Christopher Blevins introduced himself to the under-23 category with a silver medal at the 2018 world championships. He exited in 2020 as the most decorated U23 cross-country mountain biker in U.S. history.
The 22-year-old from Durango turned in a superb performance Friday at the International Cycling Union Mountain Bike World Championships in Leogang, Austria. In his final race in the U23 age group, Blevins put up a valiant fight against British phenom Tom Pidcock, a former U23 cyclo-cross world champion and junior road cycling time trial world champion.
Blevins stormed to the front out of the gate on the start loop and held his position through a second circuit of the start loop. Four full laps would follow, and Pidcock was able to get around Blevins shortly into the first full lap.
Pidcock was the fastest rider on all but one of the full laps en route to victory in 1 hour, 8 minutes, 15 seconds. Blevins rode a consistent race the rest of the way for a second-place finish in 1:10:07, 1:52 behind Pidcock.
â€œWhen I lined up today, I had a lot more emotions,â€� Blevins said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. â€œI was grateful for this truly beautiful thing I get to do. Thatâ€™s the appreciation I have gained this year. I am super stoked on the finish. Obviously, I wanted the win this year, but Tom Pidcock is incredible at riding bikes. I think he could podium in the elite race. I am not ashamed to lose to him.â€�
Blevins, a 2016 graduate of Durango High School, finished 1:13 ahead of third-place Joel Roth of Switzerland. He was the lone American in the 72-rider field.
For a third consecutive day, riders at the world championships dealt with a muddy, deteriorating course. Blevins showed his bike-handling prowess built from his young days as a 12-time BMX age category national champion that carried over to him winning a U23 cyclo-cross national title in 2018.
â€œItâ€™s a very different kind of technical skills than what I can usually deploy,â€� Blevins said. â€œI never get to ride in super muddy courses with slick roots. Thatâ€™s an East Coast and European thing. Being from the West or Colorado where itâ€™s dry and loose, Iâ€™m a lot better at that. Over the past six years racing in Europe, I have had to adjust to races like this. I was super good today, didnâ€™t make any mistakes and kept things in control. Equipment is also a huge factor, and the Specialized team really had it dialed on that end.â€�
Blevinsâ€™ performance, which earned the U.S. its first medal of these world championships, drew the praise of his coach Jim Miller, who is also the USA Cycling Chief of Sport Performance.
â€œIâ€™m very proud of Christopherâ€™s ride,â€� Miller said in a USA Cycling news release. â€œChris prepared very well for this short World Cup series and world championships. Christopher rode a great race, but Tom Piddock was simply too good today.â€�
A 2021 Tokyo Olympic hopeful, Blevins has now won a silver medal at three consecutive world championships. In 2018, he made his U23 debut and claimed silver in Switzerland. He became only the third American man to stand on a U23 podium at worlds.
A year later, Blevins was part of the U.S. team relay squad that won silver in Canada. It was the first American medal in the event since 2007. But a blown tire in the U23 race led him to a 22nd-place finish after he had rode in the top two for most of the race until the fifth of six laps.
With the 2019 disappointment behind him, Blevins eyed the world championships in 2020 with a hope he would be selected for the Olympic team for the lone U.S. spot in the menâ€™s elite cross-country mountain bike race. But the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the World Cup season along with the world championships and canceled the national championships and Olympics.
When it was announced the mountain bike world championships would move from Germany to Austria and be held in October, suddenly Blevins had a chance to race again. In two World Cup races in the Czech Republic, he finished sixth and second, while Pidcock won both races.
Friday, he got his chance to go for one last U23 podium and made the most of it.
â€œIâ€™m reflecting on how different my head space is at the end of the season this year than last year. Thatâ€™s really special to me,â€� Blevins said. â€œI am feeling like this is another step in the process, and I am truly grateful to be able to do this. Weâ€™re lucky, and kudos to the organizers for pulling this off and doing it safely.â€�
Blevins celebrated with two pieces of chocolate cake. He planned to wake up at 3:30 a.m. in Austria to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals between his beloved Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat with the Lakers one win away from a title. Blevins always races with a quote on the back of his number plate from Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who died earlier this year in a helicopter crash.
â€œThese young guys are playing checkers. Iâ€™m out there playing chess,â€� the Bryant quote read on Blevinsâ€™ number plate Friday.
Next year, Blevins will move up to the elite menâ€™s field for World Cup races. He had already made that move in the national championships and has won two elite menâ€™s short-track national titles.
Blevins will return home the most decorated U23 menâ€™s mountain biker in U.S. history. Only two men previous had stood on a U23 podium. Durangoâ€™s Howard Grotts took a bronze in 2014 in Norway, and Walker Ferguson also took a bronze in 2001.
â€œItâ€™s pretty special,â€� Blevins said. â€œObviously, itâ€™s just U23, and in Durango we have titans of the sport like Ned Overend and Olympians like Todd Wells and Howard. Thatâ€™s what I will keep striving for. I am happy with how I progressed in U23. At the end of the day, itâ€™s just a step for development into the future.â€�
Blevins is on the USA Cycling Olympic long team for 2021 along with elite menâ€™s national champion Keegan Swenson of Utah. Swenson will race in the elite menâ€™s world championship Saturday in Austria. One of them will represent the U.S. in Tokyo. Durango has had the U.S. rider every Olympics dating back to 2000 when Travis Brown was selected. Wells made the first of his three Olympics appearances in 2004, and Grotts was the American Olympian in 2016.
â€œNaturally, the end of the year gives an opportunity to take a big breath and release and put pieces together for the future,â€� Blevins said. â€œI am definitely fired up for next season going to elites and trying to make it to Tokyo. I am excited to come back to Durango and college in California and get ready.â€