As part of Team USA, Stephen Ettinger heads to Catamarca, Argentina with six other Americans for the Pan American Continental Mountain Bike Championships. Ettinger returns as a former winner of the continental championship title in 2014 in Barbacena, Brazil. In 2015 Ettinger scored a bronze medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada.

Ettinger scored his first win of the 2016 season at Bonelli Park #1 several weeks ago. With a solid training block in the books since his dominating performance in California, Ettinger is now looking to check off another win in Argentina on Sunday, April 3.

“I won this race in 2014,” says Ettinger. “The goal is to go back there and do that again. It’s pretty straightforward.”

Ettinger has never been to Argentina, much less seen the course, but the Pan Am Championships is an event he always enjoys. And being held in an Olympic year, the level of enthusiasm and focus is elevated due to the status of the event.

“Pan Ams hasn’t been to Argentina in a few years,” says Ettinger. “This will be a new track. It will be a new experience for me down there, but I’m looking forward to it. I always love going to this race. You really never know what you’re going to get, but I know it will be good. I’m excited.”

“There are a lot of points on the line,” adds Ettinger. “It’s the first of the really big events coming up in April. Pan Am races offer fewer points than a world cup but more than a HC race. There are 200 points on the line for the win.”

For Ettinger alone, scoring a gold medal in Argentina won’t earn him an automatic spot to Rio, but the coveted points will help the U.S. men's team acquire two start spots for the Olympics.

“For me if I win, it’s a feather in my hat but I can’t punch my ticket to Rio with a win at this race,” explains Ettinger. “But what I can do is show up, win, get myself 200 UCI points that will get me further up in the pack at the start of a world cup race. That makes a huge difference at the end of the day.”

“Right now the U.S. is on the bubble of having either one or two start spots in Rio,” continues Ettinger. “We have to keep earning points to secure two spots. Things can change really quickly if we have a good ride at a world cup and another country doesn’t.”

Secure in the UCI Olympic Qualification ranking for two start spots, the Canadians are opting to sit out this year’s Pan Ams. Ettinger’s biggest competition will most likely come from his South Americans rivals. The fight for maximum points will be fierce as Brazil, the U.S. and Argentina all sit close together in the rankings by country.

“Henrique Avancini from Brazil, the defending Pan American champion, will be on the start line,” says Ettinger. “He’s just finished the grueling Cape Epic so we’ll see how tired he is. From Argentina Catriel Soto will be there and he’ll probably be fast.”

Coming from the spring-time climes in Washington stage, Ettinger has been making special preparations for the hot conditions in Argentina to acclimate his body as much as possible.

“I have been spending a little bit of time in the sauna – about 30 minutes a day after training for the last five to seven days,” says Ettinger. “The idea is to acclimatize – it’s to help get the sweat going, to put myself in a spot where my body is used to the heat. It will never replicate spending three weeks in a hot climate, but it will help.”

The temperature for Sunday’s race in Argentina looks to be in the 80’s to 90’s. For Ettinger his focus will be less on the other riders but more on racing his race.

“I usually do pretty well in the heat,” says Ettinger. “I’m not too worried about it, especially since I’ve been doing a little bit of extra preparation.”

“You go down there and try to ride your race,” adds Ettinger. “Usually someone takes a flyer at the start of the race and blows up. The courses tend to be technical and steep and challenging tracks so you have to ride your race as much as you can. This is definitely an event where experience comes into play.”

Joining Ettinger from Team USA for the elite men’s race will be Spencer Paxson, Russell Finsterwald and Howard Grotts. The elite women’s roster includes Mary McConneloug and Chloe Woodruff. Keegan Swenson is the sole representative for the U23 men.