The spectators eagerly awaited the arrival of the US elite men's cross country national champion in the heat and humidity of a late Pennsylvania summer afternoon. They'd seen Stephen Ettinger (BMC) lead Todd Wells (Specialized) by just 10 seconds going into the final of six laps at Bear Creek Resort near Macungie, but wondered if youth would triumph over experience. After Ettinger caught Wells on lap four of six, no one knew whether Wells was hurting or holding something in reserve.
Ettinger had clawed his way back to the front through sheer determination and skilful pacing, and he would emerge from a deep and rocky woods in first place, having cracked the veteran favorite, Wells.
Two years ago, the unassuming Ettinger won the U23 cross country championship in Sun Valley, Idaho. He then quietly stepped into the elite ranks and started doing his time, earning the experience that would pay off this season. He has been regularly battling Wells at Pro XCT races this season and most recently at both the US marathon championships two weeks ago and the Subaru Cup Pro XCT last weekend, where Wells finished first.
With 2012 champion Sam Schultz (Trek Factory Racing) absent due to back injury, the attention at nationals was shifted to Wells and Jeremiah Bishop (Sho-Air/Cannondale) as top favorites. However, Bishop was still suffering the effects of a crash last weekend at the Subaru Pro XCT in Wisconsin and while he initially mixed it up with Wells at the front, he faded as Ettinger surged. The two yo-yo'ed briefly until Bishop cracked, leaving Ettinger and Wells to do battle.
The win still not completely sunk in, Ettinger said, "It's huge to win this. I'm so happy right now."
Ettinger's victory is a sort of changing of the guard. A riding generation younger than Wells, Ettinger is a graduate of the U23 development program - most recently supported by USA Cycling and BMC.
"Off the start, I did not think that [win] was going to happen. I got caught up in a little bit of mess and was seventh or eighth," said Ettinger. "I lost JB and Todd's wheel in the woods. I thought I'd be racing for third the rest of the race."
"Maybe those guys went out a little too hard and it was a blessing in disguise that I wasn't able to stick on their wheel. I was able to ride within myself the rest of the time. It worked out to my advantage."
Ettinger's strategy to ride more at his own pace paid off in the extreme heat and humidity. "I was riding my race as much as I could. It was so hot out there. As soon as I saw them coming back, it was a huge motivator and I gave it a little more gas."
"I tried to stay out of the red because I knew that for the past couple of weeks, Todd has been the stronger rider there at the end of the race. That's been my demise."
"I tried to stay within myself and it worked."
Excellent descending skills also paid off, and Ettinger used them to gain time each lap on Wells.
The two rivals have gone head to head several times this season, recently with Wells triumphing more often recently. Wells has had the chance to race a bit more internationally than Ettinger, who this season has stayed more in North America, racing Pro XCTs and a few Canada Cups.
Wells, who has previously been US cross country national champion and who will be trying to defend his short track national title on Sunday, complimented Ettinger immediately after the finish and advised him to enjoy his year in the jersey.
He also said, "Stephen's been riding well this year and is on the way up, and it's good to see him have a good race. He didn't get to go to some of the World Cups, but hopefully now that he has the jersey, his team will take him to more of the World Cups."
Ettinger may now be more in demand for trips to race abroad. Clad in the stars-and-stripes for the next year, he'll be representing the top of the next generation of US mountain bikers wherever he competes.