After a series of second-place finishes, Stephen Ettinger finally broke through with a signature win.
The Cashmere native bided his time, endured a 110-degree heat index and a poor start that put him in third place for the bulk of last weekend’s race in Lehigh Valley, Pa., gained ground and eventually seized the lead to win his first ever national title at the 2013 USA Cycling Cross-Country Mountain Bike National Championships.
As the race pressed on, Ettinger expended his energy at a judicious rate and made steady gains on first and second place.
“In that heat, if you try to expend yourself a little bit too much, you can’t really recover from it,” he said. “So mentally I was just trying to continue cruising at my own pace and racing as savvy as possible.”
The sweltering heat and fatigue played in his favor, and he jumped into second on the fourth lap and took the lead on lap five of the six-lap competition. He won with a time of 1:35.17.
“I knew that it was something that I was more than capable of,” the 24-year-old cyclist said. “I had been knocking on the door of a win all season here in the (United States).”
The big win should open some doors as Ettinger continues to make a name at the national and international level. He’s headed to compete in a UCI Mountain Bike World Cup race in Mont-St-Anne in Quebec in mid-August and will head overseas to compete in the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in South Africa in early September.
Those races provide Ettinger a big stage to state his case as one of the top-tier American cyclists, but the national championship win already gives him a leg to stand on.
“This is definitely the biggest thing that I’ve done in my career to this point,” he said of the recent victory.
It will help in his pursuit of joining the 2016 U.S. Olympic team — a lofty but very obtainable goal — and make him more marketable for sponsors going forward.
Ettinger’s career to this point has had its share of highlights, but it’s also contended with a series of narrow misses.
After winning the U23 National Championships in 2011, the ascending cyclist spent much of 2012 struggling.
He spent the bulk of his time training and competing in Switzerland dealing with sickness and had a sinus infection during his first appearance at the U.S. National Championships.
Ettinger was shooting for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team, but ended up as an alternate.
He headed back to the states to regroup, which seems to have been the right move. He continued his steady development on the bike and re-centered after a challenging stint in Europe.
“It’s been consistent,” he said. “And this year I took another step in the right direction and continue to take what I’ve learned over the past couple of years and apply it to my training and racing.”
After narrowly missing an appearance in London in 2012, Ettinger is confident he can earn a spot on the 2016 team. Once there, he wants to do more than just provide the United States with a warm body — he plans to be a valuable asset and the formula for success is a relatively straightforward one.
“It’s continuing to apply what I learn year after year,” he said. “Continuing to improve and increase my training load, finding time off the bike to relax and recharge my batteries and continuing to set my sights very high, but also setting realistic goals that I can achieve each year.”
Rio Grande looms in the distance, but Ettinger has plenty on his plate to satisfy his hunger. At least for now.