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Commentary: Christopher Blevins is ready to take on MTB history

Blevins is the best hope in generations to bring the U.S. back to the pinnacle of international cross-country MTB racing.

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Pop quiz: Who was the last elite American man to win a cross-country MTB World Cup?

Who was the last elite American man to finish on the podium in cross-country at MTB worlds?

What U.S. MTB hero reportedly rides hundreds of miles in bike shorts with the padded chamois removed?

If you answered “Tinker Juarez” to all three questions, congrats, you’re the winner!

Here’s Tinker crushing it at Vail in 1994. Photo: Tim DeFrisco/Allsport

Yep, Tinker’s win at the World Cup in Silverstar, British Columbia way back in 1994 marks the last time a U.S. man won a XC World Cup, and Tinker’s second-place finish at the MTB worlds that year (1994) in Vail, Colorado was the last time an American man stood on the podium. Ned Overend is the last U.S. man to have won a World Cup round in Europe, which also happened in 1994 in Lenzerheide.

And, as you probably know, the legend John Tomac is the last elite American to have won the rainbow stripes in XC, way back in 1991.

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Back in my old role as MTB editor at VeloNews, these factoids formed the foundation for one of the storylines that I followed every year: The struggle of U.S. XC men, and their seemingly Quixotic attempts to return America to the pinnacle of sport created on our trails. This challenge, at the time, felt akin to surfing a 100-foot wave, or climbing Mt. Everest in Tevas.

During my time as MTB editor, U.S. men rarely, if ever, got within spitting distance of the front of a European World Cup or a world championships race in XC. Yep, XC was a European’s game, and the U.S. riders just weren’t good enough. And that tradition continued long after I left VeloNews in 2009.

I managed the MTB beat for VeloNews from 2004 until 2009, and even then, the exploits of Tinker, Tomac, and Ned felt like ancient history. I marveled at the grainy images of MTB racers clad in loud neon racing kits and ping pong ball-like foam helmets, pedaling their Koga rumble discs on the same bikes that I saw for sale at swap meets or pawn shops. Even in 2005, the era of Ned and Tinker and U.S. dominance felt like the Paleozoic era of the sport.

For your enjoyment, here’s a classic photo of ‘Deadly’ Nedly Overend winning the 1990 world championships. Credit: Nathan Bilow/Allsport

I bring these memories up today, because this 27-year era in cycling history — one, which at times, felt like it would continue forever — may be coming to an end. On Friday, Christopher Blevins blasted to the UCI world championship victory in short-track cross country, toppling some of the strongest riders in the field to claim the inaugural rainbow jersey in the discipline. The win was pure class by Blevins, who used his powerful legs, acrobatic handling skills, and tactical savvy to claim the win.

I recommend watching the replay on FloBikes — heck just watch the final lap. Blevins rode like a genius, firing his biggest bullet at precisely the correct moment to topple Henrique Avancini and Maximilian Brandl just before the finish.

Is Blevins the proverbial Neo of American XC racing — the apparent “chosen one” to lead us out of this era of darkness (sorry, not sorry, for the Matrix reference)?

Heck yeah, I sure think he is. You can call me a Blevins Believer.

OK, I’m very cognizant of the caveats to my enthusiasm. Blevins won the short-track XC and not the big show, the traditional XC. The sport’s best-ever racer, Nino Schurter, wasn’t on the start line. Mathieu van der Poel was home icing his sore back. Tom Pidcock was riding for stage wins at the Vuelta. And a handful of other top European riders chose to sit out the STXC to save their legs for Saturday’s main event.

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, and here’s why. Blevins is scoring huge results in just the early years of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful pro career. He’s only 23 years old, and he’s already dazzled us with his exploits across almost all disciplines of bike racing: MTB, road, and even cyclocross. And Blevins has been very open about his motivation to try and return the U.S. men to the top of the sport.

He has the natural gifts and the technical skills to thrive. And he appears to have the vision and the dedication to chip away at the World Cups, and to eke out his place in the international field, one starting grid position at a time. And then there’s the final component — Blevins races for a European team that is dedicated to funding his success in Europe.

The mens elite podium, 1st place Christopher BLEVINS of the USA, 2nd place Henrique AVANCINI of Brazil, 3rd place Maximilian BRANDL of Germany, during the Cross Country Short Track XCC at the 2021 MTB World Championships, Mountain Bike cycling event on August 26, 2021 in Val Di Sole, Italy. (Photo by Javier Martinez de la Puente/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

These three qualities are of the utmost importance in XC racing. In previous years we’ve seen U.S. MTB riders who have had had one or two of these important qualities, but not all three. Supreme MTB talents have been lured away by the road. Dedicated hard workers have come up against the sponsorship conundrum — U.S. sponsors will fund riders to succeed in North America but not overseas.

And others have simply thrown their hands up after battling for inches in the European World Cups. Learning the tricks of racing a World Cup can take years to master — molding a physical engine to withstand the furious opening laps, and the steely composure to elbow your way into the singletrack aren’t qualities that occur overnight.

Blevins seems to have the whole package here, and I cannot wait to see him work his way to the front of the World Cup pack. After all, Blevins wasn’t even born when the U.S. won its last men’s World Cup, and three full generations of U.S. riders separate him from that halcyon era.

I’m a Blevins Believer, and I cannot wait to pin his photo next to those spectacular images of grainy neon.