WSJ Meet the New King of U.S. Mountain Biking
Meet the New King of U.S. Mountain Biking
A conversation with 23-year-old Christopher Blevins, the first United States man since 1994 to win a World Cup cross-country race
Christopher Blevins celebrates after the Mercedes Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Snowshoe, W.Va., on Sept. 19. CERVENY MICHAL/CTK/ZUMA PRESS
By Jason Gay
Updated Sept. 25, 2021 8:10 am ET
Christopher Blevins, 23, of Durango, Colorado, stunned the sport of mountain biking on Sept. 18 by winning the final men’s cross-country World Cup race at Snowshoe Mountain, W.Va., becoming the first U.S. man to win a World Cup “XCO” race in 27 years. It was the climactic finish of a breakout season in which Blevins finished 14th at the Tokyo Olympics and won a world championship in “short track” mountain biking. I spoke to Blevins earlier this week. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)
You seemed to be in a little bit of shock when you won at Snowshoe, is that fair to say?
Entirely fair. There’s some days like this in sport that just sneak up on you and they are better than you ever dreamed, but they also just affirm the process and everything that went into it. This was absolutely one of those. I’d be lying if I said I expected to be anywhere close to [winning], but with that said, halfway through the race, I just had a feeling.
You’re the first United States man to win an elite MTB cross-country race since Tinker Juarez in 1994. How aware were you of the fact that there had been this 27-year drought?
Very aware. And very inspired to try to change that. It’s felt like I’ve been in the first part of a larger wave coming up for U.S. mountain biking, along with people like [2018 women’s world champ] Kate [Courtney] and Haley Batten on the women’s side, who are crushing it.
I’m inspired to be part of that with USA Cycling. It’s a lot bigger than me. A lot of work went into the past 10 years of my development.
At Snowshoe you got yourself into the front group of riders and you raced conservatively until the end, when you attacked and rode away. Was that your strategy going in or did that evolve?
I definitely wanted to wait and wait—largely because I’ve never ridden with those guys for a full hour and a half. Typically I’m starting further back, and have to work my way through more traffic…This time, I threw that strategy out the window and I said I’m going for it. So I rode with that group of five, and just waited and took in and all the energy from the crowd and my family every lap. When I went, the last attack, I held nothing back. I had one card to play and that was how I played it.
Do you think it was kind of a one-shot deal—now everyone knows you can do that and will be looking for it?
I think so. I think winning short track Worlds showed I have a sprint at the end. I heard [Brazilian rider] Henrique Avancini’s manager say that I was the danger man in that group. So I think he knew you don’t want to bring me to a sprint, but yeah, it does definitely feel like I’ve kind of arrived at that top of that field, and that I have the confidence to go with those guys, which I didn’t before.
Your success is following in a family tradition of making history. Your grandfather, Dr. Theodore Blevins, was the first Black physician to join the medical staff at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. You’re a person of color in a sport that’s been traditionally very white. What does that mean to you?
I’d say growing up in Durango, Colo.—it’s a predominantly white community, for sure, but you can look 360 degrees around you as a kid and see where biking takes you. It can take you to the Olympics, or the World Cup podium, it can take you to a job coaching kids, or to a bike shop as a mechanic. It just shows that the bike is a tool for everyone and it should be available to everyone.
Growing up, I never felt like the bike wasn’t for me, but I think that there are communities, and particularly communities of color—I do a lot of work with the Navajo Nation in a nonprofit there—that have a lot of systemic barriers. I want what I experienced in Durango to spread to others, and part of it does stem from my family heritage and that legacy of my grandpa.
Durango has an incredible mountain bike history—names like Ned Overend, Todd Wells, Juli Furtado, John Tomac and more. Now there’s this new generation. There’s you, Tour de France stage winner Sepp Kuss, mountain biker Riley Amos, road racer Quinn Simmons. Do you feel like there’s like this new era coming?
I really do. I see Todd Wells every time I’m home, just bumping into him downtown or on a group ride. And then I ride with [Wells’s son] Cooper at the BMX track every once in a while. My first season as a pro was Todd’s last season, and I have a feeling that one of my last will be Cooper’s first. So there’s a through line in the community, because it’s so tight knit. I think now is a special moment because we have a Tour de France [stage] winner in the same year as a World Cup winner. Sepp is one of my favorite people on the planet.
You began in BMX. What did it teach you that made your transition into mountain biking so seamless?
This sounds funny, but: how to be a pro at 5 years old, and still love it. There’s no better way to learn how to ride a bike, I think, than to be a BMX racer, and I’m so lucky that I got bike handling skills for life just from being a BMX kid growing up.
The United States is seen as the birthplace of mountain biking. Do you think it’s important for it to be competitive in the sport?
There’s two different trajectories: the trajectory of the sport as a lifestyle and community builder, and then there’s the trajectory of the elite, Olympic-focused side of it. Sometimes I think, in the U.S., those two are a lot farther apart than they are in Europe, and that’s why the sport hasn’t been so big and why there haven’t been winners in the past couple of decades. But I think I’m starting to see the ways that the two can blend and come together a lot more, and how much inspiration a kid can take from someone who’s winning at the highest level.
Christopher Blevins became the first U.S. man since 1994 to win a World Cup cross-country mountain bike race.
PHOTO: DUSTIN SATLOFF/GETTY IMAGES
You’re a competitor, but it sounds like you also believe deeply in the experiential part of cycling.
Cycling isn’t some walled-off, upper-echelon type deal—no pun intended with “echelon.” [Note: Cyclists will sometimes ride in echelon formation to battle the wind.] It is grass roots. It is as simple as a kid riding with their best friends in a town like Durango. Why do pro athletes have to wall themselves off and be separate from that conversation and that energy? For me personally, taking inspiration from the kids that I rode with on the Navajo Nation, who are out there, building trails, and spreading the stoke, that absolutely inspires me to pedal as hard as I can in a World Championship.
You simultaneously have this artistic side of your life. You’ve made music, written poetry. Is that something that continues to be there or is it on the back burner as you compete?
I wish at times I had more bandwidth and time to write and be creative, but it’s definitely still and will be a huge part of my life. I think I realized the past year, I always talked about it and thought about it as something that’s very different than being a professional athlete, but I think that I have a fairly poetic heart as an athlete as well. The two are very different from each other, obviously, but I think complement at the same time. They’re different forms of the same expression.
You’ve had success in the hybrid sport of cyclocross in the past. You won the under-23 national title not terribly long ago. There are some big U.S. races coming up, including Worlds in Fayetteville, Ark., in January. Do you expect to throw in for those?
That’s the hope. Hopefully I can qualify and learn to run again for cyclocross [laughs]. It’s been a long season, with a lot of excitement and energy, so part of me is ready to shut it down, but then I remember how fun cyclocross races are and how much of a party they are, and the fact that Worlds are in the U.S. is super exciting. I’m excited to be there, hopefully.
Do you bunny hop your bike over the cyclocross barriers or do you pick up and carry your bike?
I hop them, yeah. I hop up the stairs, too, but it probably takes about 30 seconds longer than it [should], so I need to maybe rethink that plan.