Howard Grotts didn’t have enough in his legs to climb with friend Sepp Kuss all the way to Silverton on Saturday. Nobody had the legs to climb with Grotts on Sunday.
The 24-year-old from Durango claimed first-place in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic men’s professional mountain bike race Sunday in downtown Durango. The national champion and 2016 Olympian was dominant in the three climbs up Chapman Hill and finished the 18-mile course in 1 hour, 12 minutes, 26.4 seconds to finish more than a minute ahead of Benjamin Sonntag and Rotem Ishay.
Grotts, who was third in the 47-mile road race from Durango to Silverton on Saturday, won King of the Mountain honors as the top overall rider in the road race and mountain bike race combined.
“I’m really stoked,” Grotts said. “First year they’re having this King of the Mountain competition. To bring it home and be wearing the stars and stripes here on Memorial weekend, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Grotts and Payson McElveen entered Steamworks Brewing Co. together during the first lap of racing, which included sections of single-track, asphalt and a fast and furious climb and ride into and through Steamworks’ bar. It’s an event unlike any other with fans roaring, racers showing off with wheelies and even some, including Ishay, reaching out and enjoying a quick taste of beer as they go through the bar.
“The atmosphere in Steamworks is just incredible,” Grotts said. “People offering you beer handouts, don’t really have time to grab one, but it’s still really cool when you enter the pitch-black bar and everyone is screaming their heads off. It’s always the highlight of the lap.”
McElveen had tough luck with a mechanical issue involving his bike seat. He had to stop and fix it but still hung on to finish fourth.
“I wanted to use Howard to get a gap on the other guys,” McElveen said. “I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to hold his pace, but I was able to get a good gap. Then my legs started feeling funny. I thought maybe I just rode too hard. The group behind me, Todd, Ben and Rotem got in front of me. I was still feeling weird and couldn’t catch their wheel. Then, going down the descent, all a sudden the seat was sideways under me between my legs. I was like, ‘Aw, that’s what it is,’ so I had to stop, pull it back up, tighten it again and got passed by a couple more people but was able to come back and ride it to fourth.”
The chase group at the end of the first lap involved Ishay, Sonntag and two-time defending winner Todd Wells. Sonntag and Ishay rode together strong to finish second and third, respectively.
“Once Chapman opened up the second half with a steep chute, Payson and Howie attacked,” Sonntag said. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure how full the tank was after (the road race) yesterday, so I let them go because I felt the pace of Howard I couldn’t go anyways. Rotem and I got ourselves up from Todd and rode together until the last lap and I got him at Chapman, a race decisive point on the course.”
Sonntag finished second in the King of the Mountain standings after placing fourth in the road race. Ishay was third in the overall after taking fifth in the road race and third in the mountain bike. Both men were inspired by having their families in Durango. Sonntag is from Germany, and his family visited for the first time since 2011. Ishay is from Israel, and his mom made her first trip to Durango while his dad, Yaacov, made his third trip and competed in the men’s mountain bike race in the 55-and-older category in which he finished 13th.
“I work at Fort Lewis College at the exercise performance center, and I tell people all the time there is more to bike racing than exercise and physiology,” Ishay said. “For me, my parents coming to visit from Israel brought a lot of joy and fun and kicked my spirits up.
“I’ve known Sonntag for a few good years. We were the two top foreigners racing for FLC for years. We’ve always had a unique connection and raced internationally together on the same team. Racing together with him, it’s a mutual help for each other and we always want each other to do well.”
Durangoans took the first eight spots in the mountain bike race. Behind McElveen in fifth was Lucas Rowton, followed by Stephan Davoust and Nick Gould. Andre Bos was ninth to represent Durango, and 18-year-old and future FLC racer Keiran Eagen, a recent Animas High School graduate, placed 10th.
Wells did not finish with an official time. He had a flat tire going up Chapman Hill, continuing a tough stretch for the three-time Olympian and Durango hero.
“I was riding with Rotem and the German and got a flat tire,” Wells said. “Luckily, I had a spare at the top of Chapman, but by the time I rode/ran the way up there, it was over. That flat I could actually ride most of the single-track fine but on the steep climb, nope.”
For Grotts, it was a glorious return to the IHBC after not racing it since 2012 because of World Cup scheduling conflicts. In a post-Olympic year, he is happy to race more domestic events and will continue in two weeks at the GoPro Games in Vail before going to the marathon world championships in Germany.
“The community here gets behind any cycling event 100 percent,” he said. “It’s just always fun to race here in Durango.”