There is a growing murmur of a budding star looking to stake his claim on the cross-country mountain bike scene, and he has the results to back it up.
Howard Grotts (Specialized Racing) leads the next generation of American mountain bikers looking to make their mark and take over for the veterans. Grotts, 22, announced himself to the world with an impressive bronze-medal performance at the under-23 cross-country mountain bike world championships in Hafjell, Norway in September. He has carried that momentum into posting impressive results throughout the early season, including the first two World Cups.
Grotts comes from the thin air of Durango, Colorado, where many U.S. mountain bikers, including teammate and America’s top-ranked cross-country racer Todd Wells, have made their base. He claimed sixth and fifth at the first two World Cups of the year, and is looking to step up on the podium once again for the world championships in Andorra.
VeloNews sat down with Grotts as he flew home from a successful trip abroad in Europe. Grotts opened up about his early-season performances, looking to improve at the world championships, Olympic dreams, and his future in the sport of mountain biking.
VeloNews: Walk us through the early season, what have you been doing the last couple of weeks?
Howard Grotts: We started pretty early this year with U.S. Cup, which started in March in California. And we had several races there in March and April. It was kind of a slow start for me. I didn’t really find my form until Sea Otter, which was only a C3 race, but it attracts a bunch of people and somehow I ended up in the sprint with Nino Schurter, who came over, and Dan McConnell. I didn’t expect that to happen.
VN: This is your last year as U23, how do you see the jump to elites?
HG: The top 10 U23 riders have the opportunity to race in the elite category. You just have to decide back in February, and I thought I still had some work to do in that field, and I don’t think any of the guys moved up this year to elite. A couple of the girls who are just on another level are doing the elite, but for the guys we have some good competition and as long we are all finishing in the top five or within a minute of each other there is no reason for us to [race as elites].
At the national races we always race all together. So, Steven Ettinger and Todd [Wells], the Canadians, Derek Zandstra, show up and we all race together. But, to race against Nino Schurter and Jaroslav [Kulhavy], at the World Cup level, I am sure is a giant step and probably the first year would just be trying to do the best I can, maybe focus on something like top 20 or something.
VN: The world championships seem to be your big goal for this season?
HG: I like to be consistent throughout my season and I mean of course you want to be your absolute fastest at the world championships, which is in Andorra this year. That’s at altitude, too. 6,000 feet or 6,500 feet, which is actually lower than the elevation I live, so hopefully that’s good.
Last year I got a bronze medal at worlds in Norway, so that was a great result. I was a bit surprised, but it was nice to see all of the training pays off. So, this year with it being a good course for me, I would absolutely love to get on that top step. Even though I wouldn’t really get to wear the jersey, since I graduate to elite next year… but still. It would be an accomplishment, so that’s definitely what I will aim for. I think that’s what everyone aims for when they go to the world championships.
VN: How do this year’s World Cups and world championships play into going to the Olympics next year in Rio?
HG: You just want to do well at all of them ’cause then you’re high up in the world cup overall and they all have great UCI points. That is super important coming into an Olympic year. Right now on the ladies side they are high enough that they have their two start spots, but on the men’s side currently we are 15th and we need to be top 13 to get two or more spots. So, it’s a, little bit of a battle to move up, and its the top-three ranked riders who contribute to the national ranking. So, that’s Steve Ettinger, and Todd Wells, and myself, who are all just trying to push it up there as high as possible.
VN: What is the general state of mountain biking right now? How does the racing in the U.S. and Europe compare?
HG: When you go to Europe there are so many spectators out on the course and it’s not just like also amateur racers, it’s people who just love it for the sport for itself. In the U.S., unfortunately, when you even have like a big race like Windham, it’s a World Cup, and you have the best riders, the spectators are severely lacking, which is a little unfortunate. But just the fact that it’s just such a big sport over in Europe is good to see and I think there is a future in mountain biking for me as long as that’s the case.
VN: Mountain biking has seen a lot of the young talents move to road racing lately. Do you plan on moving to the road at any point?
HG: I like the community of mountain biking and road racing seems robotic, for lack of a better word. [Road] is so much more structured, since there is a lot more money in it. It is more serious.
It doesn’t quite appeal to me. I like the fact in mountain biking it’s you versus the course, rather than you versus all of the tactics and whatever else goes on in the road racing scene.
Collegiate road racing was awesome because that’s collegiate. I got one national collegiate road race title and that was totally fine for me. I don’t see myself switching to road.