A pure expression of energy. That’s what sets Howard Grotts into motion.
From start lines at the Olympics and the biggest mountain bike races in the world in previous years to stepping out his front door for a 40-mile single-day hike, the 27-year-old from Durango pushes his limits.
“For me, it’s not like I have to race,” Grotts said. “I like to go outside and breathe hard, for whatever reason.”
These days, going hard is less about what Grotts does inside the ropes of a mountain bike race than what he has accomplished away from the course. It has been more than a year since the face of American mountain biking decided to step away from full-time racing. He hasn’t chased International Cycling Union points at World Cup races or dedicated to a pursuit of a spot in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games to back up his 2016 Olympics debut in Rio de Janeiro.
Full-time racing, the intense training involved and the cost both financially and mentally had begun to take its toll. So, Grotts unplugged from social media, drastically reduced his race schedule and re-immersed himself as a coach in the Durango Devo cycling program that gave him his start in cycling as a child.
“I had low motivation for racing,” he said. “That’s like, you trust your body, you have to trust your mind, too. It’s just not worth digging yourself into a super deep hole because, in the end, this should be fun. Sport is about pure expression of whatever energy you’re putting into something. So if you’re not feeling like putting in the energy, it’s just not worth it.”
Grotts has continued as a Devo coach while balancing a light racing schedule – made obsolete in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – while he has begun to chase his next career path as a math teacher.
Still, even while not training at his previous level, Grotts claimed second place at the 2019 USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in the cross-country race behind Utah’s Keegan Swenson, ending Grotts’ streak of victories at four dating back to when he was 22, still young enough to race at the under-23 level but so talented he raced and beat the elite pros.
His silver-medal performance was awe inspiring to his peers and the athletes Grotts now coaches.
“It’s been super cool to get to know him personally and seeing him all the time. He’s got so much wisdom,” said Durango’s Maddie Jo Robbins, a three-time junior 17-18 mountain bike national champion who has long looked up to Grotts. “Seeing him with us on Devo rides and focusing on bringing the fun back into his life and then pull out a second place at nationals proved to us you don’t have to put yourself in super strenuous training all the time and not have fun. You can enjoy your life and still be just fine.”
Durango’s Christopher Blevins, who has now taken over for Grotts in Durango’s pursuit to continue a streak of having a rider represented in the Olympics for a fifth consecutive Summer Games, dating back to Todd Wells’ first of three Olympic selections in 2004, also admired the change in his Specialized Racing teammate at the 2019 nationals in Winter Park.
“Howie is just an insane talent,” Blevins said. “More than anything, I saw he was excited and happy with himself. He went into the singletrack first and did a massive jump. That’s something I had never seen Howie do before, but he hit that singletrack climb and aired it out. It wasn’t even a spot to do that kind of a jump, but he sent it. He was like a little kid on Christmas, so stoked to be out there.”
Grotts backed his nationals silver a month later with his third consecutive win at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race, showing he could still get it done in one of the sport’s most demanding races even with a change of attitude.
“Now having raced that, knowing he won it and has won it the last three years, he’s a super human,” said Durango’s Sarah Sturm after she was second at last year’s Leadville 100 women’s race. “But mostly, he is one of the most humble, kind, unique athletes you will ever meet.”
Grotts didn’t race again after Leadville in 2019, but he was ready to make a limited return to racing, including the Absa Cape Epic in South Africa, this year before COVID-19 canceled the event and so many more he had considered. But a return to World Cup racing and a chase for the Olympics was never on his mind.
Grotts still struggles to pinpoint exactly where his feelings toward competitive mountain biking on the international stage began to change. It was a combination of too many factors.
Fresh off another national title in 2018 and Blevins’ silver medal at the UCI World Championships as a 19-year-old in the under-23 ranks in 2018, the two Durango stars along with Swenson were prepared to travel to as many UCI points races as possible to try to improve American standings in an effort to get the U.S. men a second spot in the Olympics instead of only one. But the standards for getting a second rider to the Olympics became even more difficult during the 2020 cycle, and it was going to require a mighty effort and podium results.
