It’s getting to be that time of year where, when it comes to racing, the bloom is off the rose for some, and for others, the best is yet to come. A lot of riders, professionals and amateurs alike, who carried their summer road or mountain bike form into cross season are starting to feel the effects of a long year, while other folks, tortoise-and-hare style, are just feeling their oats and starting to think about doing something special for nationals, which at this point is just 2 months away. Say what!? Yes, there is still a lot of cyclocross racing to come here in North America. Despite the grumblings among some pros that the late date for nationals this year bumps up too closely against their upcoming 2012 road or mountain bike seasons—notably, current national champion Todd Wells has declared that he will not defend his jersey, and will instead focus on his 2012 Olympic campaign—it is undoubtedly a good thing that the UCI cyclocross calendar in the US is now finally beginning to look a little more like Europe.
The racing is looking a little more like Europe, as well, and this season has seen deeper fields and larger crowds at nearly every major race. The USGP series and other notable top-tier UCI races this season have been dominated mainly by the Ryan Trebon and Jeremy Powers show, while on the women’s side, every time Katie Effin’ Compton shows up, the exciting part is watching Katerina Nash, Kaitlin Antonneau, Meredith Miller, Nicole Duke, Mo’ Bruno Roy et al racing for second place. On the heels of this past weekend’s round of USGP races in Louisville, KY, dominated—no surprise—by Powers and Compton, we thought this was a good opportunity to consider where we’ve been, and where we’re going this season in North American cyclocross.
Rounds 5 and 6 of the 2011 Exergy USGP played out in Louisville this weekend on a fast, dry course, under cloudy skies, and the front of both the men’s and women’s races offered a primer on the current state of American ‘cross. In the women’s race, Compton and Nash separated themselves from the chase early, and it was a bobble from Nash at the top of the ride/run-up that allowed Compton to open a deadly 5 second gap with more than half the race left to go. One lap later and Compton had stretched that gap to an insurmountable 30 seconds or so, and Nash was back in the chase group with Miller, Antonneau, and Duke.
While Compton’s win was characteristically convincing, resounding, and a surprise to no one, perhaps the most exciting 500 meters of racing in the USGP yet this year came as Antonneau took the front late on the last lap and put in an acceleration that gapped Miller and Duke. Nash and Antonneau jockeyed for position after the ride up, and the young Antonneau unleashed a powerful sprint to take second over Nash, already a World Cup winner this season. At only 18 years old, Kaitlin Antonneau may be the most exciting thing coming up in American ‘cross.
The men’s race didn’t disappoint, either, with the exception of the fact that Ryan Trebon raced one-legged (and one leg-warmered), following an unfortunate tumble earlier in the day when he was knocked off-balance by a strong wind gust during warm-up. There are no drops in the USGP, however, and every race counts, so the big man took the start line to salvage what he could, which puts any “Tre-boo-hoo” foolishness firmly in the rearview mirror, as 2011 has clearly introduced American ‘cross fans to a new Ryan Trebon: older, wiser, not complaining, and displaying the form that saw him dominate the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
The first lap of the race saw little of note, other than perhaps the fact that Embrocation’s own newest columnist, Justin Lindine, got his best start ever at a major race and rounded the first turn in 5th position. The fast course took awhile to sort out, but when the dust settled, a group of 5 containing Powers, Todd Wells, Geoff Kabush, Ben Berden and Tim Johnson emerged and started putting distance into the chase group. Trebon struggled in the groups, pedaling hard, but having to walk the stairs of the flyover and the barriers, and losing heaps of ground each time. As Kabush took a sneaky line underneath Powers on the 2nd lap and snuck off for a brief solo flight, the working man’s race heated up behind, with Wisconsin’s Brian Matter and Tristan Schouten settling into the top-10, and Lindine and Colorado’s Alan Krughoff and Mitch Hoke working hard to make the second group.
The interesting part, before we get to the finish is this: Trebon was hurt, Christian Huele was hurt, Troy Wells had a bad day and dropped outside of the top 15; Adam Myerson has suffered a slight drop in form lately and was good-naturedly riding tempo around the course, contesting nothing and loving it; and even with all of these staples of American ‘cross missing from their usual places in action, the race was action packed! Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived here in the land of American cyclocross, and we have finally reached the point where, on any given day, the outcome is in fact uncertain, and the whole damn race is worth watching.
In the end, Powers and Wells outgunned the rest, Kabush held strong in 3rd, Johnson made a rare mistake and crashed out of the chase group, and Powers ultimately outmaneuvered and outkicked Wells for the win. There was a slight moment of uncertainty as Powers sat up to celebrate almost as soon as he hit the pavement, and Wells renewed his sprinting effort to nearly pip Powers on the line, but the outcome was never really in doubt, and it was more a case of the winner simply doing what was necessary to win, and no more.
Trebon, for his part, valiantly (there really isn’t a better word) attempted to defend his jersey, but ultimately finished 10th and ceded the series lead to Powers, which gives us all something to look forward to next month in Bend, Oregon, as Powers and Trebon will be sure to put on a spectacular show to determine the overall winner.
So what do we learn from all of this? Powers is on his best form ever, and this looks to be the year he can finally get the monkey off his back and win nationals, a race that has been pretty heavily cursed for him in years past. More importantly, there seems to be no reason he can’t go top-10 at Worlds, and wouldn’t that be something. Tim Johnson is almost in form, though with the rest of the field heating up it remains to be seen whether he made the right call to start his season underfit and try to race his way into shape. Ryan Trebon will undoubtedly make Powers earn whatever else he wins this year, and even though Todd Wells won’t be at the national championships in Madison, WI, look for him to play the role of the spoiler at the USGP finals in Bend. He did just win the notoriously brutal La Ruta De Los Conquistadores mountain bike stage race in Costa Rica. And what does a guy do who can win a race like that? Whatever he wants, that’s what.
For the everyday ‘cross fan, Colt McElwaine of Cyclingdirt.org is absolutely right: sometimes best-of-the-rest, or the race between the work-a-day riders, is the most interesting battle to watch. Tristan Schouten has put in some career best rides this year, and Brian Matter seems to get better every year, but don’t underestimate the Honey Badger Lindine. He hasn’t won all those races in New England this year for free, so look for him to make use of his hard-earned front row start at nationals and make the other top-10 hopefuls work hard for their glory. And you get no points for predicting that Zach McDonald and Danny Summerhill will go blow-for-blow in Madison come January for the honors of the u23 jersey.
The thing is, it’s working. Ben Turner’s long standing Clif Bar ‘cross program has given us riders to watch like Summerhill and Mitch Hoke; Myerson’s mission to saturate New England with UCI races has produced Powers, Driscoll, and now Lindine, as well as up-and-comers like Jerome Townsend; and the groundswell of enthusiasm for ‘cross in the Midwest, bolstered by Compton and Jonathan Page’s affiliation with Planet Bike in recent years has yielded Antonneau, and others as well.
It’s been a few years since an American male has medaled at the World Championships, but Compton has been knocking on the door and standing on the podium consistently for awhile now. Could this be the year an American wins worlds? Man? Woman? u23? It might be this year or it might not be, but it is definitely the decade for it.