Fort Lewis College already had a 70-point lead on Colorado Mesa University going into the downhill and team relay races Sunday. When McCauley Smith won her second consecutive national title and an impressive relay team brought home yet another gold, the Skyhawks celebrated a second consecutive USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike varsity national title.
FLC’s win Sunday in Missoula, Montana, gave the Skyhawks’ cycling program a 24th national title in program history. The long dominant mountain bike team had one of its deepest rosters ever, and it showed during the three days of racing.
“It’s a special moment when you just have 20 kids that are all top-level athletes in each of the disciplines,” FLC coach Chad Cheeney said. “It’s super fun to watch them bond over good race experiences.”
FLC got out to a big lead Friday after the men’s and women’s cross-country mountain bike races. Cole Paton, Cooper Wiens and Henry Nadell took first through third, respectively, in the men’s race. Hours later, Savilia Blunk added a second-place finish backed up by a sixth-place result from Durango’s own Ellen Campbell, and all five of the FLC women finished in the top 15.
The Skyhawks kept up the pressure Saturday on familiar ground, as FLC’s national title in 2017 also came in Missoula on the same course.
In the women’s short-track race, Blunk this time got the better of Colorado Mesa University rival Gwendalyn Gibson, who had beat her a day earlier. California’s Blunk built a big lead and continued to grow her gap each lap through the single-track section. Blunk finished in 25 minutes, 51.6 seconds. Gibson was second in 28:15.7.
“It was a really fun course that suits me well,” said Blunk, the under-23 women’s cross-country national champion who finished 13th at this year’s under-23 world championships. “There was a good mix of climbing and some technical stuff through the trees. I was pretty much out front the whole race.”
Campbell finished fifth in Saturday’s short-track for the FLC women, while Stella Sisneros was 10th and Durango’s Camryn Sippy placed 14th for the Skyhawks. Kelsay Lundberg added a 22nd-place result.
In the men’s short-track race, Paton made it a sweep with another victory. He backed up his cross-country win with a four-second victory in short-track ahead of Brevard College’s Tyler Orschel. The FLC junior from Washington finished in 26:42.4.
“Cole took a little break from serious training after he got back from the world championships and tried to have fun,” Cheeney said. “He was riding with Savilia a lot, and they’re both in the same game of racing World Cups and championships. They feed off each other a lot, and I think Cole has some of his best friends as teammates. They have a great bond. All the guys shaved their heads with arrows like ‘The Last Airbender’ movie and are just way funny about it. It’s the little things like that that take pressure off and make racing fun.”
Right behind Paton was Nash Dory of FLC, who was fourth. Nadell was fifth, and Wiens placed 12th. Thomas Gauthir crossed the line 21st for FLC.
Sunday was a day for downhill, and FLC’s Smith was the defending women’s national champion. With a target on her back, the rider from Boulder flew down the course faster than any competitor for a second consecutive title.
“There’s incredible pressure being the defending champ to go down and have flawless runs,” Cheeney said. “A lot of our girls said the level of racers has gone up since last year with a bunch more fast ladies in the field. I think McCauley fed off the good vibes the coaches were sending from the top and bottom of the hill, and she was fully confident about it. She wasn’t stressed at all and was so dialed.”
A night earlier, Smith led FLC with a sixth-place finish in dual slalom under the lights. Elena Runyan and Lacey Andersen took 10th and 11th in the slalom, respectively, and Morgan Shippen placed 14th.
In Sunday’s downhill, Andersen, of Durango, placed third, while Runyan was fifth.
FLC’s men were led in dual slalom by Drey Smith, who placed seventh. Jaren Lockwood was eighth, Benjamin Bennett was 10th, Shane Ellis was 15th and Asa McGill Howe was 16th to fill the top 20 with Skyhawks. In the downhill, FLC placed every men’s rider in the top 15, as the top-four riders took sixth through ninth.
The team relay was made up of Blunk, Campbell, Dory and Paton, who was the anchor. FLC had total confidence it would close out a national title in the event.
“We all felt good, and it was so exciting,” Blunk said. “We had the whole team there cheering with it being the last event. It was a super awesome vibe that I’ve never felt before. It was my first team relay, but everyone had a plan. Luckily, we had no mechanicals or anything, so we were able to get a gap on the last lap with Cole out there to bring it home.
“It was so awesome to know that the whole team was part of this. We couldn’t have done it without everyone. This whole weekend was a huge team effort, and I’m super stoked and proud to be part of it.”
Next year, FLC will host the collegiate mountain bike national championship races at Purgatory Resort.
“It’s a chance to play in front of our home crowd for the first time really,” Cheeney said. “We can show them how much fun we are and how much fun the collegiate scene is in general. We’re all looking forward to playing host to all these other schools and showing them the added spice we have at our races and the Durango things we do.”