A back-to-back victory for one Fort Lewis College rider could help the Skyhawks to a three-peat.
Cole Paton, 22, backed up his cross-country mountain collegiate national championship earned last year in Missoula, Montana, with a winning ride Friday at this year’s USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships at Big Bear Lakes, California. He crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 51 minutes, 58 seconds to finish 52 seconds in front of Colorado Mesa’s Torbjorn Roed. Tyler Clark of Brevard College was third in 1:54:07.
“This feels really good,” Paton said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I was actually a little worried about this race this year just because I had taken a step back from training and have focused a lot more on school this semester with 19 credits at the Fort trying to buckle down so I can graduate in December. To win it, it feels awesome.”
It was a dominant showing for the FLC men, which had Henry Nadell in the lead group most of the race. Nadell went on to finish fourth in 1:54:32, while Nash Dory of FLC placed fifth in 1:55:00. It was an unusually long course for a cross-country race that featured a massive climb followed by a descent, with each lap roughly eight miles.
“The most exciting part is the team and how good we all raced together. It makes it the most special race weekend of the year,” said Paton, who spent all summer racing UCI World Cup events as well as the world championships in September. “Our team is so strong, and we had some carnage. Cooper crashed and got a concussion and flatted twice. Henry crashed really hard on the first descent, and Nash crashed at the start. It was absolute chaos, and it was really cool to see we can still win as a team even when everything goes sideways.”
Also for the Skyhawks men, Keiran Eagen of Durango placed seventh in 1:56:10. Israel’s Guy Leshem placed 15th, while Cooper Wiens was 17th.
“My first collegiate nats XC done and dusted,” Eagen said in a post to Facebook. “Really happy to take home seventh and help FLC to good points standing for the omnium.”
The dominant showing helped FLC into first place in the team standings after the opening event, and the FLC women would go on to finish second to help keep the Skyhawks at the top of the standings after the first two races. FLC is in pursuit of a third consecutive mountain bike national championship and a 25th national title in program history across all cycling disciplines.
On the women’s side, Savilia Blunk placed third to lead the Skyhawks. The 20-year-old from California was 1:07 behind the winning time of Colorado Mesa’s Gwendalyn Gibson, who also won a second consecutive cross-country mountain bike collegiate national title. Gibson was followed by her teammate Katie Clouse, who was second, only 15 seconds behind Gibson.
Behind Blunk for FLC was a slew of women from Durango who compete for the Skyhawks. In fourth was Ellen Campbell, who finished in 1:32:25 for FLC. Katja Freeburn placed sixth in 1:35:20, and it was a 12th-place finish for Durango’s Camryn Sippy, as she crossed the line in 1:37:39.
Also for the FLC women, Madelynn Gerritsen placed 16th and Stella Sisneros was 20th.
“I was more nervous watching the girls than I was for my race,” Paton said. “Every race builds on another and counts toward the team overall title. I was biting my nails watching an exciting ladies race.”
Friday afternoon featured dual slalom seeding in which Blunk and Campbell competed for the FLC women. Saturday will feature short-track racing followed by dual slalom finals and downhill practice. Sunday will see the conclusion of the championships with downhill finals and the team relay.
Paton and Blunk are defending short-track national champions and both are expected to compete on the team relay squad Sunday.