Stephen Ettinger has found himself consistently mixing it up with North America's top cross country and short track racers this season. At the Sea Otter Classic this past weekend, he finished seventh in both the short track and cross country, and it's easy to forget that Ettinger is still an Under 23 racer.
"It's been cool to be racing with these guys," said Ettinger to Cyclingnews after competing with the likes of Max Plaxton, Todd Wells, Jeremiah Bishop, Sam Schultz, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Adam Craig this past weekend.
"I've had their posters on my walls growing up. It's what I've been working toward for a long time and it's coming together. It feels good and it's motivating. I love it," he said.
Ettinger, who is riding for the new BMC Development Team this season, turned heads earlier this season at the first two US Pro XCT rounds. In Bonelli Park, he finished 10th in the cross country and sixth in the short track. In Fontana, he placed 12th in the cross country and third in the short track.
"The new team is good - it's very supportive and it takes a lot of stress off of us to have a good group of people around us and take care of us. It feels good to be part of a good program."
It's the first season Ettinger is fast enough to routinely mix it up with the elites. "It's better than I ever thought it could be," said Ettinger, who is 21 and will turn 22 this year. It's his last year as an under-23.
At the Sea Otter cross country, Ettinger was racing in a group with Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Sam Schultz (both Subaru-Trek). The trio was battling for a fifth place, the final spot on the podium.
"I didn't really know what to do. We were racing for fifth place and I've never been in that position before," said Ettinger.
A mistake on the final lap cost him a good position going into the final sprint and Schultz and Horgan Kobelski beat him. "I'm a little heartbroken right now," he said immediately after the finish. "I tried to play it as smart as I could. We worked together well until the last lap. I sat up on the last lap and let them do the work since there were two of them. They kept trying to break it up at the end, and I put in a couple of digs, but it never broke up. I'm not sure I had the legs to attack those guys."
Ettinger is racing next at the Pietermaritzburg, South Africa World Cup cross country this weekend. For the first time in 2011, under 23 racers will have the option to compete either with the elites or with the U23s in a separate race at the World Cup. Ettinger is opting for the U23 race.
"Hopefully, I can do well in the U23 overall," he said. "I look at guys like Todd (Wells) and Jeremy (Horgan Kobelski) and Sam (Schultz), who are all very capable of racing in the top 15 or 20 at the elite World Cups, and I find myself now racing in that group domestically. It means good things could happen."
After South Africa, Ettinger will return to the US for the Mellow Johnny's Classic US Pro XCT in Texas. Then it's off to Europe for May, when he'll race the Dalby and Offenburg World Cups, Swiss Racer Bikes Cup rounds and a Bundesliga round.
Ettinger grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, and he now lives in Bozeman, Montana. He's looking forward to US Nationals in Sun Valley, Idaho, and the US Pro XCT finals in Missoula. After most of a season flying all over the globe, he'll be close enough to drive to those races.
"Anything can happen at US Nationals. Rob Squire, who is now racing on the road for Garmin-Cervelo, is fast," said Ettinger. "I have tremendous respect for him and if he decides to come race, he'll be competitive. Russell Finsterwald is healing up and getting fast. My teammate Kerry Warner is another one to watch. We have a great Under 23 field."