Local cyclists came through with a strong showing at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals held July 23-28 in Winter Park.
Four athletes from the Roaring Fork Valley took podium spots and two rode away with age-group national championships in fields that included riders from all over the U.S. and as far away as Australia.
Leading the way was Greg Strokes of Aspen, who took home top honors among category 1 and 2 riders in the men’s 45-49 division of the cross country race. (USA Cycling’s top category is pro, with category 1, which Strokes rode in, being the next highest. Newcomers to mountain bike racing start in category 3 and move up by accumulating points in official races.)
He was followed closely by Carbondale’s Scott Leonard, who placed third in the same age group.
“The trail was great,” said Strokes of the 8.4-kilometer course. “The uphill was really good, and the down section was kind of rocky and rooty and old-school for about half of the downhill, and then it turned into a flow-type trail with a lot of berms and jumps. So it kind of had a mix of everything.”
Strokes completed four laps around the course in 1:41:39 to win his age group by more than three minutes over second-place finisher Robert McCarty of Cooper City, Fla. Leonard finished in 1:47:30 to take the bronze.
Strokes credited a training program devised by Aspen’s John Gaston, co-founder of Strafe Outerwear and a world-class fitness athlete in his own right, for helping him prepare for the race.
“This summer I was putting in 22-hour weeks of training, which is super exhausting,” Strokes said. “It’s so hard on the mind and on your family, as well. It takes a lot, but it’s really fun, too. There’s nothing better than living in Aspen and riding the trails.”
The valley’s other newly crowned national champion is Kevin Willson of Carbondale, who blistered his way around three laps of the course to win the men’s 60-64 age group (there are no categories for those 55 and over) in 1:22:36 to best second-place finisher Ken Winston of San Diego by 4:25. Aspen’s Tom Hayles placed ninth in the same group.
Despite cruising to an easy victory, Willson was able to keep his intensity up because the different age groups went off in staggered starts three minutes apart, meaning he always had someone ahead of him to overtake and people coming up from the rear to push him.
“There’s always someone behind you, so I basically never look back,” he said. “You never know if somebody’s on your tail.”
For Willson, it’s his second national title, after the USA Cycling Fat Bike Nationals crown he won in 2015 in Eden, Utah. He was also the overall champion of the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race in 2000, when he was a mere 41 years old. Prestigious as that title was, though, Willson is equally proud of his latest one.
“This was quite a big one, nationals,” he said. “I’m very happy with it, no doubt about it.”
The final podium finish went to Henry Nadell of Carbondale, who took second place among 19-22 year-olds in the pro category of the cross country race with a time of 1:30:16. After four laps, the full-time professional racer finished just behind the winner, Jerry Dufour of Birmingham, Ala.
“The last lap came down to a battle with Jerry, and I only lost by 6 seconds,” Nadell said. “It came down to the wire and made for an exciting race.”
Nadell, 22, first took up competitive racing while at Carbondale’s Colorado Rocky Mountain School. Now a senior at Fort Lewis College in Durango, he credited that city’s robust mountain biking scene with helping him realize he had what it takes to be a top pro.
“It’s a really cool community of riders; almost all of the fastest guys in the country live in Durango,” Nadell said. “There are a lot of talented guys I got to learn from who helped me grow as a racer and a person.”
The podium finishes mean that Strokes, Willson, Nadell and Leonard all qualified for the U.S. team headed to the 2019 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships to be held Aug. 20 to Sept. 1 in Mont St. Anne, Quebec. Strokes, Willson and Nadell all said they were fired up to go. Leonard couldn’t be reached for comment, so it’s unknown if he’ll be going as well.
Two other local riders just missed the podium in Winter Park with fourth-place finishes in the cross country race: Mark Logan of Basalt (men’s 55-59) and Aspen’s Aaron Pool (men’s 30-34).