Since the first International Cycling Union Mountain Bike World Championships were held at Purgatory Resort in 1990, Durango has been a destination for cycling. That will be on display again this weekend.
It is high school mountain bikers who will be in the spotlight amidst ringing bells and hollering fans during the Colorado Cycling League state championship races at Durango Mesa Park, formerly known as Ewing Mesa.
“So many high school kids will be able to see and ride in the place that they have heard so much about,” said Animas High School junior Riley Amos. “I’m really loving the course, so I hope everyone else does, too, and it can stay here for years to come.”
In August 2017, the Colorado Cycling League, a division of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), announced it would grant Durango host rights for its 2018 state championship meet after the previous five state races were held in Eagle. Kate Rau, the league’s executive director, was eager to find a Western Slope town to host one of the season’s five races, and Durango’s love for cycling make it a perfect fit.
A total of 822 high school mountain bikers will make the trip to Durango this weekend out of the 1,383 athletes who participated in the regular season. The league offers boys and girls races in divisions for freshmen, sophomores, junior varsity and varsity riders. The 822 state qualifiers from 67 schools are an all-time high for the league.
Last year, 620 kids participated at the state championships, up from 561 in 2016. The league has continued to grow, as has NICA across the nation. What started as a league in Northern California has now become a national sensation that has produced some of the top young mountain bikers in the United States, including 2018 world champion Kate Courtney, a 22-year-old from San Francisco who got her cycling start through NICA.
“It had been 17 years since the last elite women’s world champion was an American,” said Durango cycling legend Ned Overend, the first-ever cross-country mountain bike world champion who helped make Durango a cycling destination with his 1990 world championship win at Purgatory. “The girls from the U.S. are so competitive right now, and the more young people you have racing, the better the races are and the level gets that much higher. NICA has been so important in that, and one of the main things I like about NICA is that they emphasize character. In NICA, there is no bench. No one sits the bench; everyone rides their bike and participates.”
Overend will volunteer this weekend along with another Durango cycling legend in Travis Brown.
“It’s a big treat for both the kids and the local Durango celebrities because they all get to see how the sport is spreading,” Rau said. “We feel supported by the Durango dignitaries, and it’s such a great place for an event like this.”
The Durango Mesa Park land is privately owned by Marc Katz, and this is the first event on the 1,800 acres of land south of downtown Durango. The Colorado League has certain requirements for its courses, and most of the 300-plus miles of existing trails around Durango are rated too difficult. Most of the seven miles worth of new trail was constructed last fall and has been touched up to be ready to ride for the first time this week. The 7.1-mile course features 647 feet of elevation gain and sits at an elevation of 6,950 feet.
“The league gives you a bit of a recipe for how they want the course to look with regards to how much climbing there is, how much single-track and double-track, and it’s broken down almost in percentages,” said Gaige Sippy, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic race director who was integral in bringing the state championships to Durango. “Some of the new sections of trail are really fun, and it’s a good combination of everything the league is looking for. You’ve got kids from the ability level of a Christopher Blevins out there to kids who just got a bike the week before, and you have to make sure you can accommodate all of them.”
The action will begin Saturday with freshman and junior varsity category races. Sophomore and varsity division riders will race Sunday. Racing is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. each day.
Durango High School won the Division 2 south conference title during the regular season, while Animas High School was third. The local talent will be tested by north conference powers Boulder and Fairview.
“The regular season races helped me a lot, but looking at the north girls’ times, they’ve got some pretty solid girls up there,” said Durango sophomore Ruth Holcomb, who won every girls varsity race in the south conference during the regular season. “It definitely won’t be an easy race. I’m ready to work hard for it.”
Amos won the boys varsity south conference regular season title. The defending junior men’s 15-16 cross-country and short-track mountain bike national champion will also face plenty of competition from the north conference riders, but he’s eager to test himself in front of home fans in a rare home event.
“The state championships to me is like a super laid back national champs,” he said. “I have been resting quite a bit this fall, but I’m ready to fight for the varsity state championship.
“While Durango provides so many racers, this will be my second mountain bike race ever in our own town. Every race in the NICA series, we have had to drive at least five hours to, and we have done this for the past three years, so sleeping in my own bed on race day is a completely foreign – but welcome – feeling.”
Amos and Durango’s Cobe Freeburn will be two local riders to watch Sunday in the boys varsity race. In Sunday’s sophomore races, Durango’s Aleah Austin will enter as the south conference champion in the girls field, while Kelsey Nicholson was fifth overall during the regular season. The sophomore boys were led by High Desert Composite’s Thorin Howell. That team is made up of riders from Cortez, Dolores and Mancos.
Durango-based riders will have a strong chance at helping their teams climb the points standings Saturday in the freshman and junior varsity races.
Durango High has five freshmen boys who have all been on the podium and three different boys – Ian Kutzlbe, Ivan Sippy and Colby Simmons – who all have won once this year already. Riley Jaber is also capable of winning for the Demons, and Jaden Kirk is a podium contender.
“It’s going to be so fun to watch our kids racing Boulder kids for the first time this year,” Gaige Sippy said. “I’m told Boulder has 100 kids on the team, and that’s big. We like our ‘freshmen five,’ and Ruth Holcomb and Riley Amos and Aleah Austin all can go win titles.”
Durango’s Lauren Aggeler has won a freshman girls race this year, and she finished a narrow second place in the overall standings behind Crested Butte’s Sarah Bivens during the south conference regular season. Hannah Garvey is another top Demon rider among the freshman girls.
Animas’ Abbey Shepard will eye a podium in the junior girls race, as she finished second to Chatfield’s Mia Aseltine in a tight south conference battle during the regular season. Ainsley Haggart of Animas also will be in the mix.
What will add to an already lively atmosphere is the camaraderie between the Animas and Durango teams, which train together through the Durango Devo program. For years, the teams have traveled together, and they will form one massive cheering contingent this weekend.
“We’re basically one big team, and all we do is put on different jerseys on race day,” Holcomb said. “It’s super fun to be with everyone, and everyone celebrates everyone’s victories no matter if they are on Durango or Animas.”