Durango’s Howard Grotts and Todd Wells were in a race of their own through four of six laps. That’s when Wells, 39, broke and Grotts, 22, hit his stride.
After leading the first four laps of the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships men’s professional cross country race, Wells fell to fifth place, and Grotts claimed the lead from nine seconds down.
Grotts, a native of Durango and longtime Durango DEVO rider who also competed for Fort Lewis College, held off a strong field of 48 other riders, including Utah’s Keegan Swenson, to claim the biggest victory of his young and exciting career.
“It’s a national championship, and everyone takes their game to another level to earn the right and honor to win the stars-and-stripes jersey for the next year,” Grotts said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald.
He crossed the finish line at Mammoth Mountain in California in 1 hour, 42 minutes, 13.8 seconds after completing six laps and 24 miles of tough racing at an elevation over 8,000 feet. Swenson finished in 1:43.16 to take silver.
It was a special moment for Grotts and his parents, Don Grotts and Debbie Williams, after the family lost Howard’s older brother, Donald, to a drug overdose earlier this summer.
“All of these races in the wake of my brother’s death have been both hard and cathartic in a way,” Grotts said. “I’ve been pouring myself into bike racing, and it’s worked out. We’re happy as a family, and it means a lot.”
Grotts’ win didn’t come easy. He needed to make a wheel change on lap three, but that didn’t slow him down much. He fell 21 seconds behind Wells at the time but immediately closed the gap to nine seconds with two laps to go.
His strong climbing ability proved to be the difference. Each lap had more than 800 feet of climbing.
When Wells fell behind, Grotts claimed a 32-second edge ahead of Swenson and never let the chase gain ground. Alex Grant finished third in 1:43:51.7, and Wells faded to sixth in 1:46:34.6. Wells’ brother, Troy, took 15th in 1:53:19.6.
“Howard and I were together on a steep section of a climb. He punched it a bit, and I punched back to stay on his wheel, but it was pretty much over for me,” Wells said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “Howard came by me, and then everyone came by me. I exploded out there.
“I knew Howie would be the guy to beat. He’s been riding well and excels in climbing altitude courses. It’s awesome to see him get the win and keep the stars-and-stripes jersey with the team, especially with all the tragedy that’s happened for him this year. It’s nice to see him and his family have something to celebrate.”
Grotts decided to compete in the elite category despite having one year of eligibility left in the U23 level. That decision paid off, and his strong season hit another peak.
“Keegan Swenson is also living in Durango right now, and we’re both U23 but decided to race up in the elite level, and it definitely was the right decision with us finishing 1-2,” Grotts said.
Grotts finished 14th at the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships in June. Last year, he claimed bronze in the U23 cross country world championships in Hafjell, Norway. He also claimed a bronze at a World Cup race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, earlier this summer.
“This win is right up there with my bronze in Norway,” Grotts said.
At the 2014 national championships, Grotts was a silver medalist in the U23 cross country race. As a member of the Fort Lewis College cycling team, Grotts won a national championship in road racing in 2013 and a collegiate cross country mountain bike title in 2012.
The Specialized Racing athlete currently is ranked third in the U23 World Cup standings after a strong early season in Europe, and he will return to Europe for the UCI World Championships Sept. 1-6 in Vallnord, Andorra. Before that, Grotts has three more World Cup races in front of him with events in Canada and New York before the World Cup finals in Italy.
Wells, another FLC alum, was trying to defend his national championship in the event from a year ago and win his fourth national title in the event overall.
The three-time Olympian also led Friday’s short-track cross country race until the final two laps, but a rear flat tire sent him from first to 17th. The two results led to a disappointing weekend for the mountain biking superstar.
“It’s been a pretty bad weekend, but you win some and lose some,” Wells said. “I’ve just been a bit off this year. Even when things go well, I don’t feel like I have quite that power I did last year.
“Sometimes you have off years. I’ve eked out a couple of good races here and there, but, in general, I feel like I’m missing a little bit.”
Wells’ next big race is the Leadville 100 on Aug. 15. Wells is a two-time champion of the event.
In Friday’s dual slalom men’s junior 15-18 category two/three race, Durango’s Shane Ellis placed third in 1 minute, 5.89 seconds.
Durango riders in every age division had a strong showing in Mammoth Lakes, California, and Wells was proud to see the community represented so strongly.
“It’s incredible how many great rides Durango had this weekend, from elite class all the way down to the young kids,” Wells said. “It’s a testament to the heritage Durango has with mountain biking.”
All racing will conclude Sunday, beginning with the enduro male pro/open race at 9 a.m.