Corben Sharrah competes at the 2017 UCI BMX Championships on July 29, 2017 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
ROCK HILL, South Carolina — Corben Sharrah has been on a roll this year. He came to the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships as the world number-one ranked rider. He’s also the reigning national champion.
But until today, the 25-year-old had never won a medal at a major international championship before. Last year, he finished sixteenth at world championships and ninth at the Olympic Games.
“I’ve always come into the worlds with that big expectation, like man, it’s the worlds, I’ve got to do good,” Sharrah said. “I left that all behind, and [told myself] I’m just going to go out and have fun like it’s any other race.”
His relaxed mindset worked. He dominated his heats in the motos, riding faster laps in every round. Each time, he crossed the finish line “a country mile” ahead of the field — as they say in the south.
Sharrah didn’t let off the gas in the quarter- or semifinals either. In the main event, he flew ahead of the last two world champions plus the Olympic champion (USA teammate Connor Fields) and crossed the finish line with the fastest time of the day (32.913 seconds).
It’s the first time in eight years that an American rider has claimed the world title — Donny Robinson won in 2009. And Sharrah is the fifth American man to win a world BMX title. Kyle Bennett won three, and Robinson, John Purse, and Bubba Harris each have one.
Behind Sharrah, Sylvain Andre and Joris Daudet — the 2016 world champion — finished second and third, respectively.
“I just kept going lap by lap, the goal was to get faster throughout the day,” said Sharrah. “Being able to win them all and through the final is crazy.”
Fields, who won the gold medal in Rio last summer, spent the winter recovering from a second wrist surgery (he broke his wrist before the Olympic Games and had surgery in December 2016 to removed two screws). He also dominated his heats in the motos. But in the final, Fields had a slower start, then became stuck in traffic. He eventually finished seventh.
The world championship title is one of the few that Fields does not have yet. But it was Sharrah who rode away with it in front of a loud, home crowd.
To battle nerves before the final, Sharrah told himself to “just race it like it was the first round.” In the past, even after he has had great heats, he has found himself off in the final. So instead of thinking “don’t blow it,” he told himself to ride it like any other lap during the day. It helped him stay relaxed.
“Just give myself a chance,” he said, “because usually I don’t even give myself a chance. Like I get the worst gate.”
He also credited the crowd, the course, and his ranking for helping him take the win.
“The crowd here was unreal,” he said of home course advantage. This is the first time in 16 years that BMX world championships have been held in the U.S. “I’ve never really seen a crowd like this, and they were going crazy, and that energy is really, really nice.”
He feels comfortable on the Rock Hill course — a BMX course that he described as smooth and fast with room in the three big banked corners to make moves. Whenever he races here, whether in a world cup or domestic BMX race, he has finished on the podium.
“I’ve always been comfortable here for some odd reason, I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I’ve always loved coming to Rock Hill and racing, and I think that’s played a big part in the results this time.”
Then there was the number one ranking that Sharrah brought to Rock Hill — a ranking that he was not even aware of until the day he arrived in South Carolina. He had struggled in the world cup races in May, finishing no higher than seventh. So he was surprised to learn that he was the top ranked rider in the world.
Rather than feel like the hunted — the rider with a target on his back — Sharrah was proud. He knows how hard it is to achieve a high ranking. It requires consistent racing week after week.
“It made me happy and made me really push at this race,” he said. “It put a little fire underneath me to show everyone that the number one guy is the number one guy.”
Now the number one guy is leaving Rock Hill with the same ranking, as well as a gold medal and a rainbow jersey, given to the world champion by the UCI in all cycling disciplines.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.