Durango’s top professional mountain bikers shine at races all across the country on a near-weekly basis during the season. It was no different Sunday in their home race that served as a final crowning moment of a special week for Howard Grotts.
Grotts, 25, finished his rare and difficult sweep of the men’s road race and men’s mountain bike race at the 47th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic with a victory Sunday in the famed 18-mile, three-lap race that includes three passes through Steamworks Brewing. Co.
It was the second consecutive Morehart Murphy Subaru MTB Race win for Grotts, the 2016 Olympian who is the three-time defending cross-country mountain bike national champion. Grotts won this year’s race in 1 hour, 13 minutes, 46.6 seconds, nearly a full minute ahead of Durango’s Payson McElveen.
“It’s awesome to show up in front of friends and family here and perform well,” Grotts said. “They see all your articles in the paper, but it’s nice to kind of put a face and have them see what we do actually as mountain bikers.”
The win paired with his win in the road race gave Grotts the omnium championship known as King of the Mountain. He also won the King of the Mountain in 2017 after he placed third in the road race and first in the mountain bike. Grotts had a two-year window to compete in the IHBC after his Olympic showing in 2016, but he will likely miss the Iron Horse events through 2020. He will chase UCI World Cup points in Europe events the same weekend, as he will try to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. There’s a chance his next IHBC showing will come in 2021.
“It’s sweet to be able to get the King of the Mountain title again,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be back next year to defend it, but it was a pleasure to get it while I can.
“You see the World Cup going on, but at the same time, we have our own mini-World Cup going on in Durango. It’s fun to throw down with your friends and share all the war stories afterward.”
Grotts made his winning moves on the climbs up Chapman Hill. Nobody in the country can climb with Grotts, not even some of the pro road racers who couldn’t keep with him in the climbs Saturday up Coal Bank and Molas passes.
“I just knew I had to give it everything on the climbs and pad that gap as much as possible and just kind of feed off the crowd,” Grotts said. “There were a bunch of people cheering on top of Chapman, so that was fun.”
The real race Sunday was for second place, as McElveen, who has sprinted to two consecutive marathon mountain bike national titles, got past Durango’s Benjamin Sonntag by one tenth of a second. McElveen finished in 1:14:44.5.
McElveen didn’t plan on racing the mountain bike event, but when Sunday’s gravel ride was canceled because of a fire north of Durango, he eagerly accepted the free entry into the mountain bike race.
“I woke up this morning and I spent all day observing the awesome festivities of the weekend and I just couldn’t sit out,” he said. “I had to participate in some way, so this was an excellent option.”
McElveen, the 2016 IHBC road race winner, didn’t participate in Saturday’s race after battling illness for two weeks since his marathon national title.
He has spent more time on gravel preparing for the upcoming Dirty Kanza event, and his legs weren’t willing to give him what he needed to contend against Grotts.
“I was taking it lap by lap. I had no snap out there whatsoever,” he said. “Just trying to hang on with this lead group. It got whittled down and, yeah, Ben and I took it right to the line there.
“This race is incredible. We have a few other races each year that have this amount of crowd, but to have this number of fans and spectators in your hometown is just reason 1,001 to live here in my book.”
Ryan Standish, a former FLC rider from Australia, rode strong to start the race but faded to fifth. It was a group of three with three-time Olympian Todd Wells joining McElveen and Sonntag in the chase for second. Wells got passed on Chapman on the third lap by McElveen and Sonntag, and those two went down to the wire, with McElveen even going down on a gravel portion near the end of the race.
“That was fun,” Sonntag said. “Payson got a gap on me, three to five seconds, down the Nature Trail. The last gravel turn, Payson went down. I was screaming, ‘Racers up,’ because I thought it was a lapped rider. Then we got to the sprint together. A few yeas ago, there would’ve been no confidence for me sprinting, but the last year and a half, I’ve had my own little small victories in the sprint. “I had the most speed coming around, but Payson got me.”
Wells finished fourth in 1:14:45.9, and Standish was fifth in 1:15:50.3. Durango’s Levi Kurlander was sixth in 1:16:58.5. Paired with his fourth-place finish in the road race, Kurlander was second in the King of the Mountain standings. Sonntag finished third in the omnium.
Wells retired from a storied mountain bike career after last season but still toed the line in his home race. His 4-year-old son, Cooper, also raced Sunday against riders three years older, making it a special weekend for the double-digit national champion and his family.
“It’s tough without the normal training, but once the race starts, you don’t think about that,” Wells said. “When racing, you’re very much in the moment. I don’t get that a lot of times outside of racing. To be in the moment for the race is really something special.
“Weekends like this is why I moved to Durango over 20 years ago because it is such a cycling community, and the Iron Horse kind of shows that community we have. It grows every year. I have friends I went to school with at Fort Lewis 20 something years ago come back and ride the Iron Horse. This is the only time we see each other. It’s really cool.”
The riders all marveled at what Grotts accomplished over the weekend. While they enjoy competing against him, they know he has bigger races to go contest.
“It’s obviously very impressive, but on the same end we all know Howie and his abilities,” Sonntag said.
“I feel honestly he deserves the wins and is the strongest one of us out there. He needs a few things to go wrong for him and we have to have a really good day to be challenging him on altitude courses. It’s fun to race with him, but honestly he needs to go race more World Cups with the best racers in the world because that’s where he belongs.”