Howard Grotts talks about balancing marathon and XC races, his plans to return to Olympics, and a flattering case of mistaken identity.
Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news roundup on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.
With UCI World Mountain Bike Championships underway in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, we are starting with an interview with Howard Grotts (Specialized), one of the top American cross-country racers. We caught up with him at the Grand Junction Off-Road in May, round two of the Epic Rides series.
VeloNews: How hard is it to mix marathon and Olympic XC racing?
Howard Grotts: I feel like here in the U.S. we kind of have to do everything. We have the short tracks, the cross-country, and these marathon races. It’s not ideal if you’re going to be 100-percent focused on the World Cup, but that’s not the only goal for me, obviously.
VN: What do you enjoy most?
HG: I’ve done better at the marathon races, but just because the level of cross-country racing is so high, that is the pinnacle, I want to give it a proper shot next year and do the whole World Cup.
VN: You were young when you raced the Rio Olympics.
HG: Yeah 23, first year as elite. That was a big step. Every year I’ve learned more and how I would approach that differently. For sure racing over in Europe and getting experience against the top guys, that’s the biggest thing.
VN: What have you learned since then?
HG: I have to focus on my weaknesses. I think all riders need to do that. Coming into Rio I knew I was great doing 10 minutes at altitude. But what does that actually mean if you’re racing two-minute climbs on a super-punchy tactical course? And then the descents, I probably in hindsight should have been on a full-suspension if that was going to be my weakness. I should have put more focus on that than going up the hills faster.
VN: Is the pressure surrounding a big event like the Olympics or world championships something you enjoy?
HG: I was probably a little overwhelmed by the Olympics. It was such a weird experience. Everything going on in the village, some really incredible athletes there. And world champs is always a little strange, starting a little farther back in the field, I don’t have the pressure to win in those races. I want to see where I can take the World Cups and try to do well at the international cross-countries.
VN: What’s your 10-year plan?
HG: Ten years is a long time, I could maybe do five years. For sure the focus right now is the next Olympic cycle. If I could find another person to live with over in Europe next summer and do the full European World Cup thing that would be a really good next step. I’m young, I don’t have anything else to do, it would be really fun. Really give that a shot while we’re trying to earn Olympic points, UCI points to try to qualify those two [Olympic start] spots.
That is where the top-level cross-county racing is. Over here in the U.S., we’ve seen with the Epic Rides it is diverging a bit. It is obviously really successful, sustainable, but you have to make a choice. The Olympics is still a focus whether that’s to the detriment of the sport or not. I want to give it a shot if I’m going to go for it, I want to be as committed and prepared as I can be.
VN: How much is the Olympics an internal goal versus external for career benefit?
HG: I’d say almost everything has been internal. I did have maybe some bad luck in Rio flatting a couple times but at the same time I was the one who took the lines that earned me those flat tires. It is bad luck but it isn’t. I would like to show up to that one race that is kind of the pinnacle of a lot of sports and do everything I can to have it go as smoothly as I can and get the best result.
VN: A bit of redemption?
HG: Yeah, it is always satisfying to know you’ve ridden the cleanest and fastest race you can.
VN: Are you naturally a really competitive person?
HG: Yeah I guess, but it is always an internal competition to prove it to myself that I’ve left it all out there. Of course that comes out as wanting to beat other people when you are in a race environment. Some people just want to win to prove that they’re better than anyone else — but for me it’s win to prove you did the best that you can.
VN: How do you decide between European World Cups and races like the Epic Rides?
HG: I had to look at the season and say what are the goals. In the U.S. it is significant to show up at these races and prize money helps too. It’s mountain bike racing. I won’t be doing this forever, but it’s also a fun time. Fun trails, good atmosphere at these races. Everyone’s a big family.
VN: How did you learn to keep racing in perspective? You’ve got a pretty laid-back personality.
HG: I don’t know. It’s just gradual I guess. Any race that I’ve treated too seriously it probably hasn’t gone that well for me. When I have treated it like play kind of, for lack of a better word, just enjoying the moment — that’s not to say you aren’t giving it everything — those are always the best moments for me, when it’s fun. You’re out there being an ambassador, maybe inspiring people.
VN: Can you remember any races specifically like that?
HG: Toward the end of the Cape Epic things were just clicking really well. It was just going out there and going hard just for the sheer sake of it. Sometimes it crossed my mind that, ‘Oh wow this could be huge if we get through this clean,’ but when everything was clicking it was just pure sport and nothing else. It’s kind of why we do it, I think everyone. We’re just out there for that moment, going hard for the heck of it and whatever else is going on you can forget about it for a while.
VN: What is it like developing into one of the top American racers in the shadow of mountain bike legends from Durango like Ned Overend or Todd Wells?
HG: Todd and Ned have accomplished so much and to really leave their mark like those guys have, they were consistent over so many years. The chunk of time I’ve been a professional is nothing compared to them. They were always great ambassadors for the sport and really professional. That’s probably the thing I look up to most.
I learned a lot just observing what Todd did, how he approached racing. Always being accessible and friendly with anyone who wanted to chat. Even still some people call me Todd. He’s left his mark with Specialized. I was bummed when he wasn’t on Specialized anymore.
VN: That’s probably pretty flattering!
HG: It’s just a little weird. I don’t look anything like Todd, I’m tiny compared to Todd!
Rochette builds privateer program for ‘cross
After finishing fifth at cyclocross worlds in 2017, Canadian Maghalie Rochette began to wonder: What if she focused 100 percent on cyclocross? “There is not a day since that I haven’t asked myself, ‘what if,'” she said in an announcement confirming she will leave the Clif Pro Team to focus on cyclocross racing with her own privateer program. Rochette’s CX Fever Racing program will be sponsored by CLIF, Specialized Bicycles, TenSpeed Hero, SRAM, Roval, Challenge Tires, Oakley, Giro Cycling, FeedBack Sports, and Horst Engineering. She will race in North America for the first half of the season through Pan American Championships — held in Canada for the first time this year — then embark on a three-month stint in Europe.
Registration fees go up Sunday for Oz Trails Off-Road
The Epic Rides series is headed to a new venue October 5-7 for the inaugural Oz Trails Off-Road. If you’ve been considering heading out to this final race in the series, now is a good time to register. Fees go up on Sunday. Like the other Epic Rides races, Oz Trails will offer three distances: 25, 35, or 50 miles.
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