The USA Cycling National Mountain Bike Championships unfolded at the Mammoth Bike Park in the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range this past weekend in California. On Friday afternoon the pro men’s race was dominated by Howard Grotts (Team Specialized), the young climber from Durango, Colorado and Team USA’s sole representative for the Rio Olympics. Rounding out the podium was Keegan Swenson (Cannondale 360 Fly p/b Sugoi) and Russell Finsterwald (SRAM TLD Racing). Todd Wells (SRAM TLD), another Durango resident, finished a mere two seconds in front of Team Ridebiker’s Stephen Ettinger for fourth and fifth.
Grotts, who lives at 6500 feet in Durango, also handedly won the short track event on Saturday claiming the win ahead of Wells and Finsterwald. For the first time in his career, Ettinger was a DNF.
Ettinger, a previous national champion in both the cross country and short track events, says that leaving the national championships without earning a medal for either event was something he’s not accustomed to. Although the national championships weren’t a priority for him this year, lining up in Mammoth was never not an option.
“I’m glad that I went,” said Ettinger. “It would have felt weird skipping it, but leaving without even being on the podium in either race is kind of weird. Winning nationals is always amazing and such a cool feeling, not just for myself but for Daimo and Adam Pulford – it’s not just for me. That being said, to have expected much more than what I walked away with would have been kind of silly. I’m not happy with the result, but I’m satisfied. I had a super fun weekend.”
"In the short track race, I went into complete oxygen debt," continued Ettinger. "I didn't have the high end to follow the attacks so I tried to pin back the lead group after they got away. I went way too deep. I started coughing which then turned to dry heaving. It was physically painful. Pulford said that I looked like a fish out of water."
Having just come off a seven-day BC Bike Race at sea level, Ettinger knew going into nationals that he wouldn’t have the same top end as his competitors. Yet, Ettinger wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I went out there and gave it my all,” Ettinger said. “I didn’t have the gas to stick with the lead group right away. Keegan and Finsty didn’t put that much time into me lap after lap, but they were able to open it up early on. They had more punch. Howie, he was another story. Had I not done BC Bike Race and focused on nationals, there might have been a different outcome. But the experience I had in BC was so important and inspiring. It would have been lame to have skipped BC and focused on just nationals.”
As a pro with a lot of experience in his back pocket, Ettinger knows where his strengths lie. Racing at 9000 feet isn’t for him. But racing the US National Championships in West Virginia at Snowshoe Mountain in 2017 could be Ettinger’s ticket to another stars and stripes jersey.
“I’m already thinking about nationals next year,” said Ettinger. “It’s in a place that could be a really good venue for me. In mountain biking you go into every race wanting to win because, unlike road racing, we don’t have so many race days. But, you still have to prioritize just the same. This year wasn’t a priority for me, but next year could be really different.”
With BC Bike Race and nationals behind him, Ettinger is now looking forward to ticking off another ‘first’ - a five-day stage race on the road. On Wednesday, July 20 in Bend, OR Ettinger will line up with the Rally Cycling Team for the 37th edition of the Cascade Classic.
“I was originally supposed to race with Rally back in the spring, but our schedules never meshed,” Ettinger said. “Now we’re going to plan B. I won’t have a lot of rest time before the start, but I’m in a good place emotionally. Historically, when I’m in a good place, I tend to recover well.”
So what expectations does the mountain biker have for this roadie stage race?
“I’ve done some road racing but never a stage race of this caliber,” said Ettinger. “But I’ll do whatever the team asks me to do. Well, maybe I won’t be doing a leadout in the crit.”