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FLC cycling races toward mountain bike season

Durango High School graduate Ruth Holcomb prepares to make the transition to collegiate racing with Fort Lewis College in this recent photo. Holcomb won a junior Pan American Games title this summer. (Courtesy Fort Lewis College)

The Fort Lewis College Cycling Team is gearing up for its mountain bike race season, which will culminate with USA Cycling’s Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships at Purgatory Resort in October.

After a 2020 season that was drastically altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic – athletes traveled to one race, and the National Championships were canceled –team director Dave Hagen is cautiously optimistic about a near-normal season.

“We’re looking forward to getting back at it,” Hagen said just weeks before student athletes start arriving back on campus.

The FLC Cycling Team has multiple individual and team national championship titles to its name, and this year the squad is positioned to earn another title on home soil. And Hagen says that the women’s team is looking particularly strong.

Leading the women’s cross-country team will be senior Savilia Blunk, who won two national championship titles last month. Earlier this year, Blunk also won the Pan American Games in the under-23 category.

Joining Blunk will be freshman Ruth Holcomb, who is coming to FLC after graduating from Durango High School. Holcomb also won national titles this summer and is the junior Pan American Games champion.

“I’m super-excited headed into collegiate season,” Holcomb said. “The team is so strong this year, and I can’t wait to race against some of these girls that I haven’t raced before.”

Both Holcomb and Blunk have raced at World Cup events in Europe this year and will travel to Italy to represent the United States at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in September.

The team also will feature Michaela Thompson, who placed third in the U23 National Championships race that Blunk won. Thompson will be joined by fellow Boulder Junior Cycling alum Natalie Quinn.

Downhill racer Kelsey Ent will join the Skyhawks as a freshman from Southern California. Hagen said Ent “adds to an already strong women’s gravity team.”

That strong roster includes returning riders McKenna Merten, Fiona Dougherty and Barb Edwards. Merten is an Irish national champion as well as a multiple U.S. national champion. Dougherty recently won the Trail Party race at Purgatory Resort in the pro women’s category.

Alumnae Elle Runyon will bring her expertise as a 2019 collegiate national champion to coach the women’s downhill squad. Alumni Drew Mitchell and Dylan Stucki will coach as well.

The men’s squad will feature downhill racers like Will Farmer, Luke Villars and Cole Fiene.

Fiene, who is from Southern California, has competed in races throughout the summer.

“Super-excited to have collegiate season back in full force,” he said. “I’ve been racing all summer and am feeling good. Looking to do some fine-tuning throughout the fall leading into nationals.”

Alex Green pedals in preparation for the upcoming collegiate cycling season. Green is an incoming freshman for Fort Lewis College. (Courtesy Fort Lewis College)

One of the strongest men’s cross-country racers will be Guy Leshem, a junior who also rides for the Durango-based Segment 28 team. Leshem recently won the Boggy Draw Beat Down race in Dolores and competed in the Telluride 100 mountain bike race.

Another returning rider will be Cobe Freeburn, who is a graduate of Durango High School. A highlight of Freeburn’s season – and career – was taking third place in the elite short track race at the Soldier Hollow Pro XCT in Utah this year.

Incoming freshman Alex Green is also a strong bet, Hagen said. Not only is Green a fast rider, but he also has a knack for putting on events. He organized a few local races last year and is putting on the AG Epic weekend of racing in late August.

The first race of the season will take place Aug. 28-29 in Crested Butte, hosted by the Western Colorado University Cycling Team. The Skyhawks will later travel to races in Granby, Powderhorn, Snowmass and Colorado Springs.

Then, collegiate cycling teams from around the country will converge in Durango for the National Championships at Purgatory Resort Oct. 14-17. Purgatory has a reputation in the mountain bike community since it hosted the first UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 1990, as well as World Cup races in 2001 and 2002.

The courses for this year’s event will mirror courses of years’ past. The cross-country course will bring racers nearly to the top of the ski runs before plunging back down, following a similar route to the 1990 world championship course. And the downhill course follows a similar route under Lift 1 that was raced in the early 2000s.

USA Cycling and local organizers have been attempting to host the collegiate championships at Purgatory for a number of years. However, the 416 Fire derailed preparations for the event in 2018, and the pandemic canceled the event in 2020.

The same weekend in October is also FLC’s homecoming, which Hagen hopes will draw alumni to town and to spectate the races at Purgatory.

The cycling team is also rolling ahead with its annual fundraiser, the Durango Fall Blaze, which features a new-and-improved schedule this year. What was previously a road cycling event will now include rides for road cyclists, gravel cyclists and mountain bikers on Sept. 25. Each of those disciplines will have the option of two different length routes, all starting and ending from the FLC campus.

“We were limiting ourselves quite a bit with just road,” Hagen said.

Previous iterations of the event attracted around 250 participants, whose entry fees support the team. However, Hagen hopes that more route options can attract even more riders, especially the mountain bike rides that will go through the Horse Gulch and Grandview Ridge trail systems. Since mountain biking is so popular in Durango, Hagen is betting on engagement from the plethora of local riders.

“I like to say there’s more mountain bikes than dogs in town,” Hagen said. “I have three bikes but only one dog.”