Payson McElveen knew the biggest threat to his national championship stars and stripes jersey was the same man he had to beat to claim the jersey a year ago, and it happened to be one of his best friends.
The 25-year-old Durango resident and Fort Lewis College alum gave everything he had to his title defense Sunday at the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Durango native Howard Grotts, 25, was on a mission Sunday as he tried to claim the title after he finished runner-up to McElveen a year ago, and he charged full speed from the opening mile until the finish line.
In the repeat of his title, McElveen was put on defense, but a tire puncture set Grotts back on the second lap and that was all McElveen needed to finish ahead. McElveen, who leads the Orange Seal Off-Road Team, won the 50-mile race in 3 hours, 12 minutes, 55.29 seconds, and Grotts was right on his back wheel with a time of 3:12:55.54. The two were untouchable for the rest of the field. Nicholas Beechan of California was third in 3:18:43.91.
“It is an unbelievable privilege to get to represent the colors again for another year,” McElveen said. “It took everything I had.”
McElveen said last year’s win had him in disbelief and gave him a sense of euphoria, while this year he felt relief.
“I was so happy it was over,” he said. “I was relieved that I had pulled off a coup there at the end again. I was exhausted last year, but this year I was so hosed even just halfway through because of the pace we were going. I am really proud of how I rode today. It was incredibly physically demanding and took so much mental strength to keep taking blows from Howard and not back down. When it is that relentless, there’s a certain point when you can reach the breaking point mentally, but I held that off. I guess it’s validation.”
Grotts, of Specialized Racing, and McElveen had proof of how hard they worked all day, as they finished nearly four minutes faster than a year ago when they again sprinted to the finish line in 3:16:47 on the same course.
“It was pretty much the same finish as last year, just a different way to get there,” Grotts said. “I knew I basically had one card to play, and that was to go full strength and get as much separation as I could. It whittled the group down immediately to Alex Wild, Payson and I.”
The course featured a four-mile start loop followed by two laps on a grueling 23-mile course covered with creek crossings. Each lap featured 1,622 feet of elevation gain. The climbs were short, which didn’t play into Grotts’ unrivaled climbing ability.
Grotts credited McElveen for staying with his pace.
“Of course I am super happy for Payson, and I am happy with how I rode today, too,” Grotts said. “I definitely dug deep and gave it everything, and Payson obviously also was super strong. He probably had to put his head down and grit his teeth a bit, but he did that job well.”
McElveen, who is originally from Texas, called Grotts’ commitment impressive and marveled at how Grotts blasted through the rocky creek crossings and accelerated out of every turn.
When Grotts got his tire puncture, he had a 20- to 30-second gap on McElveen. When he was done with the repair, McElveen had a small gap of his own.
“Howard pried a gap at the same spot as last year, but the difference was I got to that climb a lot more empty and he had a bigger gap,” McElveen said. “From experience I knew that even though when Howard rides away from me or anybody else on a climb it usually means curtains, but from last year I knew I had to keep my head down and the race isn’t over until it’s over. Howard admitted he was riding pretty kamikaze through the rocks. You never wish anything to go wrong for someone, but I know crashes and punctures happen when you’re riding 100 percent as he was every moment. He unfortunately had that puncture, and that allowed me to get a little gap. It was déjà vu to last year from there in the sprint.”
It was an extra special day for McElveen, as his father, Mike, also took bronze in the men’s 66-69 age division. McElveen’s Orange Seal teammate Amy Beisel of Colorado Springs won the women’s race in 3:50:03.15, as she topped Tennessee’s Kaysee Armstrong, who finished in 3:51:17.05. California’s Larissa Connors was third in 3:54:02.50.
Grotts and McElveen traveled to Arkansas together in McElveen’s new sprinter van. They will travel home together, and both plan to race the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic at the end of the month in Durango.
“I love that weekend,” McElveen said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”