Howard Grotts rolled past the finish line with a flat front tire to secure a mountain biking dynasty.
Fighting a deep field of riders, a wet and muddy course on Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia and two flat tires in the six-lap race, the 24-year-old from Durango placed first in the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships men’s professional cross country race Sunday.
Grotts finished in 1 hour, 44 minutes, 33 seconds, and 2 minutes, 15 seconds ahead of second-place Stephen Ettinger of Washington. Grotts’ fellow Durangoan Payson McElveen was third in 1:47:10, as he rallied from 13th to finish third just ahead of Durango’s Todd Wells, who finished in 1:47:28.
Grotts suffered the first flat tire on the second lap and lost position to Ettinger and Wells, but he got ahead of them again after the third lap and continued to build a big enough gap on each climb that the flat tire on his final lap was a non-issue.
“It’s obviously pretty sweet to keep this streak rolling,” Grotts said. “This was by far the hardest race out of those three.”
It was the third consecutive national title in the discipline for Grotts, and he has swept the short-track cross country and cross country titles each of the last two years, giving him five of a possible six national championships in his first three years of racing at the elite professional level.
“Once you know that you’re able to ride at that level and be able to keep momentum going, it’s nice,” Grotts said. “Everyone is stepping their game up here in the U.S. To keep those titles, it’s an honor. To have Durango take three of the top-five places, that’s also pretty special and speaks to our town.”
McElveen didn’t have the legs to compete for a podium spot the first two laps. A crowd full of people cheering him on and a more relaxed second lap helped him jump from 13th to sixth by the end of the third of six laps. “From there, so many marquee and strong riders were in front of me putting their nose to the grindstone,” McElveen said. “I felt better and better as the race went on. People were yelling at me that fifth wasn’t that far up and even Todd in third was less than a minute up. In a usual race that’s a lot, but with the conditions such as they were and on a challenging course, I knew time could be made up.”
McElveen chased Wells down on the final climb of the last lap. Once he could see the rider keeping him from a podium spot, he reeled the three-time Olympian Wells in on the climb.
“The crowd really fueled me, and the amount of support was so intense the whole way through the course I was literally getting goosebumps,” McElveen said. “I really wanted that podium and knew how much the fans wanted to see the comeback happen, and I didn’t want to let them down, either.
“I saw Todd on that main climb the last three minutes. I was about at my limit but knew it was my moment. Athletes talk about being in the zone, and that’s what takes place when there is a perfect confluence of adversity and challenge and opportunity. The opportunity was there, and it took everything I had, and it took another level of suffering to make happen.”
McElveen also marveled about the accomplishment of Grotts and his ability to finish more than two minutes ahead of the next closest competitor even with the flat tire problems.
“With Howard, it’s not surprising, but it doesn’t make it any less impressive,” McElveen said. “He had a flat or two and still ran away with it. He’s absolutely on another level. I continue to look up to him and feel lucky to have him as a friend and training partner. He’s something special.”
Keegan Swenson of Utah, a former Fort Lewis College rider, placed ninth in 1:49:50. Troy Wells of Durango was 10th in 1:50:07, giving Durango four of the top-10 positions.
The women’s cross country race was won by California’s Kate Courtney in 1:39:36. She was fifth two days earlier in the short-track cross country race but rode in first with a big lead until the final lap, when a flat tire ended her title hopes. Lea Davison of Vermont was second Sunday in 1:43:41, and Erin Huck of Boulder was third in 1:44:54.
Grotts, who is on the Specialized Factory Racing Team with under-23 champion and fellow Durango Chris Blevins as well as Courtney, said the team’s dynamic has helped each rider grow, and he looks forward to riding with Blevins in the elite pro men’s field for years to come.
“Everyone prepares as well as they can to race their best,” he said. “There’s no real competition, and we all want to do as best we can and support each other. Even when I’m racing Chris, it’s just a blast. Whether he wins or I win, we’re pushing each other and having a great time racing bikes. Coming out of that Durango DEVO program, that’s what it’s all about.”