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Strength and fitness were not the problem — Blunk rode comfortably with the lead group for 24 miles, until the first aid station. But, the U23 national mountain bike champ stopped to pee — “I don’t know what people do in these long gravel races” — and then found herself in an hours-long game of cat and mouse as she tried to find a fast group.
The time trialing took its toll, and after three hours Blunk said, “I was just dead. That was the limit of my XC legs.”
On the other hand, Blunk’s boyfriend, Cole Paton, was riding the race dreams are made of. Also from a cross-country mountain biking background, Paton has been focusing on his “stamina and durability” this off-season, and his win at The Mid South proved he has both. At mile 94, deep into a strong headwind, Paton made his race-winning move and soloed to the finish.
“I felt good at the end and sent a flyer,” he said after the race. “It was a hail mary into the headwind, but I just put my head down and tried not to look back.”
After Blunk crossed the finish line, Paton found her, and the two handed-off their bikes to their Orange Seal Off-Road crew, changed clothes, and went to find food. Pictures of them after the race show Paton hungrily eyeing Blunk’s burrito before she had a chance to finish it.
Sure, Paton and Blunk have results — he’s a two-time collegiate XCO champion and Blunk is the reigning elite short track national champion — but it’s images like these, the young couple sitting side-by-side over a pile of food, in the midst of an inside joke, that is the backbone of their story
‘Is it OK to call you a power couple?’
I have to get the question out of the way as soon as we begin our interview. Not all professional athlete couples like it, and I don’t want to make any assumptions.
“That’s who we are really,” Paton says. “That’s how we’ve operated, just together. It helps both of us and it’s kind of our advantage in numerous ways. Especially just supporting each other. If I have a bad race, Savilia usually has a good one or vice versa. We’re always in it together, performance-wise every day.”
Paton, 25, and Blunk, 23, have known each other for nearly a decade, bumping into one another over the years as junior racers supported by USA Cycling. When it came time for Blunk, who is from Inverness, a tiny town in Marin County, California to choose a college, she remembered that Paton was a student at Fort Lewis College, a school in Durango that’s graduated more than a few pro cyclists. She and a friend — whose boyfriend was Paton’s roommate — went to visit, and well, you can guess the rest.
“So, you followed him to Fort Lewis,” she was asked.
“She did.” Paton does not miss a beat.
Through the computer camera, it’s clear that this couple is very comfortable with one another, in a way that comes from years of being together in all types of situations. The current one is that they’ve been living out of suitcases and bike bags for the past six months, having spent some of the off-season in Girona and then returning to the US to race The Mid South, pre-ride the US Cup course in Arkansas, and then go to California to spend some time with Blunk’s family before Sea Otter.
Their Durango apartment has been empty since October, and they’re paying oversize bag fees on every flight. There is a lot of schlepping. The kind of quotidian stuff that can make the best of couples grumpy.
Yet Paton and Blunk operate well as a unit. In fact, they also do something else that is also rare among cycling couples — when they can, they train together.
Both are coached by Dennis van Winden, who is also their teammate on Orange Seal Off-Road. Blunk says that having the same coach actually ensures that they do get to ride together sometimes.
“As Cole transitions to endurance and I focus on XC, there’s a lot of training differences because he’s doing more hours,” Blunk says. “So it’s nice to have the same coach because when we can he’ll line up a mountain bike ride for us.”
“My current favorite set-up is me on the hard tail mountain bike with slicks, and Cole on full suspension with mountain bike tires,” she adds.
Traveling buddies, training partners, and now teammates, Paton and Blunk joined the Orange Seal Off-Road squad after privateering last year. Although they have different goals for the season, with Paton targeting the Life Time Grand Prix and Blunk headed to Europe to race World Cups, riding for different teams was not an option.
“Sponsor-wise, we take everything together,” Paton says. “We come as a package, it’s how we’re branded. We’re dating, we’re traveling, we’re doing everything together. It’s really special.”
From privateers to team players
The offer to ride for Orange Seal Off-Road came at just the right time for Paton and Blunk. 2021 had been a year of challenges, as the couple tried race domestically and at World Cups in Europe without any formal support beyond their sponsors.
Paton says they were flying by the seat of their chamois.
“I was building our race bikes myself, messing them up,” he says. “We were trying to navigate social media, promote ourselves — all these things that we had no direction on and how to do it. That was super challenging and we struggled to maintain training. Savilia was still in school, we were going 100 miles an hour trying to survive.”
Despite the scrambling, the pair did manage to scrape together some results, notably Blunk’s three major championship titles — U23 MTB national champ’s, elite short track national champ’s, and U23 Panamerican champ’s. But, there was still a lot of unknown, and the ever-present pressure to create social media content sometimes dwarfed time they’d rather have spent riding. On a factory team, the latter is all they have to do.
“They’re taking care of us in every way,” Paton says. “Mechanic support, equipment, travel plans. It’s crazy what an opportunity we’ve been given by them to just be bike racers. The quality of living — there’s so much more enjoyment this season because we can enjoy the places we’re at, train, and have more time for each other and other things.”
While the duo will be together through mid-April, after racing Sea Otter and the US Pro Cup XC races in Arkansas they’ll part ways. Blunk will race World Cup XCO — her first year as an elite —while Paton is one of 30 men in the Life Time Grand Prix series.
Focusing on two distinct goals while riding under the same umbrella is another opportunity the Orange Seal deal offered the couple that they couldn’t pass up.
Paton says that when they told the team about how they wanted to approach the 2022 season — together when in the US but with equal support when they were apart — no one batted an eye.
“It was the perfect storm with the new opportunity in the new series, I wanted to give it a shot,” he says. “Orange Seal motivated me to try out longer events, but Savilia had some incredible results in World Cups and she wants to fully commit to that route. That was a big thing when trying to figure out a program for 2022 — we want to be together but we have completely separate goals.”
While Blunk could easily have landed on the start list for the Grand Prix series — and have a serious shot at winning it — she’s decided to pursue World Cup XCO racing after steadily chipping away at results in U23 — four years of racing that culminated with two podium finishes in 2021 (in addition to her two national champion titles that year).
While she’ll be a little fish in a big pond in the elites this year, Blunk already has proof that she’s right where she belongs — she finished sixth at the Copa Catalana XCO in Banyoles, Spain in February.
“It’s a big step up, but we raced two XC races in Spain with pretty stacked fields and it was a good intro into Euro elite racing,” she says. “It really excites me because I’m lining up with legends and really able to learn so much from every race. I made mistakes but learned so much. The World Cups will be a whole other deck of cards.”
Paton’s deck is stacked with racing across disciplines in the Life Time Grand Prix, which he says came at a perfect time as he was “not really finding my groove in XCO.” His win at The Mid South was a huge affirmation that his pivot in training — toward more stamina and durability — was working.
The victory was also a huge confidence booster.
“Coming out, I’m really excited and feeling a lot better about where my form is,” Paton says. “I’m trying to not doubt myself so much because that’s a weakness. I learn so much from these gravel races — group racing, drafting, all the tactics are so foreign. In an XCO race it’s full gas from start to finish and there’s hardly any tactics which is so different from these gravel events. I guess, every one of these I’m picking up all these little things.”
Both Paton and Blunk are rapidly churning through mistakes and little things to arrive at success much sooner than either expected. They are thriving with their team’s support, support of one another, and motivation. The only thing that could possibly derail their plans?
When Blunk leaves for Europe later this month, Paton’s diet will go downhill.
“He’ll be bach’ing it in the van,” Blunk says.
Paton looks forlorn when he considers it.
“She’s the master chef.”