Christopher Blevins never had to look far for Olympic heroes in Durango. Now, they look to him.
The 23-year-old cross-country mountain biker from Durango will race July 26 outside Tokyo at the Summer Olympic Games. It will be the sixth consecutive Olympics in which a men’s rider from Durango will compete.
It started with Travis Brown in 2000 in Sydney. Todd Wells would go to three consecutive Olympics in Greece, Beijing and London, and Howard Grotts represented the U.S. in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Now in 2021, with the Olympics postponed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the young Blevins will get his first chance after he beat out Utah’s Keegan Swenson for selection by USA Cycling.
“Growing up in Durango as a kid who loved being on a bike and seeing Todd, and then being a little behind Howard age-wise, it was always my dream to follow those footsteps,” Blevins said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald from Italy, where he is training ahead of the Olympic race. “It is a tradition I am happy to continue.
“I remember looking up to Ned Overend and Todd Wells at all these races and watching Travis Brown on a Carmichael Training Systems video tape. I was the classic kid looking up to the heroes of the sport.”
Blevins is the product of a town destined to produce stars sitting atop two wheels. The rich tradition began with the founding of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which will see its 50th anniversary event in 2022. It was the IHBC race between bike and train from Durango to Silverton that drew Blevins’ parents, Field and Priscilla, to Durango from Albuquerque.
“They quickly realized they wanted to move here and raise kids in Durango after racing an Iron Horse,” Blevins said. “They had a tandem mountain bike, which is now mine. They were riding that up until a few days before I was born. The bike, it has always been a huge part of growing up in Durango.”
The first mountain bike world championships came to Purgatory Resort only 25 miles north of Durango in 1990, where Overend would be crowned the champion. Many more world champions would come to call Durango home in the years to follow, from Juli Furtado and Ruthie Matthes on the women’s side to John Tomac and Greg Herbold among the men.
Then came the formation of the Fort Lewis College cycling program, which brought stars such as Wells to town. The Skyhawks have won 24 national championships in program history across all disciplines.
The development of young riders born and raised in Durango can be traced to the start of the Durango Devo program, co-founded by Chad Cheeney and Sarah Tescher, who continue to help get young cyclists on bikes while prioritizing fun over results to this day. Devo alumni have won countless national championships and even gone on to WorldTour road cycling fame, with Sepp Kuss riding in his second Tour de France.
“When I say I owe the entire community of Durango, I really mean it,” Blevins said. “It’s all my teachers growing up, all the people at the Durango BMX track, Chad Cheeney and Sarah Tescher and all the trails and the hard work of people like Mary Monroe Brown at (Durango Trails) building the playground I had as a kid. I am so proud to be from Durango and to continue to represent it at the Olympics.”
A rich Olympic history
Overend was nearly the first Durango mountain bike Olympian. But a flat tire in the last of six qualification races for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta saw him fall short.
“I was leading the point series, but I flatted in Georgia,” Overend said. “You gotta make your own luck sometimes in this sport. I did have another chance at the NORBA Nationals in Michigan, but I didn’t have a good race there. I ended up being the third guy, the alternate. That was that. I was 40 that year and still doing well enough, but I didn’t make it.”
Overend was still in top form among the Americans and had won three World Cup races in 1994, but he began to see the sport change in 1995 ahead of mountain biking’s big debut in the 1996 Games, which would be won by Bart Brentjens of the Netherlands by nearly three minutes in front of second-place Thomas Frischknecht of Switzerland.
David “Tinker” Juarez and Don Myrah would represent the U.S. in the race in Atlanta and finish 19th and 20th, respectively. They were 18 minutes behind the winning time.
Overend said he grew tired of international mountain biking because of EPO doping in the sport, and he would transition into triathlons in 1996.
“In 1994, I won three World Cups. In 1995, I could barely get in the top 10,” Overend said. “It flipped really quickly, so I got out. I didn’t quite make the Olympics, and I regret it. But at the time because of EPO, I wouldn’t have been going for a medal. It would have just been for the experience of going to the Olympics.”
Juarez would qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Australia along with Brown. This time, Juarez finished 30th, 10:57 behind the winning time of France’s Miguel Martinez. Brown finished 32nd.
“I had been pretty close to going in 1996, too, but I broke my collarbone at the last of the six qualifying races and didn’t get to go,” Brown said. “I made it through another injury in 2020 and squeaked through in qualifying. Going to the Olympics, a lot of young people watch on TV and wonder what it would be like to go there. For me, I first wanted to go as an endurance runner in Durango. Then it was as a Nordic skier and then as a cyclist. It finally came to fruition, and that was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Brown said he took the opportunity to participate in the opening and closing ceremonies, something Blevins won’t get the chance to do at this year’s Olympics with the mountain bike course a few hours outside of Tokyo and events all under increased restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of emergency ongoing in Japan. Brown said he hopes Blevins finds a way to soak up any of the Olympic atmosphere he can while there.
