Durango’s Howard Grotts is a first-time Olympic athlete. Carmen Small is not.
USA Cycling named its roster for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday. Only one men’s mountain biking spot was open, and the 23-year-old Grotts was selected ahead of riders such as Washington’s Stephen Ettinger, Colorado Springs’ Russell Finsterwald, Keegan Swenson of Park City, Utah, and Durango’s three-time Olympian Todd Wells.
“The Olympics is a big deal because it only comes around every four years,” Grotts said in an interview with The Durango Herald on June 1. “If we had two spots, I think the team would be a little easier to name.
Four seats were open for the women’s road team, and Durango’s Small was not selected despite winning a time trial national championship in May. That win was same weekend as the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in Durango, where Boulder’s Mara Abbott won the women’s road race for a record sixth time as well as a second-consecutive omnium championship. Abbott was awarded one of the four roster spots along with two-time defending Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, automatic selection Megan Guarnier, and Evelyn Stevens.
The mountain bike competition will be held Aug. 20-21 at the Olympic Mountain Bike Centre. Grotts rode the course last October.
Grotts, son of Don Grotts and Debbie Williams, made himself an easy choice in what was widely considered a tough selection. The Americans were awarded only one men’s mountain biking position because of a poor international ranking the last two years.
USA Cycling Mountain Bike and Cyclocross Program Director Marc Gullickson said the decision came down to Ettinger and Grotts.
“It was a very difficult and close selection for the one spot we have,” Gullickson said in an email to the Herald. “After extensive review of both Howard and Stephen Ettinger’s international results over the past two years, the USAC Selection Committee decided that Howard has more potential as a future medal winner at an Olympic Games and/or World Championships.
“Both riders have worked very hard for this over the past few years, and it’s extremely difficult to make a selection such as this.”
Gullickson went on to say the committee deemed that neither rider was medal capable for this year’s Olympics.
After winning the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships men’s professional cross country race in 2015, Grotts has been a force in 2016 as the top-American on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup tour. Between making three starts in Europe, Grotts won the Whiskey 50 Off-Road in Arizona. After returning home in June, he went on to win the U.S. Cup event last weekend in Missoula, Montana, after winning the Colorado State Championship race at the GoPro Games in Vail. Every time he has faced the top competition in the U.S., Grotts has prevailed.
The longtime Durango DEVO rider and current Specialized Racing team member, is in France this weekend at the UCI Marathon World Championships.
USA Cycling’s decision to leave Small off the four-woman roster for Rio was more puzzling and drew outrage from the cycling community in Durango and beyond.
The 36-year-old smashed the competition at the USA Cycling Road National Championships time trial race. Armstrong finished third, Stevens was sixth and Guarnier, who earned an automatic selection after taking bronze at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, did not compete in the time trial. It was Small’s second time trial national championship and first since 2013, with two second-place finishes in 2014 and 2015.
In the road race national championship, Small took seventh, proving she is a top road racer and not just a time-trial specialist. Gaurnier won the women’s road race, but Stevens was 15th and Armstrong placed 16th.
Guarnier’s spot was guaranteed, and the committee favored the 42-year-old Armstrong’s past Olympic experience despite finishing behind Small in her first nationals since coming out of retirement.
Armstrong’s longtime coach, Jim Miller, is the vice president for USA Cycling and is described as the architect of the national team.
“We do this every Olympics, I think, where you leave someone home or off the TT team capable of challenging. That’s not new,” Miller told The Associated Press. “It just shows you how deep the talent pool is for the women’s team.”
Guarnier also won the Tour of California women’s race this year. Armstrong finished second overall and Stevens was third. Abbott finished 17th, and Small did not compete while training and competing with her team in Europe.
Small has never been selected to an Olympic team. She was twice named to the U.S. World Championship team, those nominations coming in 2010 and 2011.
She thought this would be her year, and she geared up for it all season. She claimed three climber’s jerseys in races in Europe in the spring and had a top-five result at a world tour event before her success at nationals.