Will Christopher Blevins pick a road cycling career, or will he continue to race his mountain bike?
It is one of the biggest questions in American cycling. It’s also a question the 20-year-old from Durango is tired of answering.
“I get asked that a lot, more and more,” he said. “I think of myself as more of a bike racer than a certain kind of bike racer. Even more than that, I think of myself as a person who happens to be a bike racer.”
Only two months after his 20th birthday, Blevins is at the forefront of American mountain biking and has posted results in continental road races at which his peers marvel. This year, he has won some of the biggest American mountain biking events against elite professional fields. Blevins also won a stage at the Tour of the Gila road race in New Mexico before going on to finish ninth overall and win the green jersey for the best sprinter. Blevins admitted he is much more accustomed to winning polka dot jerseys as a road race’s best climber, but the Gila showed the young phenom’s ever-growing prowess.
Blevins is the reigning under-23 cross-country mountain bike national champion and added the under-23 cyclocross national title in January, stunning a loaded field.
After each big result, the questions facing Blevins intensify. He is unfazed.
“I’m living year by year,” Blevins said. “I think the simple fact I’ve been doing it so long has helped me adjust and still balance it all this late now that I am in U23s. I think a lot of people were expecting me to have to decide as early as 17 to really focus on one discipline then. I think I have surprised people continuing on a mountain bike because there is so much pressure on the road bike with the money and the chance of having a successful career in Europe. But I love my mountain bike, and I think I can attribute Durango for that.”
Blevins can thank Durango for growing up with some of the biggest names in the sport, from three-time mountain bike Olympian Todd Wells to his 25-year-old Specialized Racing teammate Howard Grotts, who have both been happy to see Blevins continue on the mountain bike.
“He can take it wherever he wants,” Wells said. “He’s awesome in all disciplines with so much success on a BMX bike, cyclocross, road and mountain. It’s up to him what he wants to do, and he’s doing it all well. He’s in a great position.”
Blevins’ biking beginningsBlevins was only 2 when he got his first bike from his parents, Field and Priscilla Blevins. He was anxious to keep up with his older sister of two years, Kaylee, who was quick to ditch her training wheels.
Blevins took to BMX racing by age 5 and made a name for himself in Durango. He grew up riding mountain and road bikes with the Durango Devo program, but it was the BMX track where he first starred.
“There’s never been a time in his life when he didn’t want to be on bikes,” Priscilla said.
Crashes are an inherent aspect of cycling, especially in BMX. Blevins always came away with bumps, bruises and scratches, but at age 10, he had a life-altering accident at an event on Father’s Day in Rockford, Illinois. He broke his skull, and it led to complete hearing loss in his left ear.
“I frankly don’t remember it too much because I was 10,” Blevins said. “My parents were at first very hesitant to let me back into bike racing, but I loved it and there was no way I wanted to stop.”
When Blevins got home to Durango and saw an audiologist, the family got news of his permanent hearing loss. His mother thought it might be the end of her son’s cycling.
“That next day, he wanted to go for a bike ride,” Priscilla said. “I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ but he went around the neighborhood. I thought for sure he wouldn’t be able to balance, but he was absolutely fine, just fine.”
Over time, Blevins has learned to live with the hearing impairment. He tries to walk on the left side of people so he can hear them with his right ear, and he will try to do the same when riding in a peloton in road races. Sometimes, he admits, he won’t hear a teammate to his left when they try to pass him a water bottle, but he hasn’t let his loss of hearing slow him down.
The next time Blevins got on a mountain bike after his BMX crash and rode the Rim Trail around Fort Lewis College in Durango with Devo coach Chad Cheeney, he fell off his bike and broke his wrist. It was a trying time, but less than a year later, he was competing in his first mountain bike national championships in Vermont.
Blevins’ boomBy the time Blevins got to Durango High School, he was a rising cycling star. But his first love was basketball, and he played for two years under head coach Alan Batiste before the time requirement on his bikes became too much. While Blevins would make trips to Europe for junior world cup events, he made it a goal to spend as much time in classrooms as possible while largely avoiding online school until his senior year.
“I would say the most extraordinary part about Christopher is he always has been able to keep balance,” Priscilla said. “He’s beyond his years, so to speak, when it comes to handling everything. It was important for him to be at school so he could be with his friends, play basketball and do as many activities as he could.”
