Todd Wells (Specialized) has been at or near the top of the standings in US mountain biking for over a decade. At age 38, he still seems to be as competitive as ever. He recently won his third consecutive US marathon championship at Sun Valley, Idaho. He also just wrapped up the US Cup title at Colorado Springs in convincing fashion.
His resume includes two Olympics, multiple national championships in cross country, short track, and cyclo-cross. In 2010, Wells became the first person to hold cross country, short track, and cyclo-cross titles at the same time.
In 2011, Cyclingnews asked Wells, "Would you have thought, even though in your wildest dreams, that you were going to have your best results at age 34? How can you top your results from last year?"
Wells replied, "That's the problem when you have a really good year then you have to try to top it the next year. I'm not really sure why I'm better with age. I had a few years that I took off in the middle of my career where I went back to school and didn't ride my bike. That gave me an appreciation for being a professional cyclist and doing what you really love."
At this stage of Well's career, he knows that young riders will be attempting to knock him off his throne. In 2012, Sam Schultz (Sho-Air/Cannondale) took the cross country jersey in a hard fought battle in Sun Valley. Schultz, however, has now lost most of two seasons due to a serious back condition.
In 2013, Stephen Ettinger, still part of the BMC Development Team at the time, won the championship with a come-from-behind effort at Bear Creek Resort in Pennsylvania. At the end of the day, he gapped Todd Wells by 49 seconds, and Jeremiah Bishop (Sho-Air Cannondale) by over two minutes.
While the brutal heat was a huge factor in the race, Ettinger won the race largely by descending better than his rivals. While many riders suffered race-ending mechanicals on the rocky Pennsylvania course, Ettinger actually pulled off racing without tire sealant by using latex tubes instead.
The head-to-head matchups this season have favored Wells over Ettinger. At The Sea Otter Classic, Wells finished fourth to Ettinger's 10th. At the Bonelli Park Pro-XCT, Wells was second, while Ettinger was 18th. At Fontana, Wells was fourth while Ettinger was a DNF. At the Missoula Pro XCT (home turf for Ettinger), Ettinger was second while Wells was third. Then at the WORS Pro XCT Wells was first and Ettinger was second. At the Sun Valley marathon nationals, Wells was first and Ettinger was second. The latter lost six minutes due to double flatting.
When asked about the prospect of racing Wells again at Bear Creek Resort, Ettinger said, "I'm fitter now than I was in April when I won Pan American Champs and then rode to 12th place at the World Cup in Cairns. That World Cup was on a course that was rocky, technical and wet, so the terrain in PA doesn't intimidate me. I've won on this course before too, last year riding from third to first over the second half of the race, so I am definitely confident."
Ettinger said, "This weekend definitely has all the makings of a battle between Todd and myself. All season, but particularly the past few weeks we've been battling, and I think everyone expects the same this weekend. It's set up pretty much identically to last year... Todd won Marathons and then again in Wisconsin in 2013.
"All that being said, Todd is a Legend," said Ettinger. "It wasn't all that long ago that I had his poster on my wall. He knows how to win, he's a confident descender, and good technical rider. He might be getting older, but it sure doesn't seem like he's slowing down at all. I've got an immense amount of respect for him and am really looking forward to racing this weekend! I think its hard to say that either of us is the favorite. I may be defending the title, but he's got a dozen jerseys in his closet."
Other contenders for the title this weekend include Jeremiah Bishop, Russell Finsterwald (SRAM-Troy Lee Designs), and Spencer Paxson (Kona). Bishop perhaps is the most dangerous because of his vast experience and ability to handle the rocky trail conditions. Earlier this season, he won the Trans-Sylvania Epic stage race held in similar conditions. Also 38 years of age, Bishop can still be counted on to contend for the jersey.
Russell Finsterwald seems to have joined the ranks of elite US riders this season. He finished second at the Sea Otter Classic to Christoph Sauser (Specialized) and won the Pro XCT short track event a couple weeks ago in Colorado Springs. The former U23 Champion has been able to go with the early accelerations this year, usually making the select group that goes off the front.
Spencer Paxson finished in fourth place at last year's championships, his best effort to date. He has just completed the BC Bike Race where he finished second, while helping his team-mate Kris Sneddon win the event.
Wells has backed off from most World Cup racing this year, while focusing on winning the Pro XCT Series and participating in popular events such as the Whiskey 50 Off-Road, and the Leadville 100 Classic. This weekend, however, there is little doubt his focus is on winning another championship jersey.
Wells said, "I look forward to the battle this weekend, always an honor to fight for a national championship jersey. I really like the terrain in PA. It's what I learned to mountain bike on, rough, rocky and rooty singletrack and if it rains, it's that much better. It should be a great race."