Already the top men’s mountain biker in the country, backed up by four consecutive cross-country national championships and the 2016 Olympic Games selection, Durango’s Howard Grotts had been untouchable in the U.S. going into his 26th birthday in January. Keegan Swenson, an elite rider only a year Grotts’ junior, was left to chase and race for second along with the rest of the field that would routinely watch Grotts pedal away from them on the most grueling climbs a course had to offer.
But Grotts stepped away from full-time pro mountain biking in early 2019. Rather than chasing International Cycling Union (UCI) points at World Cup races around the world or seeking paychecks at domestic races, Grotts took a step back to focus on what made him happy and to invest in coaching in the Durango DEVO youth mountain bike program that helped build him into the nation’s best. Meanwhile, Swenson took the lead of the U.S. elite men in World Cup races, raking in wins in the U.S. and fighting to hold his own among the world’s best in Europe.
So when Grotts joined Swenson on the front row of Saturday’s USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships pro men’s cross-country race Saturday in Winter Park, few knew what to expect. And when the race came down to those two men on the last of five laps, all fans could do was wait in nervous anticipation to see which rider would come to the finish line first.
On Saturday, it was finally Swenson’s day, as he turned in a blistering final lap on the heels of an equally incredible fourth lap that he and Grotts used to get away from the rest of the contenders. After the two turned in a 22-minute fourth lap, Swenson repeated that feat with a final circuit time of 22:03. Grotts, who took a brief lead after the last fire-road climb and rock-garden descent, finished the final lap in 22:31, and he finished 29 seconds behind Swenson to take second place.
Swenson claimed the national championship jersey that Grotts had earned in 2015 when he was still only 22 years old and had held onto ever since. Still, Saturday’s second-place performance showed Grotts still has every bit of his elite form despite limited racing this season.
Utah’s Swenson had a final time of 1:50:26, while Grotts finished in 1:52:08. This year’s marathon mountain bike national champion Russell Finsterwald of Colorado Springs was third in 1:52:08. Alex Wild of California placed fourth in 1:52:10, and Durango’s Stephan Davoust, this year’s marathon runner-up, was fifth in 1:53:07.
“I went to the front and just set a sustained pace,” Swenson told USA Cycling. “There was kind of a big group there, and I wanted to break it up a little bit and whittle it down to just myself and someone else if possible, or hopefully just myself. I just didn’t want that big of a group going into the last lap.”
The race began with a strong group out front, but it did not include Durango’s 21-year-old star Christopher Blevins. His second elite men’s cross-country race chasing a Stars and Stripes jersey ended early, as a scary crash on the first lap saw him drop out of the race. The race finished while he was back in his room icing his neck.
The lead group would include Swenson, Finsterwald, Grotts, Luke Vrouwenvelder, Ryan Standish and Payson McElveen. Davoust joined that group during the second lap, and they stuck together through the first three laps before Grotts and Swenson blew up the field on the fourth lap, as Finsterwald fell 41 seconds behind the leaders and everyone else dropped a minute or more.
“Up at elevation, you don’t want to burn too many matches early on in a race,” Davoust said. “I was trying to be consistent. They would gap me off a bit at the top of the climb, and I’d reel it back in on the descent and the technical rolling stuff on the way to the start/finish line.
“I was stoked to be up there and surprised myself a bit to come through on the third lap with the lead group and have a good gap behind us. I knew I was going to have to keep suffering to pull something off, and I’m really happy with how it played out. It was awesome to have all the Durango DEVO kids out there losing their minds cheering for Howard and I up there.”
Vrouwenvelder of North Carolina finished sixth, 3:46 behind Swenson. McElveen of Durango placed seventh, 4:41 behind, and Standish, a former FLC rider, was eighth, 5:40 behind.
Durango’s Cal Skilsky finished 12th, 7:06 behind, and Durango’s Cody Cupp was 22nd, 13:26 behind Swenson. A total of 53 men started the race.
The pro women’s race was won by Chloe Woodruff of Arizona. She finished four laps in 1:47:01. Evelyn Dong of Utah was second in 1:48:17, and Lea Davison of Vermont was third in 1:48:58. California’s Haley Batten was fourth, 2:11 behind the winning time, and Hannah Finchamp of Utah was fifth, 3:50 back. There were 28 women in the pro race. Reigning world champion Kate Courtney of California did not compete, as she remained in Europe looking to continue a streak of World Cup wins going into this year’s world championships.
USA Cycling’s mountain bike nationals will conclude Sunday with short-track mountain bike racing . The pro women will begin at 1:55 p.m., followed by the men at 2:40 p.m.