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Erin Huck, Keegan Swenson headline USA Cycling mountain bike nationals in Colorado

How to watch, who to watch, and what to expect from Winter Park, Colorado this weekend.

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USA Cycling’s mountain bike national championships are underway at Colorado’s Winter Park ski resort this week. The event returns to the high altitude venue after a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The week-long event features enduro, downhill, dual slalom, XC, and short-track races for all ages and categories. On Saturday, July 10 the elite men’s and women’s cross-country race will see current national champ Keegan Swenson up against some 40 elite riders, as well as a smaller race between the women as Erin Huck looks for the stars and stripes before she heads to Tokyo.

How to watch

This year, the pro men’s and women’s cross-country and downhill races will be broadcast live on FloSports. A subscription is needed to access the livestream here. USA Cycling members are eligible for 20 percent off of a subscription.

On Saturday, July 10, watch the men’s and women’s downhill seeding events at 1:30 P.M. MDT.

Then, the women’s XC race kicks off at 3:30 P.M., followed by the men’s event at 5:30.

On Sunday, July 1o, the women’s and men’s pro downhill races begin at 1:30 P.M.

The XC course

The elite men and women will compete on the “red” XC course, a five-mile loop with approximately 700 feet of climbing and descending.

The ascending begins right off the bat, with riders climbing nearly 500 feet in the first 1.7 miles of racing. At around mile two, the course flattens for half a mile before plummeting 400 feet over a mile of descending. From mile 3.5 to 4.5, the course climbs gently to a sharp and short eight percent climb at mile 4.5 before descending gradually back to the start/finish.

According to EF Education-Nippo rider Alex Howes (yes, you read that WorldTour team name correctly) who lives just over the Continental Divide from the venue, the course presents some unique challenges.

“The climb’s pretty hard,” he told VeloNews. “I’m not a climber in WorldTour terms, but I definitely have the engine for that climb. It also works in my favor because call-ups don’t matter too much. You can start from the back and still be in it if you have the legs.”

“The downhill is disappointingly not technical, though. The top end is really slow and not technical. I think the good guys can pull time in a weird way where you’re not braking and not pedaling and not thinking and getting through it at a speed you know is perfect.”

This will be Howes’ first mountain bike nationals; two weeks ago, he relinquished his 2019 national road title to Rally’s Joey Rosskopf.

Although USA Cycling will not release the final lap count until Friday, elite men will likely race seven laps of the loop and women will race five. Weather could alter this.

Who to watch

Start lists will not be finalized until Friday afternoon, but the registered riders for the event can be found online. There are more than a few top U.S. riders who will miss the race due to the World Cup schedule in Europe. Noticeably absent from the start line will be Kate Courtney (Scott-SRAM), Haley Batten (Trinity Racing), Chloe Woodruff, and Christopher Blevins (Trinity Racing). Lea Davison (Garneau-Twenty24) is also not registered for the event.

Howes will face stiff competition in the men’s race from riders with far more experience on singletrack than he. One such rider is defending national champion Keegan Swenson, who comes to Colorado in excellent form with a handful of domestic wins and World Cup finishes under his belt this season.

Four-time national champion Howard Grotts will be also be looking to reclaim the stars and stripes after finishing second to Swenson in 2019. Grotts comes to Winter Park fresh off a win at the Firecracker 50 MTB race in Breckenridge. Marathon mountain biker and gravel racer Payson McElveen also heads into nationals after a (third-place) podium finish in Breckenridge.

Other riders who have consistently raced strongly at nationals include current marathon national champ Russell Finsterwald and six-time U.S. collegiate national champion Luke Vrouwenvelder.

Durango riders will be well represented in the men’s race; in addition to Grotts and McElveen, Troy Wells, Cole Paton, and Cooper Wiens will be looking to make southwestern Colorado proud.

The women’s field is much smaller, with only 14 registered riders as of Wednesday.

All eyes will be on Erin Huck, who recently announced her placement on the Team USA squad for Tokyo. Huck missed out on 2019 nationals due to an injury but finished second to Kate Courtney in 2018. The Boulder-based rider is on flying form in 2021, with victories at the U.S. Cup and GoPro Mountain Games, as well as two impressive top-15 finishes at World Cups in Albstadt and Nove Mesto.

Challenging Huck is Grand Junction-based rider Alexis Skarda. Skarda rides for the htSQD, the team partnership between Rapha and Santa Cruz with support from SRAM/RockShox. She has podium finishes at domestic races like Missoula XC and U.S. Cup this year and holds the women’s unsupported White Rim FKT.

2019 U23 national champ Kelsey Urban will line up for her first elite XCO race this weekend; the 22-year old had top-ten finishes at both U.S. Cup XC races in Arkansas in April and finished third in both short track events.

Longtime racers Evelyn Dong and Rose Grant will also heat up the women’s race. Dong finished second at XC nationals in 2019, and Grant is a five-time marathon MTB champion.