“You can have a whole career, see the world through pro cycling on the international level. But the Olympics race, that experience is an entirely different deal,” Brown said. “The scale of it is really what makes the Olympics the Olympics. Christopher is going to have the chance to make more Olympic teams after this because he’s so young. But I hope he enjoys this experience as much as he can without letting it overwhelm or drain him from having a good performance.”
Wells had the honor of racing in the next three Olympics. His 10th-place finish in London still stands as the best American men’s finish in an Olympic race.
Now retired, Wells has enjoyed watching Blevins grow into an Olympian while watching his own son, Cooper, look up to Blevins as his hero.
“Chris is such a great guy and has such a good perspective on everything,” Wells said. “He has always been so good to Coop, taking him on rides at the BMX track in town or hanging out with him at the finish of a race. You really couldn’t ask for a better guy representing our country and our town at the Games.
“For us now, it seems normal to have a Durango rider at the Olympics. But it’s very abnormal. It speaks to this town and how everyone supports the local cycling community, from Devo to the Iron Horse to Fort Lewis, this whole community just produces these great athletes.”
Grotts got his Olympic opportunity in 2016 in Brazil. Born and raised in Durango, he set a standard for the next generation of elite Durango cyclists with top performances all over the world and a dominant run in the biggest races in the U.S. But fatigued from the travel and chasing points toward Olympic qualification, he decided in 2019 to step back from full-time racing and watched as Blevins took up the mantle to become Durango’s next Olympian.
“He’s building on that legacy of Durango,” Grotts said. “We have such an incredible cycling community, and I certainly owe a lot of my success to this town and know Chris does, as well. It keeps building on itself. No rider really does it alone here in Durango. We all help each other raise the bar. Chris going to the Olympics, it’s another thing to add to Durango’s trophy case, so to speak.
“He has really matured a whole lot as a rider. He’s always been so talented, but now he has another level of consistency in all of his races. I am excited to see what he will be able to do in Tokyo. He’s always such a fun rider to watch with the way he handles a bike. He dials in all of those lines just perfectly with his BMX background.”
Blevins hopes to make the town and his predecessors proud when he lines up to race in Tokyo.
“To continue that legacy is really special,” Blevins said, before foreshadowing what is to come in the Olympics to follow. “You can see how incredible Durango is from that, and I think we will have the next few Olympics with guys like Riley Amos coming up. And watch out for Cooper Wells in 15 years, too.”
‘Breeding ground for a dream’
Blevins was only 2 when he got his first bike from his parents. He was anxious to keep up with his older sister of two years, Kaylee, who was quick to ditch her training wheels.
“There’s never been a time in his life when he didn’t want to be on bikes,” his mother, Priscilla, said.
Blevins took to BMX racing by age 5 and made a name for himself in a hurry. Large national championship trophies started coming home with him after all the big races from the ages of 5 to 12. He first thought of going to the Olympics when he was 10 and envisioned it would be for BMX.
“We lived in the same neighborhood in Rockridge, and I would see his parents walking and Chris would be riding his BMX bike alongside them when he was probably about 4,” Overend said. “I saw how much he was racing and winning, and he was a natural.”
Blevins credited Durango BMX track founders Danny and Sandy Myers for creating his foundation.
“They gave me my first BMX bike and started the track, an incredible move that they made that shaped my whole life,” he said. “Opening that BMX track, it points to what we can all do in a community and what the bike can do. Two people can start a BMX track and create the breeding ground for a dream.”
Crashes are an inherent aspect of cycling, especially in BMX. At age 10, he had a life-altering accident at an event on Father’s Day in Rockford, Illinois. He broke his skull, and it led to complete hearing loss in his left ear. Priscilla thought it might be the end of her son’s career on a bike.
“That next day, he wanted to go for a bike ride,” Priscilla said. “I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ but he went around the neighborhood. I thought for sure he wouldn’t be able to balance, but he was absolutely fine, just fine.”
To this day, Blevins makes sure to sit on the left of people so he can hear them better, and he tries to ride his bike on the left side of large groups.
The same year he lost his hearing, Blevins would win his first mountain bike national championship in Vermont. He would win again every year from the ages of 12 to 19, as he started traveling the world to race even while achieving at the top of his class in school. He graduated Durango High School in 2016.
“The reason I lined up in a BMX gate as a kid was because I loved it,” Blevins said. “Then I started to learn how to work hard at a young age and what that meant. Having national success, I found a standard of what I could do to be the absolute best. It instilled confidence in me but also an appreciation of racing at the top level. It lit a flame early in me.
“I owe a lot of it to my dad. Like so many parents with young athletes, it is their endeavor as much as it is the kid. He would have to place me in the start gate and then catch me before I tipped over after racing around the track. We’ve been on this wild ride together, traveling dozens of times a year on an airplane to Nevada or California or wherever the next big race was, staying in Holiday Inns and eating at Olive Gardens.”
