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Collegiate MTB nationals in Durango, Colorado celebrate the past with an eye toward the future

From Oct 14-17, student-athletes will convene at Purgatory Resort, home of the 1990 world championships. Some hope the races will reignite an interest in hosting more elite events.

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When Christopher Blevins stormed to victory at the Snowshoe World Cup last month, it seemed like a fitting end to the mountain bike season. However, this week American cross-country mountain bike fans have one more event to look forward to.

On Thursday, USA Cycling’s Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships get underway on the slopes of Purgatory Resort, just north of Durango, Colorado. The venue has a storied history, playing host to the first-ever UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 1990.

Some hope that this weekend’s racing ignites a desire to usher in a new era of elite racing in Southwest Colorado.

From back in the day

In the 1980s, when riders like Ned Overend were racing up and down the steep slopes of Purgatory ski resort, Durango was home to a measly 12,000 people. However, the isolated town was also home to a burgeoning cycling scene, including riders like Overend who had moved there in the ‘80s.

Because the United States played a massive role in popularizing the sport of mountain biking, particularly in locations like Marin County, California, and Crested Butte in Colorado, the UCI was watching closely. In 1989, the organization awarded the first off-road World Championship event to the home country of the emerging discipline and proposed the event be held in Durango. The late Ed Zink, a local bike shop owner and event promoter, initially declined the offer, but soon enough he was the on-the-ground point person for the big show.

A year’s worth of scrambling to put on the event ledto now iconic scenes. Wearing a red, white, and blue jersey, Overend crossed the finish line, raising an arm in victory on home soil. Juli Furtado won the women’s race aboard a bike from Yeti Cycles; the next year the young company would move to Durango.

The first MTB world champs. Durango, Colorado, 1990. (Photo: Nathan Bilow/Allsport)

In the downhill, another local rider, Greg “H-Ball” Herbold was victorious, igniting years of lore about whether or not he cut a corner on the course while setting the fastest time of the day.

Durango played host to a mountain bike World Cup in 2001, but since then thing have gone quiet. National or world-scale elite level racing never came back, with a few exceptions, like the USA Pro Challenge in 2012. However, the mountain bike culture of the town has grown rapidly, with hundreds of miles of trails rideable from downtown providing an ideal training grounds for multi-time Olympians, national, and world champions like Todd Wells, Howard Grotts, and Blevins.

Local organizers have held fast though, and are hoping that the collegiate championships serve as a test case for hosting big bike races again and attracting talent like Haley Batten, Jolanda Neff, and Tom Pidcock to the Colorado slopes.

“It’s harkening back to 1990 and 2001,” Dave Hagen, the technical director for the event said ahead of the weekend. “This could be the beginning of big races coming back to Durango.”

To the present day

The start of the collegiate cross-country course—which is an old-school ski resort course rather than a modern XCO course—sits at 8,900-feet and tops out at nearly 10,000-feet above sea level, so the race will favor climbers who are used to racing at altitude. The course mirrors the 1990 World Championships course with a few sections that have been upgraded over the years. The climb features a mix of singletrack and fire road, with a couple brutally steep sections, and the downhill sections will have both man-made flow trails and natural, loamy trail weaving through meadows and forests.

The main cross-country event kicks off the weekend on Friday morning, with men and women in both Varsity and Club divisions seeking out the stars and stripes jersey. In addition to individual glory, each race during the weekend yields points toward the team omnium competition.

The reigning Varsity team champions are Colorado Mesa University, who won the last edition of collegiate nationals in 2019 (2020 was canceled because of the coronavirus).

“I would be lying if I said a full season of travel after nearly a two year hiatus was easy,” said Brian Flaherty, director of the CMU Cycling Team. “Very excited for this venue and I hope all of the athletes attending from across the country enjoy what southwestern Colorado has to offer.”

Flaherty says to look out for Daxton Mock, who has won multiple races during the regular collegiate season this year. Torbjørn Røed has also seen podium finishes on the men’s side.

Ruby Ryan, Katie Clouse, and Madigan Munro will lead the CMU team in the women’s XC events. Ryan hasn’t missed a trip to the podium during collegiate season, and Katie Clouse just came home with a pair of third-place finishes at the Charm City UCI cyclocross race. Munro has been racing on the World Cup XCO circuit for Trek Factory Racing and recently placed 8th at the Trek CX Cup C2 ‘cross race.

CMU will be battling with the hometown team, Fort Lewis College from Durango, who are looking to secure their 25th collegiate team title.

Michaela Thompson has been FLC’s strongest women’s cross country racer, podiuming at multiple events while also traveling to the early season UCI cyclocross races. Freshman Ruth Holcomb is used to racing at this elevation from growing up in Durango, and over the summer she took a total of three wins at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in Winter Park. Guy Leshem and Cobe Freeburn are FLC’s best picks for the men’s cross-country race.

Other contenders in the Varsity division include Marian University from Indiana and Lees-McRae College from North Carolina. Marian is currently leading the season-long national team omnium competition which includes road and track results as well as mountain bike. Lees-McRae recently won the Southeastern Collegiate Cycling Conference title for the 14th season in a row, and the team was fourth at nationals in 2019.

In the Club division, the University of Colorado Boulder won in 2019, followed by Colorado State University and Colorado School of Mines (notice a theme?).

“We have some very strong athletes heading into Nationals,” said Sam Blakeslee, CU Cycling MTB Team Captain. “Here in Boulder we have been riding a lot and are super excited to show how fast we are.”

CU senior Xander Sugarman will lead the school’s XC efforts while also competing in the downhill events in search of a strong result in the individual omnium competition. Another strong rider will be Reede Warner, who Blakeslee says is on the verge of producing consistent podium results.

In addition to the main XC race, there will be a short track cross country race and the team relay race. The team omnium contest often comes down to the final moments of the team relay, which makes for exciting racing action. In the relay, each team completes four laps of a shortened version of the XC course, and at least two laps must be completed by a woman. Strategy comes in to play when deciding which order to send riders.

The race weekend is a culmination of year’s worth of effort from local organizers and USA Cycling. Purgatory was slated to host the collegiate championships in 2019, but a massive wildfire in the area the year prior caused a delay in trail construction. The resort was literally the front line of the fire, with the parking lot converted into base camp for the firefighters. In 2020, the event was canceled because of the pandemic.

“We are excited that the third time will be the charm,” Justin Evans, USA Cycling’s Collegiate and Youth Programs manager said in a press release. “Durango will host the best collegiate mountain bike athletes and we are set for a fantastic few days of racing.”

While the racing could be cold and muddy after a snowstorm in the region on Tuesday, the races are set to go off rain or shine. With plans to build what could be the largest bike park in Colorado, which may include space for a modern XCO-standard racecourse, the climb above Purgatory is only the start for racing in Durango.