By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
For Tobin Ortenblad, cyclocross is all about having fun. And it’s much more fun when you win.
A small group of friends and co-workers gathered at Spokesman Bicycles on Wednesday to celebrate Ortenblad’s huge victory. Last Sunday, the Santa Cruz resident won the championship title in the men’s age 19-22 category at the 2016 USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross National Championships, held in Asheville, N.C.
Ortenblad clinched the victory by beating out dozens of other top-notch competitors from around the country in the unique sport of cyclocross. ’Cross, as it’s commonly called, is best known for its riders jumping on and off their bicycles in order to breach barriers, run up steep hills and negotiate tight turns — all at breakneck speed.
“’Cross is my sport. It’s definitely the most fun,” said Ortenblad, 21, who grew up mountain biking Santa Cruz trails.
He fell in love with cyclocross and developed superior bicycle handling skills and gut-busting aerobic fitness through years of consistent training. ’Cross races happen only in the fall and winter, which often means wet, cold, slippery or even icy conditions.
Ortenblad, a graduate of Pacific Collegiate School and mechanical engineering student at Cabrillo College, will be the guest of honor Sunday at his workplace, Spokesman Bicycles. The shop will host a victory celebration and send-off as Ortenblad prepares to race at the UCI World Championships in Belgium, Jan. 30-31.
Spokesman co-owner Wade Hall said his employee of six years “was raised as a cyclocross racer by many racers of the Santa Cruz ’cross community. He has flourished. Tobin has been the heir apparent of a long line of cycling stars from Santa Cruz.”
When pressed to comment on his winning moment, Ortenblad, who rides for Cal Giant Berry Farms/Specialized, was modest.
“I crossed the finish line with my arms up. It was pretty emotional winning something like that,” he said. “When I crossed the finish line, I was swarmed by friends and family. I was stoked!”
Shivering in upper-30-degree temperatures at the starting line in Asheville, Ortenblad was anxious. Even though he was competing at the national event for his seventh time in a row (having started when he was 14), he had the jitters.
“I was very nervous,” he said. “The biggest thing is being scared of losing. The fear of failure is the biggest thing to not freak out about.”
Apparently, he had little to fear.
Ortenblad shot ahead from the start.
The very first moments of a cyclocross race are critical, in part because races are short compared to other cycling disciplines. The longest races for pros are just one hour, even though they can feel like an eternity. Ortenblad’s race was 50 minutes.
“There is high pressure to get the hole shot,” Ortenblad said. “That means from standing at the start line, you need to be able to clip into your pedals really fast to have a good start. It’s really about the the sprinting power.”
At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Ortenblad is built for power. More muscular than most cyclists, however, he also has a harder time tackling climbs. On the muddy course, which was slippery from the rain the day before, the toughest sections for him were the dirt switchbacks.
“That hurt the most. That’s where I had to hold on the most,” he said.
On those tough sections, he channeled the motto taught to him by his coach, Chris McGovern, who lives in Nevada City: Relentless forward progress.
“No matter what I am thinking about, it’s all about going forward,” Ortenblad said. “If you make a mistake, don’t think about it, it’s behind you.”
He also relied upon his extensive training, which included weekly motorcycle pacing with his father, Rick. Ortenblad drafted off his dad’s wheel, averaging 30 miles per hour during a 90-minute ride up Highway 1 to Año Nuevo and back.
At the nationals, Ortenblad raced hard during all six laps and at one point, saw his top competitor crash, a stroke of luck.
“As I came into the last lap, I knew I had little gap and I knew I could win it,” he said. “I was pretty stoked the whole last lap. I was trying to keep it balanced, not crashing, not making stupid mistakes.
“My first win was special. It’s different.”
He completed his six laps at a rate of approximately 8 minutes, 40 seconds per lap.
“We were all teary-eyed at the finish line in North Carolina,” said Ortenblad’s sister, Maddie, who took up cyclocross shortly after her brother. “The most exciting part of this win, other than getting to brag that my brother is the national champion, is that wearing the stars and stripes should be extremely helpful for his cyclocross future as he goes into the elite field next year. I would love to see Tobin finish in the top 10 at worlds. That’s definitely a hard goal to reach, but if he continues to race smart and use his technical skills to his advantage, he has a strong chance at top 10.”
Ortenblad has a little time to celebrate and catch his breath before he departs for Europe next week for his final World Cup race, quickly followed by the UCI World Championships. At worlds, he will be part of a six-man team of top U.S. racers in the U-23 category.
It will be his fifth consecutive appearance at the world championships, but the first time he arrives wearing the stars and stripes jersey of the USA national champion.
“I feel good going into worlds,” he said. “I am more confident. I know that the work I’ve been putting in is showing. It’s gratifying.”
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.
This story was edited Jan. 15 to correct information regarding the UCI World Championships.