Field Blevins said his son was motivated early by the big BMX trophies. But as he grew up and started racing mountain and road bikes across the world, he saw a deeper inspiration. And when he put his mind toward Olympic qualification for mountain biking shortly after the 2016 Summer Games, he witnessed his son’s maturation process.
“When you step up to the world level and try to qualify for the Olympic level, you have to let go of any motivation of doing something externally for others,” Field said. “You can’t do things because you want to please your family or a sponsor. He went through a bit of time where he went from a talented kid to a talented adult, mind-set wise, and he found his own reasons that reinforced his love of riding a bike.”
‘A good human’
Blevins has plenty happening in his life off the bike. He graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a Bachelor of Science in business this summer, as he earned his degree while still making time to race across the globe.
He has continued to produce music and spoken-word poetry, and he and friend Keenan DesPlangues are starting their own creative company together after producing several video projects.
Blevins has also used his voice and large social media following to try to help others and has, alongside sister Kaylee with the Specialized Outride program, found ways to get young and underprivileged children on bicycles. He has also been a big supporter and fundraiser for the Silver Stallion Bike Shop, a nonprofit organization that connects bikes with Navajo children and adults.
“I think as an older sister, the expectation is that you’re paving the way and role modeling for your younger siblings. And I hope was able to at least do that in part for Christopher,” Kaylee said. “But, I also was lucky in that my brother has been a tremendous role model for me for my entire life. He approaches every aspect of his life with fire, passion and vibrancy. Whether it’s his schoolwork, social justice advocacy or cycling, Christopher shows up with his best self. And I believe that’s why he will be such an extraordinary representative for the U.S. in Tokyo – his desire not only to be a good bike racer, but firstly a good human is infectious.
“That’s the kind of energy you want from Olympians: to strive for excellence but also simultaneously encourage those watching to do the same.”
Blevins said he has always taken the lead from his sister on that front.
“Growing up, she always supported me, and I get all my technical skills on a bike from her while I have also tried to follow her lead in life,” he said. “I look up to her more than anyone else for all the work she has done with the Outride nonprofit as well as with a breast cancer research center while she’s on her way to medical school. She’s the real hero, and she will always be my favorite riding partner.”
Blevins also has gotten into the world of coaching during his college years. He currently guides Durango’s Ruth Holcomb, who won the junior women’s 17-18 national championship Friday night. Blevins expects Holcomb to contend for her own Olympics spot in years to come. Junior men’s 17-18 champion Brayden Johnson also is coached by Blevins.
“Working with Chris has been amazing, and it is so special to have him in my hometown right up the street,” Holcomb said. “He has helped me grow so much the past two years to get me here, and him reaching out to me two years ago has meant so much to my career. He now coaches both of the junior national champions, so what he’s doing clearly works.”
‘A different strategy’
With only 30 riders in the field for the mountain bike Olympics, the race is much smaller than a normal World Cup event Blevins would ordinarily see. Starting from the second or third row, Blevins said he hopes to try to make a move to the front of the race.
“It will be a different strategy for this one than the World Cups,” he said. “In this one, a medal is what you’re going for. A top 10 or top five would be big, and I will do everything I can to get up there and hold it. I will make it the hardest hour and a half of my life.”
Blevins got a chance to pre-ride the course in 2019. He will arrive July 19 to Japan with a week to prepare for the event. Grotts said the course will fit Blevins well with plenty of technical downhills on big rocks with short, punchy climbs.
“He’s not a big kid, but he generates a lot of power for his slight build,” Overend said. “All of our mountain bike Olympians have had a different build. Howard was small and light and such a natural climber. Todd is tall and powerful and a good all-arounder. Travis was a good bike handler like Chris and a strong climber, as well. With Chris, his bike handling is just superb from his long history of BMX and starting so young. It will be fun to watch him on this course.”
While a top-10 finish would be a major success this year, Blevins said he hopes to target a medal at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. He is only in his first year as an elite men’s rider after moving up from the under-23 ranks, where he won two silver medals in three years at the world championships. The learning curve at the elite level is steep, but Blevins has already made large strides during this year’s races in Europe and is poised to show what he can do when the world tunes in July 26. He said he has never been in better shape than he is going into Tokyo.
“I’ve had this narrow but deep pursuit of these Olympics for more than four years. I have devoted all of my energy toward this one track,” Blevins said. “But there have been so many experiences, emotions and people who have made it all worth it. Regardless of how the race goes, this has been an incredible four years with so much to look back on.
“As we all try to relearn how to live our lives and figure out what it all means coming out of the pandemic, cycling has continued to be a light for me and a light for so many people – one of many lights. I am happy to have the opportunity to do what I love, and I am ready to go out and do what I’ve always tried to do, and that is to be the best I can.”