Analysis: Mixed fortunes for Team USA at mountain bike worlds

U.S. squad displayed lots of grit and had a few close calls, but in the end it was not the final result they were gunning for

Photo: Michal Cerveny

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At first glance it’s easy to write off the 2019 UCI mountain bike world championships as a bust for Team USA’s cross-country riders. After five days of racing at the rugged venue at Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, Canada, the country that gave birth to the sport had all of one podium performance, a silver medal in the XC Team Relay.

Meanwhile, medal hopefuls Kate Courtney, Haley Batten, and Christopher Blevins missed the final podium, leaving USA Cycling Mountain Bike Performance Director Marc Gullickson looking for the silver lining in assessing his squad’s performance.

“I am extremely proud of the way our riders performed,” said Gullickson. “Given the types of results we have seen this season, especially from our Elite and U23 Women, we had high expectations. While we may have hoped for some better results, I am not disappointed and neither should our riders… I am looking forward to seeing what results we have next weekend [at the World Cup in Snowshoe, West Virginia] and looking ahead to next season as we continue the charge towards Tokyo 2020.”

That’s definitely a glass-half-full assessment. The Team USA squad of Blevins, Courtney, Batten, Riley Amos, and Keegan Swenson nearly dethroned Switzerland in the Team Relay, bringing the U.S. its first medal in the event since 2007. But in the individual races, the country’s medal hopefuls could not replicate their outstanding rides from a year ago.

Courtney, world XC champion in 2018, relented her hold on the rainbow stripes to Frenchwoman Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. After having a great start to the season and then initially hanging near the front at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Courney began to fade during the second lap and then crashed during lap three, eventually settling for fifth.

“It was a tough fight, but an effort I’m very proud of,” Courtney said.  “I felt strong from the start and settled into a good rhythm but couldn’t hold the pace of a charging front group. A mid-race crash came as a small set back, but it motivated me to find my rhythm and fight hard to get back into the top five. While I of course lined up with hopes of defending my rainbow jersey, I am proud of the courage and heart I showed in my fight for the top five.”

U.S. teammates Lea Davison and Chloe Woodruff slotted 11th and 15th respectively, which earned the U.S. first in rankings by nation, scoring 155 points ahead of Canada’s 151 and Switzerland’s 144.

There is a silver lining in their respective performances. Courtney secured an automatic selection for the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo with her fifth-place finish, since USA Cycling’s criteria granted a spot to anyone who finished top-eight at the race. Also, the combined UCI points totals for the U.S. women helped them in their quest to qualify three women for the Tokyo Olympics. Only the top-two nations in the UCI rankings get three spots. Right now, the U.S. women are in third, and they are in a neck-and-neck battle with The Netherlands for the second ranking spot.

In the women’s U23 affair, Batten came in with hopes of replicating her World Cup triumph earlier in the season. But with riders such as eventual winner Sina Frei and fourth place finisher Evie Richards returning to the younger ranks after racing with the elites at the World Cups, Batten was pushed down the rankings into sixth, at 3.22. Fellow Americans Savilia Blunk and Kelsey Urban also placed in the top 20, coming in 14th and 19th place respectively.

“The women in the front were riding so strong and it was really cool to be a part of that battle for a little bit and then I continued to fight for the spot that I was in,” Batten said. “This is definitely my best world championship finish, and this season overall has been my best World Cup season. I’m looking forward to Snowshoe. I feel like I still have a lot of fire left in me to end this season on a high note.”

There were even fewer high notes over on the men’s side of the XC ledger. Blevins, U23 silver medalist at the 2018 worlds in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, had a solid start in Quebec, and rode his way into second place at the race’s midpoint. But a crash and subsequent wheel change derailed all hope of a podium repeat. The promising rider from Durango, Colorado, settled for 22nd, 6:24 behind Romania’s Vlad Dascalu.

“It was a smooth start and mostly smooth sailing for the first half,” recounted Blevins, who has won national championships in mountain biking, BMX, and cyclocross, and won major professional races on the road. “I felt conservative and riding within myself. A small mistake saw me give up a little time to the riders behind and then the unfortunate accident happened. A rider took a crash in front of me and his bike got caught up in my spokes resulting in two missing spokes and a flat tire.”

Finally in Elite Men’s XC, Luke Vrouwenvelder was the top U.S. finisher, slotting 49th, a distant 8:50 behind Switzerland’s Nino Schurter.

That left the stars-and-stripes squad relishing its opening day performance in the Team Relay, where it scored its first medal since 2007.

Blevins led out the relay and was third fastest behind Denmark and the Czech Republic. Next came 2019 Junior XC National Champion Amos, who despite crashing midway through his lap and slipping briefly into fourth, worked his way back to third in time to hand off to Batten.

The Park City, Utah-based rider quickly made up the 33 seconds that stood between first and third, passing multi-time world champion Annika Langvad in the process and posting the fastest women’s lap of the day.

“I moved in behind Annika in the woods,” said Batten. “Then there was a double line with rocks and I took a different line than her and barely squeaked in front of her once the lines came together which put me into first which put Kate into battling for first place with the Dutch team heading into her lap.”

Courtney spent her lap battling with the Dutch team before handing off to newly-crowned Elite Cross-Country National Champion Swenson, who started the race’s final lap with a slim lead. He entered the feed zone with a 14-second gap on the next rider. But that rider happened to be Schurter, who was quickly gaining ground and would eventually overtake his American competitor. The final margin was 16 seconds, with the team from France scoring the bronze medal.

“Everyone ahead of me had great laps and set it up perfectly for me and I put in the best lap I could,” said Swenson. “I knew Nino was right behind me so I just tried to keep it smooth and not make a mistake. I tried to stay ahead of him as long as I could, he passed me on the last climb.”

And so it was for Team USA at the 2019 mountain bike world championships. Lots of grit, a few close calls, but not the final result they were gunning for. The good news is that the World Cup finals in Snowshoe, West Virginia, start Friday, giving these riders one more chance to end the season on a high note.

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