Christopher Blevins celebrates as he crosses the finish line during the men's elite cross-country Olympic distance race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup on Sept. 19, 2021 in Snowshoe, West Virginia.
Christopher Blevins has had quite a year.
The 23-year-old mountain biker competed in his first Olympic Games in Tokyo. Then, he claimed the world short-track title his first year in the senior ranks. He ended his season winning the final 2021 UCI MTB World Cup cross-country race. It was the first time an American man had won a mountain biking world cup in 27 years.
It was, said Blevins, “the best surprise of my life.”
“A win like this just affirms how much work my team and I have put in,” said Blevins by phone from his home in San Luis Obispo, California. “There’s a sense of I did this, and we can do this many more times.”
Oh, and in June, he graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in business administration and a focus on entrepreneurship. Blevins is one of few professional cyclists in the men’s ranks to hold a college degree. He is also likely the only one who excels in spoken poetry.
Blevins’s year is not over yet. Talented in cycling no matter the discipline — including BMX and road racing — Blevins plans to race the cyclocross season this fall, with the goal of qualifying for the world cup. His team, Trinity Racing, allows him to compete in several disciplines, including gravel races.
One of the brightest mountain biking talents since the 1990s, Blevins’s ultimate goal is to win a medal at the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
So what led to Blevins’s remarkable season? And why has it taken 27 years for the U.S. men to re-emerge atop the ranks in a sport invented in the United States?
Men’s Mountain Biking in the 1990s
The first UCI MTB World Championships and World Cup season were held in 1990, and Ned Overend — from Durango, Colorado — became the first world champion and overall world cup winner in cross-country racing. A year later, John Tomac claimed both titles.
For the next three years, Overend, Tomac, and Tinker Juarez stood on both the world championship and overall world cup podiums. It seemed natural that a sport born on California’s Mt. Tamalpais would be ruled by American riders.
But 1994 was the last year a U.S. man won a world cup race or a world championship medal. For the past 27 years, European mountain bikers have ruled the sport.
Chad Cheeney — who started Durango’s DEVO cycling program for young kids (alumni include Blevins, Tour de France star Sepp Kuss and 2016 Olympian Howard Grotts, among many others) — has a theory, as does Blevins.
First, most of the world cups moved to Europe in the mid-1990s, making it more expensive for Americans to compete. And mountain biking drew top European road racers to its ranks.
“These Europeans with super cycling backgrounds were committed to it because there was more money in it,” explained Cheeney.
The development pipeline in the U.S. was also lacking. Mountain biking was seen as an alternative sport, with few youth-based programs to attract new talent. Rather than coming up through fun local teams, U.S. mountain bikers mostly trained alone.
“Back in the day, you showed the fun side of the sport to non-racers and then to the race kid, you taught them how Lance Armstrong trained,” said Cheeney.
In the mid-2000s, programs like Durango’s DEVO and the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) were founded. Kids could join these development programs with their friends, learn to mountain bike, but mostly have fun. Getting fit was just a side benefit.
“We sold it as fun,” said Cheeney.
Blevins, who was raised in Duranog, points out that DEVO’s goal is to develop life-long cyclists. The program’s motto is NFTF — “never forget the feeling.” It’s a saying that Blevins thinks about often, even now.
“That philosophy of fun, adventure, and community just accidentally translated to making extremely fast cyclists,” he added.