There was only one American in the men’s mountain bike race at the Olympic Games Monday afternoon. That man was Durango’s own Christopher Blevins.
In his debut Olympic performance, the 23-year-old finished in 14th place after riding about 20 miles over steep climbs, across large rocks and down big drops.
Blevins finished 2 minutes and 59 seconds behind gold medal winner Tom Pidcock of Great Britain. Switzerland’s Mathias Flückiger took home silver, and Spain’s David Valero Serrano earned bronze.
The race started off fast and furious, with 38 of the world’s best mountain bikers sprinting away from the start line. Blevins started on the third row, close to the back of the pack. However, there are about 75 fewer riders to contend with compared with a World Cup race.
“From my vantage point, third row is the same regardless if there's 100 riders behind me or just 15 more,” Blevins said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “The UCI sanctions everything here, so they're playing the same start line music and everything. So even though you see everyone in their national team uniforms, it still feels like a World Cup, which is good, just knowing like we've done this before and know how to roll with it.”
In the first minutes of the race, another rider slipped, causing a bottleneck, and riders dismounted their bikes and ran. Blevins got caught up in the chaos but remained focused.
“I'm typically a really good starter,” he said. “Even though this was a bad start, it played in favor of my strategy, which was to come on strong at the end. So it was good that way.”
As the race went on, Blevins used his world-class fitness and technical riding skills to navigate the course near Izu, a city south of Tokyo. He rode steadily and eventually made his way into the top 15 riders, which was his goal from the start.
“It's all about just staying in the moment and trying to give all your attention to the line you're trying to hit or getting up that climb as best you can and not thinking about the pacing or the overall kind of arc of the race,” he said.
Blevins used straightaways on course as opportunities to pass other racers, including the start/finish straight. He also said that he used the technical sections to recover and regroup before making big pushes on the climbs.
“Even though you can't go faster than the other riders, and you're behind them, you can recover better than them, and then pass them on the next climb,” he said.
Blevins' performance was the second best of any American male mountain biker who has competed in the Olympics. The best result was set by Durango’s Todd Wells, when he rode to a 10-place finish in London.
Blevins says he is content with experiencing his first-ever Olympics and is motivated for the next summer games in Paris.
“Every Olympian is dreaming of an incredible ride for a medal, but with this being my first games, I just wanted to put a ride together I was proud of and use it for motivation to come back for Paris in three years, and that certainly happened,” he said. Crossing the line, it was really just taking in that moment and realizing what just happened. After every race you have that moment but especially here. I was just happy and content.”
Because of the time difference between Japan and the United States, friends, family and supporters of Blevins stayed up into the early hours of the morning to catch the race live – it started at midnight MDT. One such supporter was Christopher’s sister, Kaylee Blevins.
“I was very nervous,” she said. “Just wanted him to be able to put together the race that he wanted yesterday. In talking to him the day before, I just had a good feeling about it.”
Kaylee said Blevins enjoyed the course and was in his element during practice sessions.
“Christopher would be adding some style to something that was already extremely challenging for everyone else,” she said. “So, yeah, I think it was a pretty appropriate course for his skill set.”
Blevins honed his riding abilities and Olympic dream while growing up in Durango. He started off as a BMX racer and originally dreamed of competing in the Olympics in the BMX discipline. But he also found success as a young mountain bike racer with the Durango Devo program.
Chad Cheeney, the cofounder of Durango Devo, who has known Blevins since he was a child, also agreed that the course suited him.
“Such an epic man-made course,” Cheeney said. “It looked like something Blevins could handle with panache.”
While the television cameras mostly focused on the leaders of the race, fans could catch a few glimpses of Blevins in his Team USA kit.
“I saw him a few times on the big screen and wanted more,” Cheeney said. “He is so stylish on the bike. I bet he made some fans smile.”
“I stayed up late to watch the race, and was just so happy that it was Chris there representing us,” said Durango-based professional mountain biker Payson McElveen. “It was clear how much it meant to him. There is kind of a funny feeling of unity and national pride with the Olympics too. That might sound obvious, but it really did feel like Chris was over there for us.”
Kaylee Blevins credits Durango Devo with instilling a love of bikes that led to her brother being a successful athlete. The group’s tagline "Never forget the feeling“ has moulded many Durango mountain bikers, including Tour de France cyclist Sepp Kuss, who is a few years older than Blevins.
“I think Sepp, my brother and a lot of Devo alum before him have really talked about how the ‘Never forget that feeling’ mantra was really ingrained into all of us that grew up through the program,” Kaylee said. “I think that really speaks to Christopher's attitude about riding a bike. It's like never forget the pure joy of why you started this. The awareness that that mantra brought to Christopher's approach to the sport has allowed him to manual and be goofy getting ready for the Olympics days before it because he just loves being out on his bike.”
Blevins also uses his voice to support and be involved with multiple nonprofit organizations. Both Christopher and Kaylee are ambassadors for the Outride program, which seeks to improve the lives of youths through cycling. He also works with the Silver Stallion Bike Shop, which connects bikes with Navajos.
“Whether he's competing at the Olympics or has a really bad day, I think he's really capable of looking forward to what's coming up next but also being very appreciative of the moment he's in,” Kaylee said.
A combination of fast riding, engaging riding skills and an intelligent and thoughtful personality has earned him a large base of supporters in Durango and around the country.
“It's been truly incredible and one of the most special things I've experienced in my career,” Blevins said. “I always get love and support from Durango, but especially in this moment, I think that’s been the best part of being an Olympian is hearing all that from back home.”
Blevins’ Olympic ride adds to a legacy of Olympic participation among professional riders in Durango, which started when Travis Brown competed at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Wells competed in the next three games, and in 2016, Howard Grotts rode in Rio de Janeiro.
A couple of other Durangoans were at the Tokyo race. Tom Neb, owner of San Juan Cycles, was at the games serving as a mechanic for Team USA riders. Neb also wrenched for Team USA at the London and Rio Games, in addition to countless other international races.
Sofia Gomez-Villafañe, a Fort Lewis College alumnae, raced in the women’s mountain bike event on Tuesday, representing her birth-nation of Argentina. Gomez-Villafañe finished in 23rd place amid muddy and slick track conditions.
Blevins knows that there will be countless young riders watching him on TV and following along on social media.
“There's a lot of young kids from Durango who can wind up here,” he said. “Just believe in what the bike can do for you.”