Grotts planned to return to the 2019 Cape Epic stage race with teammate Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic, as the two aimed to defend their incredible victory from a year earlier in what is considered the Tour de France of mountain biking. But Grotts fell ill after the Cyprus Sunshine Cup and dropped out of the Cape Epic in South Africa as well as the Pan-American Games.
He would not return to international racing and remained home in Durango.
“Things were out of whack,” Grotts said. “It gets weird when it becomes, not even political, just a game within a game sort of. When I think of racing I think of, ‘OK, it’s the first person to cross the finish line.’ That’s it. Then instead, it’s embedded within a whole points structure and how do you get that? Oh, it’s the people who can afford to go to all the races and that sort of thing. So yeah, it takes away a little bit from the racing, in my opinion.”
Grotts also wasn’t happy with his constant training and what it was doing to his body and mind. Instead, he escaped for more camping trips with his girlfriend, Ellen Campbell, and got more into running. He was playing in the mountains, but in a different way.
“You just have to be somewhere all the time. I got a little stuck in thinking I had to train a certain way to be prepared for races,” he said. “They say some sacrifice when training and competing at a high level, but I don’t know. I think people can really chart their own path and be super successful, great athletes. Just my own approach was a little off.
“I also had – it’s hard to describe because it’s almost like I don’t know what the issue is still – an imbalance from side to side on my body. ... Over time in cycling, even though it seems very symmetric, it can make you a bit lopsided. I’m going back to the very most basic core routine to look at how hips are supposed to be aligned. These super tiny motions to integrate that. I’m getting back to basics, I guess.”
Grotts, who is out of the picture for the rescheduled 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo with Blevins and Swenson chosen by USA Cycling for its long team to decide the one spot for an American man, said he is done chasing the Olympics. The Olympic format, with man-made jumps and rock gardens filling a course and a start list determined by UCI points, isn’t what he envisions when he thinks of mountain biking.
“The Olympic format is not what mountain biking is to me,” he said. “It just doesn’t quite embody everything I feel when I go out and ride.
“The game of it is, ‘OK, this is how we’re gonna play.’ There is incredible energy racing in Europe at the World Cups. I have never experienced a big stadium, but to have all those people around and cheering, it’s really cool and an incredible thing to be part of. But when I think about it, it’s a super tiny patch of land we’re riding on when often times we’re in incredible areas like Andorra. It would be so cool if we climbed to the top of a mountain and descended some bizarre thing that might not be ridable. That’s mountain biking. I don’t know, different aspects to one sport.”
New challenges excite Grotts. In April, he set out his front door with roommates Stephan Davoust and Henry Nadell, a pair of fellow pro mountain bikers, on the Death Ride loop – 223 miles from Durango to Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, Telluride, Dolores, Mancos and back to Durango. The route features nearly 15,500 feet of climbing.
The trio finished in 12 hours, 23 minutes, stopping for lunch in Telluride and pausing in Hesperus before the final descent into Durango to have a few sips of cold beer with a waiting Payson McElveen, another one of Durango’s mountain bike stars. Still, the trio was only 10 minutes off the fastest-known time record for the loop, set by former Durangoan Nick Gould in 2019.
It was Grotts’ first time to attempt the Death Ride.
“That was just a good day with friends,” Grotts said. “We all got to see each other at high points, low points, bonked, ate a ton of food. It’s local lore and always been one of those I wanted to do. This year is a bucket list year to do hikes I’ve never done before, do rides I’ve never done before. I almost think we couldn’t have done it faster. We cracked at some points, were so low, so depleted. Luckily, we had a good tailwind from Dolores back.”
Davoust has enjoyed having Grotts around for those kinds of rides.
“He’s a great kid to be hanging out with,” Davoust said. “It brings a great atmosphere and keeps it pretty relaxed. He’s come around in a sense that he’s not taking racing quite as serious as he used to and having a lot more fun with it now than in the past.”
Grotts tried to get a crew together on the summer solstice for another big idea: to hike from his cabin near Lemon Reservoir to Silverton in a single day. The result was a 15-hour solo effort covering 40 miles, with Campbell awaiting to pick him up on arrival in Silverton.
