A changing of the guard occurred at the USA Cycling mountain bike national championships last weekend. Howard Grotts (Specialized Racing), 22, dethroned three-time champion and teammate Todd Wells to capture the men’s pro cross-country stars and stripes jersey.

“It’s a special win, not only because it’s my first Elite title,” Grotts said. “My brother died about a month ago of a drug overdose, but Donnie was the reason I got into mountain biking and he was very proud of everything I’ve accomplished.”

Finding strength within

A few months ago VeloNews caught up with Grotts as he was flying home after a successful opening two rounds on the world cup circuit. After finishing sixth and fifth in those two World Cups, everything seemed to be falling into place for him.

Then his world was shaken to the core.

After the death of his brother, Grotts immersed himself in his training, focusing on his next block of racing and reaching good form for nationals.

“Prior to Nationals, I raced the Missoula Pro XCT, then went over to Europe for the marathon world championships and round three of the World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.”

At Missoula, his first race back after his brother’s death, Grotts decimated the field by winning the race by nearly five minutes.

“I could have taken it easier, but it seemed important to push myself hard; it definitely was more than a bike race that day for me,” Grotts wrote on his blog.

He then flew to Europe and spent time training in the Dolomites preparing for the marathon world championships. The marathon world championships was “a brand new experience” for the rising star.

“I felt like I had been competitive and was happy with the result,” Grotts said after finishing 14th on the 53-mile course that featured roughly 13,000 feet of climbing.

After having some fun at marathon worlds, it was back to business on the World Cup circuit in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. The third round took place on a course with “very little climbing to speak of,” which did not play into Grotts’ strengths.

Racing like he had nothing to lose, he captured third in Lenzerheide. The bronze medal represented not only his current form heading into nationals, but also his grit and determination during a difficult time.

Grotts now sits in third place overall in the World Cup series.

Stars and stripes

A national championship race is unique. It’s an all-in event. The men’s pro cross-country field was stacked with Grotts choosing to race the pro event, even though he is still an under-23 rider.

“Right from the beginning a selection was made, with Todd [Wells], the Cannondale trio of Alex Grant, Stephen Ettinger, and Keegan Swenson, Russell Finsterwald [SRAM-Troy Lee Designs], and myself,” Grotts said.

Grotts and Wells eventually separated themselves from the rest of the pack.

Wells clearly had the superior descending ability of the two. Grotts could not keep pace on the descents, but “felt good climbing though and bridged up” on the climbs, “only to get gapped again on the descent.”

Four laps in, Wells was fading and Swenson was closing in. Grotts attacked and immediately opened up a gap.

Leading the national championships in the closing stages of the race, Grotts showed his confidence on the bike by staying calm and avoiding any unnecessary mistakes.

“Those last laps were nice and consistent and I was able to roll it on in safely,” the new national champion said.

A national championship brings smiles, but for Grotts it also brought a devastating reminder. His brother, a staunch supporter of his, could not witness his national championship in person.

“I think it almost means more to him that I am national champion,” Grotts said.

Buckle up

The finale of the mountain bike season is a whirlwind; three World Cups and the world championships in a four-week span means there’s no rest for the weary.

The next two rounds of the World Cup come to North America, and with a new gold medal Grotts’ confidence is on a high.

“It’s nice having those North American World Cups, even if they’re on the opposite end of the country,” said Grotts, a Durango, Colorado native. “It’s a pretty small time change, and for once it’s the European riders that have to cope with a big travel day.”

Grotts hopes the easy travel will be a big advantage, as he looks to improve his career-best third-place result in a World Cup at the stop in Windham, New York. “Windham has a good climb, so it could happen there, depending on my form and how everyone else is riding.”

A good result in Windham would put him closer to a podium finish in the World Cup overall, though like most riders, “the world championships is a bigger deal” for the young phenomenon.