Furtado, racing was the getaway vehicle, providing moments of transcendence during which everything beyond snow, speed, and heartbeat blurred to a gauzy nothingness. But the blood rush of finishing--usually in first place--was quickly dulled by the constant presence of her needy mother. Armaugh, focusing on her most successful child, would follow the ski team van to races all over New England. "After a race, everyone would keep saying, 'Juli, your mother's looking for you, your mom's looking for you.' She had no friends, no one else at all," says Furtado. "I'd find her, and she'd tell me what a worthless person I was, and inevitably she'd start crying."

Several years after Furtado moved to Boulder to study business administration at the University of Colorado and traded her skis for a bike, Armaugh left the East Coast to take a job as a physical therapist in Denver. John Wilcockson, editor of the bike-racing magazine VeloNews, says Armaugh used to call his Boulder office after World Cup races, asking whether her daughter had won.

But Armaugh's efforts to enter her daughter's world were largely in vain. "She wasn't a bad person at all. She was smart and talented, but I just wish she'd been a, I guess," says Furtado. "I couldn't forgive her for how guilty she made me feel about her unhappiness. I never wanted to be like her, and that's probably where my greatest drive to be an athlete came from."

To this day, Furtado remains largely separated from the rest of her family; it takes her some thought to recall exactly where her older sister lives or precisely what her younger brother does for a living. Her father, who lives in New York, checks in only occasionally. When Armaugh's memorial service reunited the family for the first time in years, they discovered a trunk of old photographs from her days as a professional dancer--the forfeited career that Furtado says her mother rarely spoke of. "I saw those pictures, and I couldn't believe how strong and beautiful she had been," says Furtado. "She looked just like Audrey Hepburn."

Had Juli Furtado chosen to deal with her mother's suicide in her characteristically private way, Nina Armaugh would most likely have been relegated to obscurity. Yet Furtado was unusually public in her grieving, beginning early last December at a $500-per-plate benefit for the U.S. Cycling Federation, before a full house at Spago in West Hollywood. Accepting an achievement award from celebrity presenter Sammy Hagar, Furtado announced her mother's suicide to the crowd, saying that she was now trying "to give her the credit she deserved when she was alive." Her full five minutes of reflection were met with shocked silence, a few tears, and a stilted round of applause. Furtado later published a highly emotional two-page letter to her mother--one she'd read at the memorial service--in Mountain Bike magazine.

"After she died," says Furtado, watching the river, "I had these really strange feelings, almost like being up in the clouds communicating with her. I felt like I had to do something for her. She was proud of my mountain biking--I know that now--she was really proud of me, but I never let her share in anything of my life. She kind of died not knowing me at all."

Furtado lingers over the last of her frappucino as the afternoon sun starts to lose its intensity. Her voice belies her conflicted feelings: She is pensive, but unsentimental. "It was pretty hard at first, but I'm coping fine now," she says, absently ruffling the fur on Zack's head. "I really am fine."

Several days later, the pyramid of topsoil in Furtado's front yard has disappeared, raked into a soft, even bed. At the top of the driveway, a stand of wispy aspens has been planted, each tree surrounded by a perfect circle of mulch. A solitary landscaper is on her knees in the dirt, gingerly laying in a row of young junipers around the north side of the house. To the east, a wide trench scars the earth, waiting to be filled. Sprawled out in a nearby patch of sunlight, Zack naps contentedly.

The garage door opens, and Furtado rolls her road bike out into the sun. In three days she will leave for a trio of critical World Cup races in Spain, Belgium, and Hungary. Before the end of this season in September she will have competed everywhere from northern Michigan to Rome, to determine whether she'll again win the national and World Cup series. This year's results will also have great bearing on her Olympic team status, although the squad won't be chosen until June 1996. In her long absence, Zack will stay with a friend, another friend will stop by to water the plants, another will oversee the staining of the deck. If all goes well, Furtado will return to find a happy dog, healthy greenery, and a fairly finished home.

"Hey Nadine!" the athlete shouts at the landscaper. "Did you get my postcard?"

The woman sticks her head around the corner of the house. "From Australia?" she says, wiping a rivulet of sweat from her brow. "Yeah, I did. Thanks a lot."

"Did you get it yesterday?"

"Yeah, yesterday," Nadine says.

Furtado seems pleased by this. Too busy while she's traveling, she usually knocks postcards off, 20 or 30 at a stretch, on her first night back, sending them to her loosely strung collection of friends--cyclists, skiers, and landscapers alike--the family she's gathered to go with the new home.

When Nadine turns back to the junipers, Furtado tugs on a pair of gloves, pushes off on her bike, and coasts down the hill toward town. I follow along in my car as she makes a left and glides up to an aluminum-sided house where several strong, spandex-wrapped men stand in front of the garage, tinkering with their bikes. By way of greeting, Furtado announces that she's got a stuffy nose. A nordic-looking blond offers that he's got a slight headache. Another mentions he didn't sleep so well last night. It's agreed, then: The ride today will be a light one. Furtado sends an I-told-you-so wink in my direction; she's been around the boys long enough to know better. Likewise, the understanding among the men is that, regardless of sniffles and upcoming races, Furtado will not allow herself to be dropped.

Two doors down, in front of a peach stucco house with a creeping rose arbor, a group of professional women riders, equally muscled, equally spandex-shiny, is gathering to go for a ride. Furtado wheels over for a quick cup of coffee. But when a low whistle goes up from the men's camp, Furtado says a hasty good-bye and bolts back down the sidewalk to jump in as the guys head off down the placid street.

Seeing Furtado pull herself into the pack, a shade smaller, a touch more fragile-looking than the others, I think of the way her friend Kristin Krone characterized her: "Juli's always been kind of like an orphan. She's seen lots of people come and go. I think she wishes she could gather up all the people who've been in her life, and they'd all live in the same small town where they would ride bikes and drink coffee all day."

The tick and whir of the bicycles soon recedes as the riders sweep along the river. Furtado, distinguishable now only by her ponytail and narrow shoulders, darts in and out of the pack, charging for position as the group gains speed. She pushes forward, past one and then two riders, and then drops back as the men respond by pushing harder. Again she powers ahead, this time with a determined surge that will put her up front. It all happens noiselessly, peacefully, as the riders grow more distant, pumping their way up a hill and out of the valley, rising behind Furtado. Having found her place within the sparkle of motion, she appears for the first time to be utterly at home.

Sara Corbett's fiction has appeared in Story and the New England Review. She is a frequent contributor to Outside.

Copyright 1995, Outside magazine

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web