Colorado Mesa cyclist chases college title after back injury

The steeper the climb the better for 23-year-old Spanish cyclist Mauro Rato . That’s his forte.

The sharper of descent? Now that took some resolve for the Colorado Mesa University senior to conquer.

Understandable, considering that nearly four years ago he blew a tire during a race in Spain, crashed into a wall and fractured six vertebrae .

It’s been an arduous climb back – one that saw him morph from a sprinter into more of an endurance specialist, change schools and land in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he rides for the varsity squad. He will be among the favorites as the USA Cycling collegiate road national championships roll into Rato’s high-elevation backyard this weekend.

”To be honest, I’m not nervous,” said Rato , who will compete in the road race, criterium competition and the team time trial as he tries to help the Mavericks unseat Division I varsity defending champion Marian University from Indianapolis. ”I don’t have any pressure. I’m going to try to enjoy the race as much as I can. If I can win, I’ll be happy. If I can’t, I’ll be happy anyway.”

Growing up in Gijon, a coastal city in northern Spain, his dad bought him his first bike – it was green – and took him to a local park to learn to ride.

He was hooked at first pedal.

But this truly fueled his desire: The cycling stories over long lunches told to him by his grandpa, Jose Luis Rato, a rider in the 1950s. He regaled his grandson with tales of winning stages at big races.

”That,” Rato said , ”is really when I decided to like cycling.”

As a teenager, he charged to wins with his sprinting ability. That led him to Mars Hill University in North Carolina, where he finished 47th in his first collegiate national road race in 2014.

Back in Spain about a month later, he was cruising along in a race when he headed into a downhill section.

What happened next remains a blur. He’s only pieced together the details of the accident by talking to teammates.

His front tire went flat. He lost control of his bike. He slid into a rock wall.

Rato was transported by ambulance to the hospital and then flown by helicopter to a bigger facility. He didn’t require surgery but had to stay for about a month as his back healed. Then, he was confined to his home for another two months. Given all the down time, he pondered his cycling career .

”I was thinking of retiring and stop racing,” said Rato, who’s majoring in sports management with a minor in business administration. ”For me, it didn’t make sense to crash again, or to be on the bike again, to be scared. But after being at home without doing anything, feeling sick, I realized that cycling was my life.”

The crash changed him.

Physically, he lost weight – about 22 pounds (10 kilograms) – which altered his racing style. He’s now known as much for his stamina as his sprinting.

Emotionally, he had hurdles to clear, too.

”Sometimes on a downhill, I still feel a little bit scared about crashing again,” Rato said. ”But it’s cycling. I’m going to try to keep going and see where my limit is.”

At Mars Hill in 2015, Rato finished third in the road race and seventh in the criterium. Soon after, he decided to transfer to Colorado Mesa for a fresh opportunity.

His coach Patric Rostel eagerly welcomed him into the program. Rostel, a competitive cyclist from Germany, knew Rato could be a vital cog to help build a high-powered program in the thin air of Grand Junction (elevation: roughly 4,600 feet).

”What makes him so good is he’s 100 percent dedicated,” said Rostel, who competed for Colorado Mesa and captured the collegiate national criterium title in 2012. ”He can go over his limits.”

Last season, Rato finished fifth in the national road race and 10th in the criterium.

This season, he’s even more prepared. He knows every undulation along the four-loop course that’s 66 miles (106 kilometers) in total and features plenty of hills. He rides it at least once a week.

”Just to see if there are any holes in the road, and to know the hills,” Rato said.

Any advantage helps against a dynamic squad such as Marian University.

”If everything goes in our favor, we have a chance to compete for No. 1 on the podium,” Rostel said.

It’s Rato’s last go-round on this level and he’s planning to savor every moment. Down the road, he hopes to sign with a professional team and race all over.

”I want my granddad to watch me on TV one day,” Rato said. ”Now that would be awesome.”