Elite cycling has been a staple of the Durango community for decades, but 2018 was one of the best years in history for local athletes on bicycles.
Bayfield High School’s trio of boys sports state championships – football, basketball and track and field – was historic, but seven USA Cycling national champions from Durango collected double-digit stars and stripes jerseys and excelled across the globe in nearly every discipline of the sport, and cycling dominated the headlines in 2018 at The Durango Herald. The efforts of Durango’s top riders combined to be the top sports story of the year.
It started in January when college student and bicycle phenom Christopher Blevins claimed a gold medal at the under-23 cyclocross national championships, as the Durango native jumped up stairs others had to run to stun the rest of the field and prove he is a force on any bike, whether it is mountain, road, BMX or cross. Blevins continued his roll when he won a stage at the Tour of the Gila road race. He then won the short-track mountain bike national title for his first elite men’s stars and stripes jersey, finished third at a World Cup event in Canada and then finished second at the UCI under-23 world championships in Switzerland. That solidified Blevins’ decision to leave road racing and focus on the mountain bike in pursuit of a spot in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
It continued with 2016 Olympian Howard Grotts of Durango teaming up with Jaroslav Kulhavý of the Czech Republic to win the Cape Epic in Africa. Grotts’ season continued to build steam with several marquee wins in the U.S. to go along with a sweep of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race and mountain bike race, a fourth consecutive cross-country mountain bike national championship, a repeat win at the Leadville 100, an elite men’s World Cup top-10 in France, a 15th-place finish at the cross-country world championships and a 13th-place result at the marathon world championships in Italy.
Grotts also was second at the marathon national championships for a second consecutive year to his buddy and fellow Durangoan Payson McElveen, who had a standout season of his own racing gravel and mountain bikes, and he added a singlespeed world championship to his résumé with the tattoo to prove it.
Junior rider Quinn Simmons proved he was more than a mountain bike sensation in his first season racing the road. He won the Valley of the Sun stage rage in Phoenix to earn a spot on the USA Cycling national team on the road. He then went to Europe and finished third in two big races in Belgium as well as the Paris-Roubaix juniors race. He returned home and won the junior men’s mountain bike short-track and cross-country national titles. Five days later, he won the junior men’s road race national title to give him three national championships in one season.
Simmons wasn’t the only junior to win a national title; Riley Amos also won the age 15-16 junior men’s short-track and cross-country mountain bike championships. Maddie Jo Robbins won the junior women’s cross-country mountain bike title despite ligament damage in her wrist. She went on to race at the world championships and finished 34th despite limited training because of the injury that would require surgery upon her arrival home from Switzerland.
Durango’s Sarah Sturm added one more national championship before the 2018 buzzer, as she claimed the women’s cyclocross singlespeed title in Kentucky before she finished eighth in the elite women’s cyclocross championship. Sturm also won the women’s IHBC road race and was a force all season in a wide variety of cycling disciplines.
While all the national championship jerseys brought patriotic flair to Durango, it was the yellow jerseys worn by Sepp Kuss that perhaps stole the show. The 24-year-old from Durango’s first season on the UCI World Tour for Team LottoNL-Jumbo in the Netherlands began a bit rocky on the cobblestones of Europe. A welcome return home to the U.S. was exactly what the doctor ordered, as Kuss won three stages and the overall title at the Tour of Utah with three dominant climbing performances in which nobody could match his output. That landed Kuss a spot on his team’s roster of the Spanish Vuelta, his first Grand Tour event. Kuss was a key support rider for his team and even finished 10th during Stage 7.
On top of the IHBC, Durango once again hosted marquee races, too. The Colorado High School Cycling League brought more than 800 mountain bikers to Durango Mesa Park for two days of racing, and local riders Aleah Austin, Cobe Freeburn and Colby Simmons all won state titles, while Durango High won the Division 2 state championship for a second consecutive year.
Fort Lewis College brought a conference mountain bike race back to Purgatory Resort, and then it went to Montana and won the 24th national title in the cycling program’s history behind dominant performances from riders such as Savilia Blunk, Cole Paton and McCauley Smith. It also was announced that FLC will host the 2019 USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships at Purgatory in October, while the Colorado Cycling League state championships also are expected to return the same month.
All of the success came despite the 416 Fire closing many local trails during the summer. When bikers were without places to ride, Rotem Ishay, a former FLC cyclist and a pro in his own right, crafted the Durango Dirt Derby so bikers could race around the dirt track around the FLC football field.
While it will be hard for 2019 to see the same kind of success, nothing would be shocking when it comes to the talent of Durango cyclists, and there are more up-and-coming talents on the rise every year.
Here’s a look at the other top stories of 2018:
2. Bayfield boys sportsThe top story of 2017 was Bayfield High School’s Class 2A football state championship. In 2018, the boys backed it up with Class 3A titles in basketball and track and field.
It was the first basketball state championship in school history for the Wolverines. Led by Ryan Phelps, who also set the state record for sacks during the football championship run, Bayfield beat Lutheran 68-57 at the University of Denver’s Ritchie Center to claim another ring. Bayfield had played for a state title in 1966 and 1970 but lost both of those games.