In May 2016, Blevins pulled off two incredible feats in Europe. He won the Courde de la Paix (Peace Race) five-stage road event in the Czech Republic, then backed it up with a second-place result at the Ussel French Cup mountain bike race. A week later, he won an International Cycling Union (UCI) juniors mountain bike race in Albstadt, Germany. Blevins flew back the next day to attend his high school graduation, where he spoke to his class in an unforgettable spoken-word poetry verse.
A day after graduation, Blevins toed the start line at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race from Durango to Silverton. He was involved in perhaps the most memorable finish in IHBC history, as he sprinted with Payson McElveen, Ned Overend, Benjamin Sonntag and Wells to the finish line before a horrific crash sent him to the pavement. Blevins picked up his bike and walked across the finish line with blood dripping down his eyebrow. He still has massive scars on his left shoulder from the crash he’d like to forget.
“It is something of a rarity,” said Blevins, who a year later saw his Hagens Berman Axeon teammate Chad Young die from severe head injuries suffered in a crash during the final stage of the 2017 Tour of the Gila. “I think it is important to look at it that way rather than view it as something that could happen, because it is kind of a freak accident.”
‘A person who happens to race bikes’Beyond cycling, Blevins is an all-around talent. He is passionate about photography and poetry. In April 2017, he produced his own album, “Mile Markers,” a collection of rap and spoken-word poetry.
“There’s so many things I want to do beyond bike racing, so much I want to be able to learn and accomplish beyond bikes,” he said.
Thursday, Blevins bought a guitar that he plans to take with him when he leaves Tuesday for a stretch of races in Europe. He is going to teach himself how to play via online instruction.
On top of his musical prowess, Blevins is also a strong student at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California. The university’s quarter system allows him to take classes September through March to give him more free time during cycling season to focus on racing. He is majoring in business with a minor in sociology.
Blevins said if he didn’t grow up in Durango, he likely would have attended Fort Lewis College to be part of its cycling program. But the move to California, much like that of his sister Kaylee, who attends Stanford University and will graduate this summer, has helped him grow.
“The guy is going to Cal Poly, which is an incredible school,” Grotts said. “To be doing well in school and racing bikes at the same time, it’s an incredible feat. He’s smart, he’s musical and kind of does it all, just like he does with bikes. He’s a well-rounded person, and I think that makes him a great cyclist as well by not being single-minded.”
At his young age, Blevins is embracing being a role model. Quinn Simmons, 18, of Durango said he looked to Blevins for advice when he has started to pursue his own road-racing career after years of success on a mountain bike.
Wells’ 4-year-old son, Cooper, calls Blevins his favorite cyclist. When in Durango, Blevins goes to the Durango BMX track to ride with his friend, “Coop.”
“He’s everything you would hope your kid would look up to,” Wells said. “I’ve been watching Chris since he was in BMX, since I grew up a BMXer myself. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen about this guy for a long time. He’s kicking butt.”
Tokyo is the goalWhile many expected Blevins to turn pro on a road bike by now, Blevins made it clear he is chasing a specific goal, and that’s a spot on the U.S. mountain bike team for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“The big goal on the horizon is Tokyo,” he said. “I really want to give it all I can to be there, hopefully with Howard (Grotts). I will take the steps I need to do that in the next two years.”
Grotts competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Because of UCI ranking points, the U.S. men were allotted only one spot for men’s mountain biking. For 2016, nations within the top 12 in the UCI rankings could send two riders. For the 2020 cycle, nations must be in the top seven, making the upcoming task extra difficult. But Blevins and Grotts are determined to rack up UCI points when the cycle begins in June. They will need other riders to help gain those points, and Utah’s Keegan Swenson and North Carolina’s Luke Vrouwenvelder are likely those men. Swenson also has the goal of making it to Tokyo.
“We’ve talked about us both going, and it seems like Chris is really shooting for 2020,” Grotts said. “Right at the top seven is the hardest to get into, but we’re going to look at the calendar and try to make it happen.”
Blevins, who is on the USA Cycling national team, is working with coach Jim Miller, along with Swenson and Specialized Racing teammate Kate Courtney, a close friend of his sister. Blevins, the 22-year-old Courtney and Grotts form a dynamic team with mechanic Brad Copeland, and they are all pushing each other to the best results possible. For them, the best result is for all three to make it to Tokyo.
“I think we all motivate each other, and I’m truly lucky to be a part of it,” Blevins said. “It’s going to be difficult to get the points we need, but I think with the riders we’ve got right now, we’ve got a good chance, and we will fight for it.”