Isaiah Boyle/Durango Herald file photo
Isaiah Boyle/Durango Herald file photo
Todd Wells’ dream of qualifying for his third U.S. Olympic Team came crashing down in mountain bike reality on a cruel 2012 spring day in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Wells, a two-time Olympic mountain biker from Durango, thought his dream had broken apart in a gnarled mass of bike parts at the bottom of a big downhill drop – a World Cup big downhill drop.
In addition to assorted scrapes and rock rash, Wells’ ankle was sprained – severely.
And his ankle was bruised – severely.
His dream of racing in a third Olympic Games, however, was unscathed.
“This year, when I wasn’t an automatic selection (to the U.S. Olympic team) ... I’m really honored to have the coaches select me,” Wells, 36, recently said in an interview with The Durango Herald.
In spite of a season slowed by the horrible crash in South Africa, Wells was named by the mountain bike coaching staff to represent the United States this summer in the London Games. He’ll race in the Olympic mountain bike cross country race for the third time.
“It had been a very frustrating season to this point,” Wells said.
But based on his extensive international racing experience and two of the most productive seasons in his career, Wells made the U.S. team. He immediately rewarded their coaches for their support when he put together one of his best World Cup races ever, finishing on the podium in fourth place in his native New York.
“It was an awesome weekend,” said Wells, who came back to Durango to rehab his injured ankle before returning to the World Cup with his Specialized race team.
“Windham (N.Y.) is about 40 miles north of where I grew up,” said Wells, who learned to mountain bike on the roots and rocks of the Hudson Valley around Ulster Park.
“There was a World Cup in Canada, and then I got to spend a fun day at home with my family,” Wells said.
“They were all there to watch.”
And they saw their native son stage a remarkable comeback in Windham, coming from 30th place on the first of six laps to finish fourth.
“I had to play catch-up for most of the day, but I was able to pass people,” Wells said.
“It’s great when you’re having a big day, and it’s not wasted on a training day,” he said.
The Olympic validation of a World Cup podium finish, Wells said, was a tribute to everyone who has helped him in his cycling career.
“With any Olympic athlete, you don’t get to that point without an entire network of people supporting you. Durango ... the whole town ... has really been supportive,” he said of his adopted hometown.
“I just happened to be in the right place.”
And he wants to share his Olympic experience in London with Durango. There will be an Olympic going-away party at Carver’s Brewing Co. from 4 to 7 p.m. July 22 as a sendoff for Wells.
“This (Olympics) is for everyone ... for my family, my friends, my supportive wife (Meghan),” he said.
“My first Olympics was Athens (2004),” Wells said. “It was a completely overwhelming experience.”
He qualified for the team early.
“In a way, I was just happy to be over there,” he said.
Four years later, again he qualified early for a position on the team headed to Beijing.
“In Beijing, I ... put too much pressure on myself. I expected a lot more.”
Things are different the third time around.
“This year, I feel like I’m in a good place mentally,” Wells said.
He said he had to battle to regain confidence after his bad wreck in South Africa.
“I got hurt on a big, big drop. My biggest thing was I lost some confidence,” Wells said.
He also returned to his original training program after an experience with a new program didn’t pan out.
“I changed my training ... in search of that extra 1 percent. As an athlete, you always want to get better. But it completely backfired on me,” Wells said.
With his ankle slowly recovering and his familiar training program in place, Wells pedaled back on the U.S. Olympic mountain biking team. He followed his World Cup podium finish with a 1-2 punch at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho, last week.
Wells won the national title in the pro men’s short track race, and he finished second in the cross country race, an event he was leading until he was slowed by a flat tire.
A veteran of years of international racing, Wells already has sampled the new Olympic course on Hadleigh Farm in Essex.
“The course there is very open ... it’s in a big grass field on the side of a hill. There are no trees,” Wells said.
“You can pretty much see the whole course,” he said of the spectator-friendly Olympic mountain bike venue.
“They brought in ... 100 truckloads of rocks,” Wells said. The organizers created rock gardens and rock falls for tricky descents and climbs.
Wells said they set the rock sections so there are three basic lines – A, B and C – faster, faster, fastest (and riskiest).
“The London course is littered with these technical sections,” he said.
The Olympic course will feature lap times of 12 to 13 minutes.
“On a short course like that, you really have to study different lines. It’s almost like a downhill,” he said.
The Olympic cyclists will have to evaluate risk-reward in selecting routes through the rock falls. Wells said when they raced on the course earlier this year, it was dry.
“The course was dry and parched ... like Horse Gulch can get,” Wells said. Rain, he said, will add another element of intrigue to the Olympic course.
The mountain bike cross country race will be on the last day (Aug. 12) of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
“We’ll miss the opening ceremonies, but I’ll get to the closing ceremonies,” Wells said.
“Mountain biking ... is a solitary sport. You’re off in the woods alone, for the most part.
“But to walk into a stadium ... with 100,000 people, walking in with all the other athletes, the vibe is amazing,” Wells said.