The Wolverines’ track team then beat The Classical Academy by 6½ points at the state track and field meet behind an impressive meet from Carl Heide, who was part of all three state title teams along with brother Dawson Heide, Phelps and Dax Snooks.
3. Hardrock disqualificationThe Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run always has a global following, but this year’s 100.5-mile race through the San Juan Mountains had extra focus after France’s Xavier Thévenard was disqualified while leading the race by more than an hour with less than 10 miles to the finish line.
Thévenard accepted help outside of an official aid station roughly halfway through the race. A lengthy review process finally determined Thévenard’s disqualification, the first in the history of the event in 25 runs.
Utah’s Jeff Browning won the men’s race and up-and-coming star Sabrina Stanley of Steamboat Springs won the women’s race to solidify her place in the ultra-running world.
Thévenard earned a spot in the 2019 Hardrock through the lottery in perhaps the most loaded men’s field every unveiled for the race, with four-time champion Kilian Jornet set to return to seek a record-tying fifth Hardrock win.
4. 2018 Paralympic GamesDurango’s Brittani Coury claimed a silver medal in the snowboarding banked slalom event for Paralympic in the lower climb Category 2 race in South Korea. The 31-year-old, who is originally from Aztec, had started competitively snowboarding only in 2016. After she earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team, Coury left her job as a clinical supervisor at Mercy Regional Medical Center to go all-in on snowboarding – and it paid off.
Also at the Paralympic Games, Durango’s Gary Colliander was named the Paralympic Coach of the Games, as he helped lead the Nordic team to seven medals, including two golds, in biathlon. They were the first two gold medals in Paralympic biathlon history for the U.S. As a whole, the Nordic team brought home 16 medals, six of which were gold.
5. Inaugural Vallecito BowlAll good rivalries deserve a trophy. In 2018, The Durango Herald paired with Bayfield and Durango high schools to form The Vallecito Bowl, with a new traveling trophy going to the winner of the football game each year.
Durango claimed the first official Vallecito Bowl victory in a 32-16 win after going up 16-0 at halftime behind a sensational game from quarterback Jordan Woolverton and running back Dawson Marcum. Durango went on to reach the Class 3A state playoffs before a first-round loss, while Bayfield lost in the second round of the 2A postseason to Faith Christian.
6. Dakota JonesDurango’s own Dakota Jones returned to the trail running scene in 2018 after injuries derailed his 2017. He claimed wins at the Kendall Mountain Run, La Luz Trail Run, Imogene Pass Run and the Pikes Peak Marathon.
Jones set the downhill record at the Pikes Peak Marathon, and his win came after he rode his bike from Silverton to Manitou Springs in an awareness campaign for Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that advocates for solutions to climate change. After a strong season of shorter-distance races, ultras may again be on the 2019 horizon for Jones.
7. Behn’s diveIt had been a long time since a Durango High swim team athlete had claimed a state championship, but Kylie Behn ended that with a Class 3A title in diving to cap off her junior season. Behn scored 381.5 points to finish 0.8 points ahead of Retta Smith of St. Mary’s.
It was unclear if Behn would be able to defend her title this year, though, because an anterior cruciate ligament knee injury suffered during Durango’s homecoming powderpuff football game left her in doubt. The strong senior recovered quickly enough to compete at the start of the 2018-19 season, and she has already qualified for the state meet once again.
8. Ultra-running starsDurango’s Kyle Curtin added to the town’s elite trail running scene with a win at the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run in a record-shattering time of 49 hours, 27 minutes 22 seconds. He finished ahead of Golden-based woman Courtney Dauwalter, who finished in 49:54:36, which also broke the previous record. Next year, Dauwalter will get a chance to run the Hardrock 100.
Durango’s Jason Schlarb also had a huge year with wins at the Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, his third title at the race, as well as the Oman by UTMB race in the Middle East. Schlarb, a 2016 Hardrock 100 co-champion with Jornet, will be back in Hardrock next year seeking redemption for his 2017 dropout from the race.
9. ’Hawks hang a bannerThe Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team won a second regular-season Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title in the last three years and played in the RMAC tournament championship game for a third consecutive year. FLC also reached the NCAA Division II South Central Regional tournament for a third consecutive year before a first-round exit.
FLC fourth-year head coach Bob Pietrack also became the fastest coach in NCAA history to 50 home wins, as he went 50-2 through his first 52 games inside Whalen Gymnasium.
Though the team is off to a 1-4 start in RMAC play this season, college basketball is indeed the marquee team sports attraction in La Plata County.
10. Rams in Wolverine CountryBayfield alumnae Kirstie Hillyer and Maddi Foutz never thought they’d play a competitive volleyball game inside the Wolverines’ gymnasium again after they graduated and went to play for Mountain West Conference powerhouse Colorado State University.
But CSU head coach Tom Hilbert scheduled a spring exhibition against Northern Arizona University in Bayfield, and Foutz and Hillyer returned home to a massive crowd and a thunderous ovation from their small hometown. Colorado State won the exhibition and went on to win another conference title in 2018 behind the all-conference play of Hillyer and standout defensive play from Foutz, who started 25 matches as a true sophomore. With every CSU player returning in 2019 from this year’s NCAA Tournament team, the future remains bright for the Rams and their duo from Bayfield.