“I tried to ask people to do it with me, and no one wanted to,” Grotts said. “That was my biggest hiking day ever done before. It had been on my radar for awhile to try to do that route for no particular reason. It was kind of a headwaters tour. I got to see the top of the Florida River, where a lot of Durango’s drinking water comes from. That’s kind of interesting. Vallecito Lake, the proper alpine lake, was one of the most beautiful high-alpine lakes I’ve seen. It was not the ultra clear, aqua marine blue of Island Lake or Ice Lake, but that was an amazing place to see. It’s somewhere you can only get to by hiking at least 15 miles. So much stuff is undiscovered by me in the Weminuche. Just a challenge.”
Grotts said he got a look at what ultra-runners go through during his 40-mile day, from blisters on the feet to moving fast through the mountains alone surrounded only by wildlife. It intrigued him.
After Grotts won the Leadville 100 in 2019, he lined up the next morning to run a 10-kilometer race. He finished second.
The last time Grotts ran a mile around the Durango High School track, he clocked in at 5:07. He’d like to try to break a five-minute mile this summer. He’d also like to get into much longer distance runs and ultra-marathons.
Specifically, it is the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, a 100.5-mile ultra-marathon through the heart of the San Juan Mountains with a start and finish in Silverton, that has his eye. He planned to volunteer at the race in July before it, too, was canceled.
“Running is a crazy sport,” he said. “I feel like you can push so hard. There is a real limit. You can run as hard as you can and find that physical limit, whereas on a bike I can push a little harder.”
Grotts, a 2010 graduate of Durango High School, attended Colorado School of Mines as a freshman before he transferred to Fort Lewis College in Durango, where he graduated in 2014 with honors.
Math and numbers have always spoke to Grotts as much as the bike. In April, he was accepted into graduate school at the University of Montana. He will leave for Missoula, where he has won numerous bike races, next month. He will study math education.
“I will be thrown into doing recitations for calculus. It will be quite interesting to see if I know how to teach the stuff of what I think I’m good at,” he said. “Math is an interesting subject because there is no wishy-washiness. You’re just saying stuff that we’ve agreed to be true. That’s kind of nice when there’s not so much ambiguity. Life can be kind of complex and weird. It’s nice to say, ‘This is how things have been done and we’re going to keep doing it this way.’”
Grotts said he would like to return to Durango to teach, and he is especially drawn to the style of Animas High School, where teachers and students are not so directly tied to state curriculum. He would like to design his own lesson plans, just as he is designing his own new life path.
“I couldn’t have guessed some of the paths my life has taken or what our world would be like,” he said. “Things feel like they’re taking their natural course. I kind of always knew I wasn’t going to be a bike racer forever. To be at this juncture, it’s interesting.”
Grotts planned to race the Epic Rides series of 50-mile mountain bike races in 2020 as well as the national championships and Leadville 100. Nationals and Leadville have been canceled because of the coronavirus. The last hope for an Epic Rides series event is Oct. 9-11 at the OZ Trails Off-Round in Bentonville, Arkansas.
He wants to keep some form of race schedule in the future and plans to go to nationals in 2021.
“You see – I was going to say washed up, but none of the pros are washed up – but you see people who are committed to racing,” Grotts said. “Not racing maybe for positions they used to be, but I respect the effort no matter what. Now, this could be my turn to just show up, race as hard as I can, and I don’t care what the result.”
Still, those such as Blevins and Swenson know Grotts could be every bit as big of a force on a start line in 2021 as he ever was. If Grotts gets that itch on any given day, they know he will be there. It was all those times watching Grotts ride away up a steep climb that have helped them reach a place to succeed him as potential Olympians.
“I think he definitely helped me raise my game,” Swenson said. “He’s always been so good. The two of us racing together made each other better the last 10 years. I think Howard is always going to be good, even if he’s not in huge shape. He’s so naturally talented. He’s always going to be fast, even if he’s not racing at the level he was. He’s always going to be around riding bikes, working with Devo or whatever else. He’s always gonna be there.”
While it may not be the Stars and Stripes jersey or an Olympic medal Grotts will chase in the coming years, there is one feeling that drives him still, no matter if he is riding down the backside of Hogsback outside downtown Durango, setting out for a long hike or lacing his shoes for a run.
“It’s that pure expression of energy, whatever that means to you,” he said. “Just out there, putting a lot of energy into one thing and really focused on it. When everything clicks, when you have that perfect day, it’s a good feeling.”