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Christopher Blevins grew up in Durango, Colorado, surrounded by mountain biking Olympians.
But, it was actually in New York City that he had his first real brush with the celebrity of the Olympic Games.
“I was 10, and they invited me to go be on the Today Show with all these BMX Olympians,” Blevins told VeloNews. “We went on during a commercial cutoff, there I was riding down in Rockefeller Plaza for this big Olympics thing. That was definitely my front row to the Games.”
Then, Blevins raced BMX, which debuted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even though his neighbors in Durango were cross-country MTB icons like Ned Overend and Travis Brown, if you’d asked the pint-sized Blevins then, he would have said he was going to the Olympics as a BMX racer, if anything.
Thirteen years later, and it’s singletrack that has taken Blevins to Tokyo.
Blevins’ early blushes with mountain bike royalty were both magical and mundane. Well before he was born, Durango mountain biking was stamped prominently on the global mountain biking map.
In the mid-80s, the city in southwestern Colorado hosted events like MTB nationals and the (now-defunct) Colorado State Off-Road Championships. In 1990, riders from all over the world descended on Durango for the first-ever UCI-sanctioned MTB world championships. When Blevins was three, the city hosted downhill and XC World Cups.
And it’s not just the dirt that’s good in Durango. For nearly 50 years, the city has hosted the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race; nearly every American to win an Olympic medal or to compete in the world championships has also raced the train to Silverton at the Iron Horse.
So, like movie stars in Los Angeles, mountain bikers have long made their homes in the hills around Durango. Blevins said that being a little ripper in the midst of so many pros definitely made him “starry-eyed,” but it was also completely normal.
“It was really true that you could see a path to being a pro cyclist in Durango,” he said. “And I think having all those guys there really made it feel reachable and relatable.”
“Todd [Wells] went to the Olympics in 2004 and I definitely knew him when I was a single-digit elementary school kid, and again, he was at the top of the sport and the face of the sport, but he was so relatable.”
Before Wells, who would also compete in 2008 and 2012 Games, Durango’s Travis Brown rode for the U.S. in Sydney 2000. In 2016, fellow Durango XC superstar Howard Grotts represented the U.S. in Rio.
It’s as if, in the past decade, the American men in the Olympic cross-country race might as well have been racing for Colorado.
Nevertheless, Blevins said that he didn’t really factor the Olympics into his own program until he was 18 years old.
“The Olympics didn’t really come into focus until my freshman year of college when I realized like, ‘Man I could actually do this,’” he said. “I guess I had had such an involved heavy-handed youth racing career with all the disciplines that suddenly it felt very imminent and big time even though I was still young.”
And like that, Blevins put himself on the singletrack path to Tokyo.
“In those last five years, Blevins said, “it’s been the sole focus of how I’ve structured everything.”
Bridging the gap
Although the Olympic cross-country mountain bike race will be contested without spectators among a field far smaller than any World Cup race, Blevins believes that it’s still the most important event.
“It’s the pinnacle of sport, and it’s the most representative event that means more than just sport,” he said. “It tells us more about the world and how we’re all more similar than different. It’s such a special event in the magnitude of it and how much goes into it from all these different corners of the world. It’s the purest expression of the best of sports.”
In the U.S., however, although the magnitude of the Olympics does rally the collective troops every two years, it doesn’t necessarily turn them into fans of each individual sport.
While riding bikes is a wildly popular — and rapidly growing — pasttime in the United States, the hobbyist aspect has not translated to interest in the professional sport.
“It’s funny, everyone knows mountain biking and cycling but they don’t know much about racing” Blevins said. “It’s a very popular activity, but I want to be a part of bridging that disconnect between the racing side of it and just riding.”
Blevins is part of a crop of young professional mountain bikers who grew up racing with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) leagues that have proliferated across the country. Thus, for he and some of his peers like Haley Batten and Kate Courtney, the gap between hobby and sport doesn’t seem as wide.
“It definitely feels like there’s a groundswell that mountain biking and cycling in general can come more to the fore of sport in America,” Blevins said. “That has a lot to do with the bottom-up approach like NICA and grassroots organizations and everyone buying a bike in COVID. And it absolutely can be pulled from the top, as well. If any of us go over there and get a medal…”
While Durango’s legacy of sending mountain biking legends to the Olympic games has yet to convert the country into singletrack aficionados, Blevins represents the hope of a new generation. In some ways, he has big shoes to fill, but in others, he’s already well outgrown them.
“From being in kids shoes and looking up at my idols to now being in position to inspire what the bike can really mean? That’s huge,” Blevins said.