KETCHUM, Idaho – Missoula mountain biker Sam Schultz will head to the London Olympics as his country’s national champion.

Schultz bested fellow Olympian Todd Wells of Durango, Colo., to win USA Cycling’s cross country mountain bike national championship on Saturday.

“It’s amazing, super cool,” Schultz said as he pedaled his way back to his hotel to meet his family for dinner.

The race was tight most of the way until Wells had a flat tire with one lap to go in the six-lap race. Schultz led Wells entering the final lap’s climb and pulled away from there.

“Todd and I were definitely duking it out the whole race,” Schultz said. “There was a super gnarly climb on the course and a long descent. … Every lap I was able to get him at the top of the climb.

“The fifth lap we duked it out pretty hard and I opened maybe a 10-second gap on him and then he caught me on the descent, then flatted in one of the rock gardens. He made a really quick wheel change and he was still pretty close. It was nerve-wracking the whole way, but it felt pretty good. I gave it everything I have on that last climb.”

Schultz finished in 1 hour, 48 minutes and 17 seconds. Wells was 64 seconds behind.

It was a reversal of the 2011 national championships when Wells beat Schultz by 49 seconds for the crown.

“It was sort of a similar race last year,” Schultz said. “We were battling it out the whole race and he ended up getting me in the end. This year I was able to get him. Obviously the flat was unfortunate. It would have been pretty exciting if we were battling it out on that last lap. I’m bummed for him that he had trouble with the flat, but it felt really good to take over the jersey.”

Schultz and Wells are rivals on the course; friends off it.

“When we’re out there racing it’s blow-for-blow,” Schultz said. “But we’re definitely friends off the bike and get along well. He’s a super good guy.”

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski of Boulder, Colo., placed third in 1:50:05; Ryan Trebon of Bend, Ore., was fourth in 1:50:48; and Jeremiah Bishop of Harrisonburg, Va., was fifth in 1:51:22.

Schultz was coming off a 10th-place showing at a World Cup race in Windham, N.Y., on June 30. It was his highest career finish in a World Cup race.

Could he be building some momentum for the Olympics?

“For sure,” he said. “I definitely feel like I’ve been coming around lately and things are starting to click. That’s super promising.”

It was a good day for the Schultz family as Sam’s father Bill placed 11th in the men’s master 55-59 division.

“My brother (Andy) would have been racing but he crashed earlier this week and banged up his knee pretty good,” Schultz said. “He’s hobbling around.”

Schultz will head back to Missoula on Monday and will compete in the races at Marshall Mountain on Saturday and Sunday.

“Oh heck yeah, wouldn’t miss it,” Schultz said.

Georgia Gould of Fort Collins, Colo., also an Olympian, won the women’s national title. Gould attended the University of Montana. Lea Davison of Jericho, Vt., the second member of the women’s Olympic team, placed second to Gould.

Schultz was named to the Olympic mountain biking team by USA Cycling last month. Schultz, 26, is the first Missoula native to represent the U.S. in the Olympics since freestyle aerials skier Eric Bergoust competed in the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

Schultz won’t compete until the final day of the London Games on Sunday, Aug. 12. Racing begins at 6:30 a.m. MDT that day on a course at Hadleigh Farm in Essex, 35 miles east of London.

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Now this is sports news that Missoula can be proud of. Great job Sam!

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