The Durango duel was on at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships. In the end, the duel was a draw, as Christopher Blevins and Howard Grotts each took home a Stars and Strips jersey.
Encouraged by Grotts, 20-year-old Blevins skipped the under-23 cross-country mountain bike race Saturday at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia and competed against the elite professional field. The defending U23 national champ proved he belonged through the opening laps in a strong battle with Grotts, but a flat tire on the third lap took him out of the race. Grotts, 25, went on to victory for his fourth consecutive cross-country national title dating back to when he was 22 and decided to forgo his final year of U23 racing to challenge the elites.
Grotts will now remain in the Stars and Stripes national championship jersey for cross-country races for another year.
“It feels great to hold on to the jersey,” Grotts said. “Chris flatted on the third lap, and that’s kind of when I got away. I focused on riding a clean, smooth race and was able to hold onto it and avoid any mechanicals. The climbs were short and steep and played into my strengths, so it suited me well.”
Blevins bounced back Sunday, though. For the second consecutive year, it was Blevins and Grotts vying for the short-track cross-country national championship. A year ago, Blevins looked strong before flat tires ruined his ride. After dealing with flats two years in a row in West Virginia, Blevins was determined to ride a clean race Sunday in an effort to get his first elite national title. He was able to get around Grotts on the final lap and had the legs to sprint for victory.
“To get that jersey feels really good,” Blevins said. “I had the flat last year in short-track and then yesterday in the XC, and that was a mix of rider error and the terrain. Today, I wanted to ride smoother and avoid that and I was able to. To get this first win in elites is a great feeling.”
Grotts won Saturday’s cross-country in 1 hour, 32 minutes, 11 seconds after he completed six laps around a 3.9-mile loop with 533 feet of climbing each lap. He finished well ahead of second-place Lukas Vrouwenvelder of North Carolina, who crossed in 1:33:50.
After getting his flat repaired by ace mechanic Brad Copeland of the Specialized Racing team, Blevins was able to rally for third place in 1:36:27, 54 seconds ahead of fourth place Stephen Hyde of Massachusetts.
Grotts was happy to have some competition from Blevins and applauded his decision to move up into the elite field.
“It’s good to have more competitive races, and you can see Chris’ star is rising,” Grotts said. “He will win one of these in the next few years, and it’s going to be good to have someone to battle with. It’s also good for U23 because then those races are more competitive and not just Chris on the front. It was the right move for Chris.”
Blevins’ winning time in the short-track was 29:21.86. The race featured six laps around a short 1.1-mile circuit that featured one small climb with a descent back to the finish line. It was ridden predominantly on double-track trail.
Rain began to fall the final two laps, and Grotts said that changed the race dynamic a bit.
“You kind of had to tip-toe through them with the rain,” he said. A couple corners were a little slick. Chris and I got away from Luke, and then it was a tactical battle. Chris had more power where he needed it to come around, then I kind of was able to hang on his wheel but not enough to come around him.”
Blevins rode a hardtail bike without a rear suspension in the short-track race. He had taken it to the two World Cup races in Europe the previous weekends and had not ridden it, and he said being able to ride it was key in the short-track Sunday.
Blevins also appreciated Grotts’ advice that led to him skipping U23 races to join the elite men.
“It was Howard who kind of pushed me in that direction to race in the elites, and I’m glad I did it,” Blevins said. “It shows the kind of guy Howard is and how he is out here trying to push me and push U.S. mountain biking to get better and better.”
While Blevins, who is also the U23 cyclocross national champion, earned his first elite mountain biking national title jersey Sunday, Grotts picked up his sixth with the cross-country win, as he also had won the previous two short-track titles. Grotts finished Sunday’s short-track in 29:23.80 for silver. Vrouwenvelder was third in 29:34.92 to give him two podium finishes on the weekend.
“It was good to see Luke out there riding strong,” Blevins said. “He was hit by a car like a month ago, so it was good to see him out there riding well. He’s been kind of underrated for a few years.”
Also in the short-track for Durango was a seventh-place finish for two-time marathon mountain bike national champion Payson McElveen in 30:17.88. Daniel Johnson finished 16th in 30:49.86, Jacob Sacket was 42nd. Fort Lewis College’s Cole Paton was 11th in 30:43.45, Jason Rowton was 19th in 31:00.30 and Ryan Standish was 22nd in 31:15.30. Also for FLC, Nash Dory placed 28th in 31:52.83.
In Saturday’s cross-country, McElveen finished ninth in 1:41:19. Standish was 14th in 1:43:36
Saturday’s women’s cross-country also saw some strong performances, as California’s Kate Courtney, a Specialized teammate of Blevins and Grotts, won the title in 1:12:47. Boulder’s Erin Huck finished second in 1:15:14. At age 22, Courtney also chose to race elite instead of U23.
“It was an awesome time with the team all week and great to see Chris and Kate win, too,” Grotts said. “Kate’s mom was a huge help for the entire team all week, and it’s just great to have this kind of team success.”
In the women’s pro short-track, Huck won in 20:36.10, nine seconds ahead of Courtney.
The women’s U23 cross-country race was won by Fort Lewis College’s Savilia Blunk, who won in 1:18:51. The young rider from California beat Utah’s Haley Batten, who finished in 1:21:03. Durango’s Ellen Campbell, also an FLC rider, was fifth in 1:24:39. Durangoan and FLC rider Katja Freeburn was 10th in 1:33:32.
Blunk finished 11th int he pro short-track in 33:09.77. Campbell was 16th and Freeburn was 23rd.
In all, riders from Durango won seven national titles at mountain bike nationals, with Quinn Simmons winning the junior men’s cross-country and short-track and Riley Amos sweeping those races for the age 15-16 boys racers. Maddie Jo Robbins also claimed the junior women’s cross-country title.
“We have strong riders. It’s a testament to Durango, the community and Devo,” Blevins said. “It’s pretty awesome to come here with a crew like this and see everyone do so well and support each other the way we do. It’s special to be part of.”