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There was a time in the not-so distant past when Todd Wells spent each summer chasing points on mountain biking’s World Cup circuit. His itinerary included stops in Houffalize, Belgium, Offenburg, Germany, and Champery, Switzerland. Each race was geared toward Wells’s biggest goal: qualifying for the Olympics.
These days, Wells, 40, has a different modus operandi. He hasn’t chased the World Cup since 2012, and his last Olympic start came in London. Instead, he chases fitness on USA Cycling’s Pro Cross-country mountain bike tour and targets top finishes at grassroots races like Arizona’s Whiskey Off-road, as well as the national championships for short track, marathon, and cross-country. If his legs are good, he then hits a stage race, like Costa Rica’s La Ruta de los Conquistadores.
And rather than chase Olympic rings, Wells’s season revolves around the Leadville 100 mountain bike race.
“I feel like I’m more valuable as an athlete to win Leadville than even qualifying for [the Olympics],” Wells says. “More people want to talk to me about Leadville than any of the Olympics did. Probably by [a factor of] 10 to 1.”
His newfound focus sheds some light on the current state of American cross-country mountain bike racing. Two decades ago, the sport revolved around the NORBA and World Cup series, which featured traditional two-hour cross-country races. Mainstream sponsors such as Grundig, Volvo, Jeep, and Coors Light featured prominently at the races, and a handful of riders collected six-figure salaries. The world’s top racers focused on the NORBA and World Cup overall, and the Olympics, where mountain biking made its debut in 1996.
Even 10 years ago, the country’s best cross-country riders targeted Olympic selection, despite the sport’s problems with sponsorship and funding. Wells was one such rider, and qualified for the Olympics in 2004, ’08, and ’12.
“Cross-country drew thousands of people back in the heyday,” Wells says. “Now it’s more about mass participation and enthusiast racers.”
These days, only a handful of young, talented American cross-country racers still target the traditional World Cup and Olympics. Their efforts largely depend on the financial help of sponsors or private benefactors, since chasing a European World Cup campaign is expensive. Another cadre of riders focus on ultra endurance cross-country races, as well as local, grassroots events.
The riders from Wells’s cohort have either branched out into other racing formats or retired. Adam Craig and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski competed in enduro events for several years. Carl Decker does a mix between marathon, cross-country, and all-mountain events. Jeremiah Bishop, like Wells, still targets the longer events.
Wells said he opted for the ultra-endurance races over enduro out of self preservation.
“You gotta be willing to crash and take a lot of risks in [enduro] and that doesn’t interest me too much,” Wells says. “I’m your classic over-trainer. I’d rather ride my bike all day.”
Wells’s all-day training paid off in Leadville, where Wells faced off against Bishop, Ben Sonntag, and pro road racers Joe Dombrowski, Alex Howes, and Laurens Ten Dam. Bishop attacked from the gun, drawing out Wells and road racer Joe Dombrowski. The three worked together to build a sizable gap on the chasers, which included Dombrowski’s teammate Alex Howes.
Wells made his winning move over the final Powerline climb to finish ahead of Dombrowski, with Bishop in third.
Wells said he wants to continue with his Leadville-centric racing program for as long as his sponsors will back him. Between Leadville, the national championships races, the Breck Epic, the events on the Epic Rides series, and USA Cycling’s Pro XCT, he believes he has enough events to sustain a full racing schedule.
“I enjoy races where [participants] are guys who have real jobs and buy bikes and race also — at this point that’s where I can have the most impact,” Wells said. “We all ride the same course and suffer up there together.”