Sven Nys prays for rain, Neils Albert doesn’t. The breweries in Flanders go into overtime as the potato fields are stripped bare to keep those frites vans fuelled. Amateurs all over Europe and North America agonise about when they’ll make the jump to discs. Yes, it’s the cyclo-cross season.
To be a top ‘Euro Crosser’ you need the start speed of a team sprint lead rider, the 60 minute wattage of a top chrono man, the agility of a downhill mountain biker – and the thick skin of a rhino to deflect the opposition fan’s taunts.
And this slightly mad sport – which they never get tired of in the flatlands of Flanders – has now caught the imagination of North Americans. The fields get classier, the crowds get bigger and there’s a jewel in the crown. Next February in Louisville, Kentucky – home to the famous horse race and Muhammad Ali – the World Cyclo-Cross Championships will take place.
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for US cross men – and one rider who’s grabbing his chance to show the ‘Euros’ what he’s made of, is United States champion, Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus).
Powers spoke to PEZ on the eve of his flight to the Czech Republic for the first cross World Cup race of the season in Tabor on October 21st and the second in Pizen on the 28th.
PEZ: A great start to the season for you, Jeremy?
Yeah, I’ve won all five Category One events in the US, this season – Las Vegas, Sun Prairie, Gloucester, Providence and Fort Collins.
I want those UCI points – and the prize money is better in C1 races, too. To perform well in those races was my first goal of the season – and I’ve achieved that.
This is what it’s all about. Powers made it two victories from two races at the recent USGP of Cyclocross at Fort Collins.
PEZ: That national champion’s skinsuit looks good on you.
Thank you, it’s something we’ve spoken about before – a race I always wanted to win and I take wearing it very seriously. It gives me added motivation, I want to wear it properly and best represent the USA in World Cup races.
It’s given me the incentive to make better use of my time; trim the fat and make sure I do things like my stretching, getting to bed earlier and generally narrowing my focus so as I waste less energy on non-cycling activities.
Powers looking sharp in his US Champ skinsuit at the season opening Tacchino Cross earlier this year – which he won.
PEZ: US ‘cross is exploding – why?
You have in-built spectators with the riders from the lower categories; they ride their race then pick their poison – beer, fries or burgers – and stick around to watch the big race.
Personalities have emerged to follow and the racing gets more competitive all the time.
The road and mountain bike guys are taking ‘cross much more seriously. It’s gone from ‘fun’ to a serious sport – but one of the main reasons that cross is growing is that folks like it!
PEZ: You and Mr. Huff had a good road season with Jelly Belly – presented by Kenda.
Brad had a great year; last year we had Ken Hanson as a sprinter, too. But this year Brad had a lot of weight of expectation on him and came up with the goods.
My role was one of the team road captains, to point the troops in the right direction. We rode well in the Tour of Korea; Brad was on the podium in the National Crit Champs and had a great win in the Nature Valley with a lot of other good results in there as well.
I did no road racing in August, which had plusses and minuses; but it must have been good for me because I couldn’t have had a better start to my ‘cross season.
PEZ: Have you ever considered a Euro road season, to set you up for the ‘cross?
I’ve thought about it but it’s about resources and support. I’ve had no offers from Europe and my Jelly Belly/Rapha programmes go really well together – I can pick and choose my programme and it works well for me.
I’ve shown flashes of what I can do in the big US pro races if I do the appropriate training, but I prefer to focus on my natural talent – which is for cyclo-cross. But racing at a high level on the road is definitely good for your ‘cross.
PEZ: Do you have a coach?
I’m with Training Peaks but I’ve been doing this for so long that I can feel what I need to do. Alex Donohue is my mentor and I bounce stuff off him – but I always try to look at the big picture.
For example, I’ll think I need to work on my strength and technique in the mud; so I’ll make today a ‘mud day’ – I think that overall I’ve been pretty smart with my training.
Powers having a ‘mud day’ at the WorldCup in the Netherlands in 2008.
PEZ: Nys says he has an obligation to his sponsors and fans to be good all the time – not just to peak for the Worlds, what’s your philosophy?
For sure I feel like I owe the fans, I have an obligation to them and to my sponsors – but Nys does pick and choose his days to an extent. If it’s a tough, muddy course then he’ll go for it, but if the course doesn’t suit him then he won’t go as deep. You have to put on a show for your fans – it’s your livelihood, after all – but this season, there’s just one end result which matters for me.
And that’s to be on that front row in Louisville!
PEZ: Let’s talk equipment for a minute – you’re on disc brakes, now.
I think we made history this weekend by being the first team to win a UCI C1 race on disc brakes – but maybe you should check that stat! I’m really happy with them, I just love the way the bike rides with them. Cantilever brakes get the job done, but they don’t have the same stopping power as the discs – you just know that you’ll stop. We had two identical bikes made up, one with cantilevers and one with discs, but the disc equipped bike was just so much better to ride.
PEZ: I noticed that your team mate, Chris Jones is still on cantilevers?
My bike isn’t exactly a prototype but it’s not on the market, yet – although ultimately you’ll be able to buy one like it.
Powers’ Rapha-Focus teammate Chris Jones using the cantilever setup at the recent USGP of Cyclocross at Fort Collins.
PEZ: And I see you’re still on that Dugast rubber?
We’ve looked at tyres and for us Dugast are still the best on the market – and we hear that they have new models in the pipeline . . .
PEZ: It must be hard work being a cross mechanic?
Tom Hopper is the man who looks after my bikes; he’s an ex-Garmin mechanic. On a road team you have maybe three bikes – race, time trial and training. But for just one ‘cross race, if it’s muddy, you need three bikes – looking after one ‘cross rider is the equivalent of four or five road riders.
That means that at the highest level you need one mechanic for each rider.
PEZ: Is your ‘cross position much different from your road position?
It’s a bit shorter and more upright when I’m on the brake hoods.
Your lower back takes a pounding so you need to sit that bit lower – in ‘cross you’re never ‘cruising,’ you’re always getting bumped around.
PEZ: The Czech races – do you know the courses?
I rode my first Worlds in Tabor, so yes. The courses tend to be more like US courses and less like the Belgian field-based ones – they have fast, power sections, which should suit me. I was 10th behind Nys in Pizen, last year and 15th behind Pauwels in Tabor.
Pez note: Jeremy had a great race this weekend in Tabor riding to a career best 7th place in the World Cup won by Kevin Pauwels.
PEZ: What are the plans between now and the Worlds?
After the World Cups, I have the Worlds ‘try out’ race in Louisville in November, that’s UCI C1, so I want to do well there. The national championships are mid January with the Worlds two weeks later – the nationals are important to me because I need all the UCI points I can get to be on that front row on Worlds day.
That’s what everything is aimed at – the team has rented a house in Louisville for the month of January so we can be there training on the course.
Knowing the course and hopefully starting on the front row, Powers will be looking for his best ever result come February in Louisville. Here he’s pictured at the 2011 Worlds where he finished 16th – despite this little incident.
PEZ: And we have to ask – Lance?
In a way, I feel naive; I didn’t understand the depth of it. But there are a lot of guys who race clean in amongst that – look at Danny Pate. I admire those riders and riders like Taylor Phinney and Bradley Wiggins, who I believe to be clean.
For the record, I’m clean and in all my blogs and interviews I’ve expressed strong anti-doping sentiments. And I’ll give you an exclusive – I’ve never even smoked dope! Those guys gave a bad representation of our sport – they did have another choice.
I feel bad for the fans and the clean guys.
The trouble is that it happened a decade ago – but the sport has changed, the culture has changed and what happened back then is bad for our sport, now.