Two Durango names appeared on the USA Cycling long team for the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. A potential third was left off, for now.
When USA Cycling chief executive Rob DeMartini and Jim Miller, the chief of sport performance for the nation’s governing body for cycling, announced the 38 men and women in consideration for Olympic selection Thursday via live online broadcast, mountain biker Christopher Blevins and road cyclist Sepp Kuss, both born-and-raised Durango stars of their sport, were on the list.
“The Olympics is the pinnacle for sports,” Kuss said. “It’s really motivating and means a lot to make the long team.”
Absent was young Durango road cycling star Quinn Simmons, last year’s junior world champion who skipped the under-23 ranks in the U.S. to compete at the WorldTour level with the Trek-Segafredo team.
“This was a political game, and I look forward to showing that legs will speak louder than words,” the outspoken 19-year-old Simmons said in a message to The Durango Herald. “The team isn’t final until May 21 of next year, and I plan to do everything in preparation to earn a spot and prove that I’m ready to represent the U.S.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of the majority of spring and summer races this year, as well as the postponement of the Olympics originally scheduled for this summer, Simmons did not have the opportunity to put together enough results in elite races to prove he was deserving of long team selection as of yet. Still, he believed his junior world championship paired with USA Cycling’s desire to build young athletes for future Olympics such as Paris 2024 would earn him initial selection. He was surprised Thursday.
A polarizing figure, the brash and unapologetic Simmons has found himself in confrontations with other riders via social media and has never been one to back down to already established athletes in the sport in his home town and abroad. There was belief Thursday that his omission from the long team was a mix of not having results at the elite level as well as matters off the bike.
“He’s young and really motivated and really strong,” Kuss said of Simmons. “I think the fact the Olympics were postponed another year will give him a better chance to get in contention. It will be another year to learn, do some racing and get better. At the end of the day, I think all of the U.S. riders, it’s a matter of who the best riders are. You don’t want to see politics or anything get in the way. I imagine when the dust settles, the best riders will go to the race.”
Blevins vs. SwensonThere was no surprise when it came to the two men on the long team who will compete for the one U.S. spot in men’s mountain biking. It is Blevins, the two-time defending short-track national champion, and 2019 cross-country national champion Keegan Swenson of Utah.
“I’ve known Keegan forever, since I was in sixth grade,” Blevins said. “We’ve been great friends for a long time, and that’s not going to change or be jeopardized by this process. We both understand that if we compete with each other and are fighting for that one spot, it is going to lift the whole sport up for men in the U.S. We will still train together, and we both have a good understanding of the competitive side and how it fits into the larger perspective.”
Blevins was on a training ride in California and pulled to the side of the road and sat on the curb to watch the long team announcement. He was delighted when honorary team captain Patrick Dempsey introduced the mountain bike long team that included his name.
The mountain bike national championships, which were scheduled for July in Winter Park, have been postponed, and there is a chance they will be canceled because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic and limits on large public gatherings. A 2020 national championship race for elite professionals could still held, but Blevins believes performance in international races will be more of a determining factor for Olympic selection than who wins the stars and stripes jersey.
“The World Cups are really what I think they will weigh almost exclusively in their decision,” he said. “Nationals is important, but it is very different than the World Cup and Olympic style. It’s not to minimize the importance of the national championships, but the World Cup season takes precedent, from what I understand.”
Blevins, who won an under-23 silver medal at the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships as well as a team relay silver medal at worlds in 2019, is hopeful to compete at World Cup and the postponed world championship races this fall to prove he deserves the spot to continue a legacy of Durango riders to compete in the men’s cross-country mountain bike race at the Olympics. In 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, it was Durango’s Howard Grotts who competed. In the previous three Olympics, it was Durango’s Todd Wells.
“It’s definitely an honor, and even though the Olympics feels so far off with the current situation, this makes it feel real again. I’m excited and have extra motivation going forward.”
The 22-year-old Blevins, who wasn’t happy with his 2019 season, said the postponement of the 2020 Olympics may have been good for him, and he hopes to be at his best in a year when USA Cycling makes its final call. He hopes Kuss will be there, too.
‘A really special course’Kuss is on the men’s road long team with Lawson Craddock, Ian Garrison, Alex Howes, Brandon McNulty, Neilson Powless and Tejay van Garderen. Two will be selected.
Tokyo’s road race will feature a climbing-heavy route, which perfectly suits Kuss. He won Stage 15 of the Spanish Vuelta in 2019 in a dominant climbing performance, as he has continued to show he is one of the best in the world when the road goes uphill at steep grades.
The 25-year-old Team Jumbo-Visma WorldTour rider knows he wouldn’t be a threat in the time trial in Tokyo, but he feels confident he could chase a medal in the men’s road race. He and Simmons have talked about both trying to bring home a medal from Tokyo.
“In the road race, I think I have a good shot,” Kuss said. “For this Olympics, it’s a really special course. It’s very attractive to me because it does have a different nuance to it as a climbing course. For someone like me, it makes it more motivating than maybe in some other years.”
An Olympics appearance would have added meaning to the Kuss family. Dolph Kuss, Sepp’s father, was a Nordic combined ski coach for Team USA at the 1972 Winter Games at Sapporo, Japan, as well as the 1976 Games at Innsbruck, Austria.
“It would mean a lot,” Kuss said. “From the time my dad was at the Olympics, things have changed a lot. It was still all about amateurism at that point. Now, the Olympics are such a professional, commercial type of event. But it would be really cool to have the next generation of our family in the Olympics.”
If the Olympics had been in 2020, Kuss likely would have declined an invite with the chance to compete in his first career Tour de France followed by his third Spanish Vuelta a few weeks later. He hopes the 2021 calendar will line up well and that he can make his Tour de France debut later this fall to not feel the pressure of the decision.
“In cycling, you have the Tour, the classics, world championships, things like that every year that feel as big as the Olympics,” Kuss said. “Next year, hopefully there is no scheduling conflicts. I would love to go to the Olympics.”
HHHAfter the U.S. won five medals, including two golds, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, USA Cycling had set the goal of winning seven medals in Tokyo. DeMartini believes those selected for the long team can make that a possibility.
“Obviously, the delay of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 was a challenge, but we will be sending an even stronger team next summer and we could not be more excited,” DeMartini said in a news release. “It is so inspiring to see these men and women who have worked their whole lives for this moment and to get one step closer to their Olympic dreams.”