Fort Lewis College won a mountain biking national championship a year ago in Missoula, Montana. This year, the team will send an even deeper team back to the same venue in pursuit of a 24th national title in the cycling program’s illustrious history.
Not only will the Skyhawks boast talent from the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Cycling Conference championship team from this fall, they will send a pair of International Cycling Union (UCI) Mountain Bike World Championship under-23 selections in Savilia Blunk and Cole Paton. The team also boasts a defending national champion in McCauley Smith, who won last year’s downhill title, as well as a slew of podium placers from a year ago.
“I feel like we’re a little step up from last year,” FLC coach Chad Cheeney said. “We have a deeper women’s cross-country team, and our downhill women are tough, as well. I think all around, we’re a little stronger. So is the competition, though.”
Unlike last year, the Skyhawks were greeted by excellent weather in Missoula when they got their first look at the courses Wednesday. The team expects to race under the sun with temperatures in the 60s all weekend. The USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships will kick off Friday with FLC as the defending champion in the varsity Division I category. Last year, FLC scored 763 points as a team to edge Colorado Mesa University of Grand Junction, which was second with 681 points. Marian University of Indianapolis was third with 599, and Brevard College of North Carolina was fourth with 583 points.
This year, the same competition will try to knock the Skyhawks off the top step of the podium, but FLC edged Colorado Mesa during the RMCCC regular season and captured the conference title at CMU’s home race at Powderhorn Bike Park.
“CMU is probably the toughest competition,” Cheeney said. “We won the conference, but they kept creeping up on us.”
The Skyhawks had to choose 20 riders out of 89 athletes who traveled for conference mountain bike races this year. The national championship roster is stacked with experienced talent.
Durango’s own Ellen Campbell will compete in cross-country and short-track after she won the individual women’s omnium championship during the conference season, as she decided to compete in downhill and dual slalom races during the conference schedule. She will stick to the endurance events this weekend, as FLC has a loaded women’s gravity team for the downhill events. Last year, Campbell finished sixth in cross-country and eighth in short-track.
“Ellen worked really hard over the last year, and that hard work pays off,” said FLC Cycling director Dave Hagen. “She definitely is at another level this year.”
Blunk also gives the FLC women’s endurance team a boost. She is the defending women’s under-23 cross-country national champion, and she finished 13th at the world championships in September.
Henry Nadell and Paton were a force in last year’s men’s endurance events. Paton was second in short-track and third in cross-country, while Nadell was second in cross-country and seventh in short-track.
Hagen said Blunk and Paton’s experience at the world championships will have them even more prepared for collegiate nationals.
“They are such an asset,” Hagen said. “They are really used to the preparation it takes and the professionalism, and they are both very focused on the task at hand. And, with Henry Nadell, he got kind of a late start to this season with a hurt wrist, but he’s been getting faster and faster.”
FLC sophomore Cooper Wiens is a legitimate podium contender. He is the son of 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Susan DeMattei and old-school mountain bike legend Dave Wiens. Hagen said he has shown extraordinary speed during the fall season and has been a force in short-track.
“Cooper is a bit of a dark horse for us,” Cheeney said. “Nobody knows of him. He’s going to be in the mix for sure.”
Along with Smith set to defend her collegiate national title in the downhill, FLC has confidence that Lacey Andersen and Elle Runyan can also contend for national titles in the gravity events. Smith will have the target on her back, and that could free up the other Skyhawks,
“McCauley having that experience is huge,” Hagen said. “She’s dealt with the pressure and been there before. And, really, any one of our gravity girls could go win the thing. That’s probably our deepest crew.”
FLC also has top-10 expectations out of Durango’s own Camryn Sippy in the endurance events as well as seniors Thomas Gauthier and Kelsay Lundberg, and freshman Stella Sisneros could also surprise the field.
The Skyhawks have only one individual omnium rider in Anna Schehrer. Hagen also is looking forward to senior Morgan Shippen making the trip after working extremely hard to make the nationals roster.
Ben Bennett along with fellow senior Jaren Lockwood will lead the men’s gravity team and were the team’s top riders during the conference season. Durango’s Shane Ellis also has won this year for the Skyhawks and brings nationals experience along with Drey Smith, while sophomore Asa Howe-McGill could be a top-10 placer.
FLC would love to bring home a 24th national championship before a promising cyclo-cross season gets going. Next year, FLC will host the collegiate mountain bike national championships at Purgatory Resort, and they’d love to race on home soil as the defending national champ.
Racing this year will begin with the men’s cross-country race at 8:30 a.m. Friday followed by the women’s cross-country at 11:30 a.m.
“It sure feels like we have the right squad headed there,” Hagen said. “They always step it up a notch. I have a strong feeling about this one, but that’s why there’s competition. You never know what can happen, but I think we’re all feeling confident.”