MTB nationals: Injury comebacks, repeat winners in West Virginia

Grotts and Courtney defend titles in cross-country. Huck comes back from injury to win STXC, and Blevins wins first title.

High in the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia, atop Snowshoe mountain resort, national championships were awarded at USA Cycling’s National Mountain Bike Championships Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday, the pro cross-country race saw the two top favorites, teammates, and defending champions win Stars and Stripes.

In the men’s race, Howard Grotts outlasted a duel with his Specialized teammate Christopher Blevins to win by 1:39.

“It’s a pretty difficult course, but it suits me pretty well. The climbs are pretty good for me, the technical sections are a little tough being a little guy but it was still fun and we had great weather,” Grotts said. “Going to the World Cups wearing the Stars and Stripes is extra motivation to show up and push harder. It’s incredible representing the U.S. I look forward to wearing it at the World Championships this year.”

Blevins had a flat tire on the third of six laps and ended the day third.

Apart from the Specialized duo, Luke Vrouwenvelder had an exceptional race to finish second. Riding for his own coaching business, LukeVCoaching, the 23-year-old’s silver medal capped off a recovery from injury after he was hit by a car two months ago.

Grotts Blevins
Teammates Howard Grotts (R) and Christopher Blevins (L) after a hard-fought battle in the XC. Photo: Weldon Weaver

Like her Specialized teammate Grotts, Kate Courtney came into the Snowshoe race carrying the weight of a defending champion, and she was up to the task. Courtney pulled away on the first lap and won by 2:27 over Erin Huck (Construction Zone). Ellen Noble (Trek Factory Racing) was third in her first start at elite mountain bike nationals.

“It’s always a tricky race at nationals, everyone brings their A-game, and the racing is really tough from the gun,” said Courtney. “We went out pretty hard and really battled through that singletrack. For me, today was all about riding within myself and setting my own pace. I’m really psyched I executed my plan, and I had a really, really great ride out there. The course got tacky enough and it was just a bit technical and slippery in the rooty sections. Overall, the course was great and we didn’t have any rain so it was a perfect race today.”

Erin Huck
Erin Huck came back from injury to win her third short track national title in a row. Photo: Weldon Weaver

Huck is another notable story to come out of nationals. At the second World Cup in Albstadt, Germany, in late May, she crashed during training and broke her hand. After two months of therapy and rest, she came storming back. In addition to her silver in the XC, she won the short-track on Sunday.

“It feels awesome. I just recently broke my hand and I came into this without really knowing what to expect with fitness, bike handling and just taking it minute by minute really. It felt really good,” said Huck. “I was definitely getting gapped on the turns, but then I got the flow. And just that last climb I absolutely buried myself. I was hoping to get second behind Kate, and I was able to put in an attack and get around Ellen. And I just kept going, seeing stars. It felt really really good to go hard.”

Courtney was second and Noble was again third.

Like Noble, Blevins — the under-23 national cyclocross champion — was racing his first elite mountain bike nationals. He got a bit of redemption Sunday by winning the short-track championships ahead of Grotts as rain began to fall at the end of the 20-minute race.

“It didn’t rain that long, but all the rain earlier in the week, and then dry, packed [conditions]. So it was super-slick once you got a little layer of moisture on top,” said Blevins. “I just really wanted this one. I had some bad luck yesterday, and sloppy riding in the rocks. Today, on the last lap, I was just motivated and had my eyes on it and was able to come away with [the win].”

Vrouwenvelder was outsprinted by Grotts and took third.

“Howard [Grotts] is always good going up and I just tried to stick with him, I let him set the pace. I wanted it to come down to a sprint up that last hill. I led in the last singletrack and I was able to hold it from there,” Blevins added.