Daniel Walker/Special to the Herald
ANGEL FIRE, N.M.
The Skyhawks put the hammer down in their biggest races of the season.
The Fort Lewis College cycling team, powered by two individual national champions, opened the 2012 USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike Championships on Friday in dominating fashion.
Howard Grotts and Lauren Catlin hammered first for FLC; the rest of the Skyhawks followed suit in the cross country races at Angel Fire Resort on a brilliant and dry fall day.
Grotts, leading from the start, won his third consecutive national collegiate cross country title and led a 1-2-3 FLC sweep in the men’s Division I race – a four-lap circuit on a 4.7-mile course.
Catlin, leading from the start, won her second consecutive national title, leading a 1-2 finish for the FLC women. Her pal and roommate Sarah Zoey Sturm finished second.
But there’s more: Each of the four FLC cross country riders placed in the top 10 in Friday’s first day of the national championships. Sofia Gomez was seventh and Kaila Hart ninth for FLC.
Rotem Ishay, a former national collegiate champion, was second to Grotts, and freshman Garrett Lundberg finished a crowd-pleasing third in the men’s race.
Payson McElveen was seventh, giving the FLC men a 1-2-3-7 showing in the first race of the three-day event.
“I wanted to test the waters (early) and see who would be up with us,” Grotts said after racing 18.8 miles in 1 hour, 45 minutes, 30 seconds.
He sprinted first to the first tricky left-hand turn, about 50 meters into the course. From there, the course steeply climbed up a ski area service road that immediately spread out the field of 78 in the men’s Division I race. Grotts, on the opening climb, pulled into the lead.
“Once I got that initial gap, I decided I would try to keep it,” said the Durango native who won his first collegiate title two years ago as a freshman at Colorado School of Mines (Division II).
The former Durango DEVO cyclist, the only American ever to win a Junior World Cup race, put a 6-minute gap on the field over the first lap.
“Then, I just rode tempo for the next two laps,” he said.
Grotts steadily extended the lead until the final lap, when he avoided the near disaster of the 2011 race when he had a flat tire while leading on the final downhill. He won but had to finish on a rim in horrendously muddy, cold and snowy conditions.
“That went through my mind,” Grotts said Friday with a huge smile.
“But this year was completely different than last year. This was much nicer, much more comfortable riding,” Grotts said after winning by nearly 8 minutes.
He said the Skyhawks set a good tone for the national championships with Ishay second and Lundberg third.
“I’m so happy we got the top three (for FLC),” said Ishay, who will compete in all events this weekend as he goes for the collegiate omnium title.
Pleased with his finish, Ishay was even happier for Lundberg.
“Garrett ... he broke my freshman record,” said Ishay, who was fourth at nationals his freshman year. “I’m so happy for him.”
The freshman from Salida is a strong climber, Ishay said, and he used that to his advantage on a course that climbed 1,300 feet from the 8,600 feet-elevation base of the ski area.
“It’s amazing what Garrett did (Friday) to finish third,” FLC cycling director Dave Hagen said.
“He came from the very back,” he said after Lundberg, literally, started last.
“And he passed everyone but his two teammates ... on the first lap,” Hagen said.
That’s 75 mountain bikers.
“Getting by 75 guys who are all fighting for position? He went by them all,” Hagen said. “And he sustained it for the next three laps.”
Cheered wildly by Mom, Karen Lundberg, and aunt Kris Bielak, both from Salida, Lundberg said he enjoyed his first national championship race and first podium finish.
“That first uphill, I was hammering it ... going for it,” Lundberg said. “Then I settled into a good pace for the next three laps. I did the steep parts hard and then tried to (recover).”
Catlin followed the FLC strategy in winning the women’s cross country race for the second consecutive year.
“It (the course) narrows up for a long time at the top. I didn’t want to be around anyone at that point,” Catlin said of her blistering start.
She led up the first climb and never looked back.
“I wanted to be by myself. I went for it, got a gap and hoped I wouldn’t bonk,” said Catlin, who was unaware of the dramatic comeback her roommate was staging back in the pack.
“I was so bummed about my first descent,” Sturm said of a frustrating first-lap downhill when she was passed by five bikers.
She went from second place to seventh place.
But some feed-zone inspiration from Hagen, Anne Cheeney and Chad Cheeney and some self-reflection changed her approach, Sturm said.
“So on the second lap, I said I don’t even care if I lose all my teeth in a crash; I just want to do better this time.”
She did, and she kept all her teeth. Sturm passed those five cyclists and finished second to Catlin.
“I’m really excited for her,” Sturm said of Catlin. “If she wins, it’s like I win.”
Deidie York of the University of Colorado finished behind Catlin and Sturm in the Division I women’s race. Jill Behlen of the University of Wyoming, the defending omnium winner, finished fourth.
CU also was right behind FLC in the men’s field. Ryan Ellis was fourth and teammate Sam Morrison fifth.
Kerry Werner of Lees-McRae College in North Carolina, the men’s defending omnium champion, was sixth in Friday’s cross country race.
The cross country short track races will be held today, along with the first gravity event: the downhill.
Racing will close Sunday with the dual slalom and the award ceremony.
FLC hopes to be atop that podium with its ninth consecutive mountain bike national championship and 20th national championship overall.