Howard Grotts' bike and pinky finger might have been broken, but his spirit never was at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The 23-year-old from Durango kept his composure and positive spirit despite a rough cross-country mountain bike race last Sunday on the final day of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, even when he was forced to start from the back of the field, suffered a rear flat tire and a broken bike seat and, ultimately, another flat tire that ended his race early. He finished 38th in the field of 49 riders, well out of his top-10 goal.
“Obviously I'm a little bummed out about the race,” Grotts said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald after returning home Tuesday from Rio. “It's one of the races that's most important, and you want everything to come together for it.
“No matter what place I got, I wanted to go as hard as I could, partly because it's the Olympics and just to respect the whole idea of athletic excellence.”
Four weeks before the race in Rio, Grotts was riding the Colorado Trail in Durango as he has countless times in his life. He crashed and took the majority of the impact on his left hand. He found out he had broken the fifth metacarpal in his pinky finger.
“It was one of those instantaneous crashes. One moment you're riding, the next you're lying on the ground wondering what happened,” he said.
He fought off early pain it caused but still competed at Mount Saint Anne World Cup in Canada two weeks before the Olympics. He said the injury was a non-factor when it came to riding his bike.
“I got set up with a brace for riding. I got pretty used to riding and had no issues with it,” Grotts said. “It hasn't helped the healing process to keep racing, but it hasn't bothered me.”
During the short and slow lap to open the Olympic race before seven full-length laps, Grotts was pushed up against a barrier while riding in a large pack. That put him dead last before the race even officially began.
On the second full lap, a rear flat caused him to crash, essentially ending his chances to even finish in the top 20.
“It was in one of the rock gardens,” Grotts said of the flat tire. “It was slippery, and so it was kind of a combination of me being a little off line and hitting the rock wrong. I got a flat and the seat got bent upward. I had to ride the rest of the lap standing up and with a flat tire, too.”
Still, Grotts fixed the mechanical issues and set back out. He went from 45th to 26th before another flat tire on the sixth lap sidelined him for good. While standing in the pit area, he watched as Switzerland's Nino Schurter crossed the finish line for gold.
“You always want to finish a race, not be there watching the leader come through the finish line. You're just spectating at that point,” he said.
Grotts' spirits were immediately lifted by the thousands of fans waiting for a chance to get an autograph and picture after the race. The Durangoan took time to greet every fan.
“They didn't care I didn't have the race I wanted,” Grotts said. “That was pretty special. I went from being disappointed to seeing people just happy to be there. It kind of put things in perspective.”
Grotts then went to the closing ceremonies, which he called the most memorable event of the week he spent in Rio.
“To walk into that stadium and have a roar of people cheering for you, you realize you're part of something more than mountain biking or any one country. It was a special unifying event, and it was inspirational.
“I'd like to say sport is about much more than results.”
Grotts won't race in the final World Cup race of the season in Andorra. Instead, he's planning on resting up and allowing his finger to properly heal. Still, Grotts won't stay off the bike for long. He plans to do a bike tour of Colorado and will hit a few races along the way, including the Grand Traverse from Aspen to Crested Butte on Sept. 3-4.
“I'm ready to do some low-key races,” he said.