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U.S. Cycling This Week: Elvis, knobby tires and soup pots

No word on whether Elvis will be in attendance this year. Photo: Caley Fretz © VeloNews

BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — Ah, mid-September. The soup pot is nearly ready to replace the grill and the knobby tires the slicks. The second week of the ninth month is the time of year that the roadies and the ‘crossers dance together, one looking forward to vacation, the other to four — yes, four —months of gritty, muddy eyes, chest pains and regular bike washes. In the next five days the world will see its first two UCI cyclocross events of the season, in Nittany Lion Cross and CrossVegas, as well as the Sacramento Grand Prix criterium. Hup.

CrossVegas: you either love it or hate it. You’re either Jamey Driscoll or Todd Wells.

“I always have ambitions of having a good race there, but it just hasn’t happened yet. I’ve tried to simulate the high speeds, I’ve motorpaced. I’ve flown straight from Europe, I’ve tried being home for couple weeks,” Wells told VeloNews. “It’s the closest thing we have to a road criterium on the cyclocross circuit.”

With a great Elvis impersonator, showgirls and last year a giant, fire-breathing praying mantis, it’s also the closest thing we have to a circus on the U.S. bike racing circuit.

The international cyclocross season kicks off in earnest in the Nevada desert for the fifth time Wednesday night. In the men’s $8,723 event, Belgians Bart Wellens and Rob Peeters will be in Vegas for Telenet-Fidea. Dutchman Lars van der Haar will bring his U23 world title for Rabobank-Giant Offroad alongside Bart Aernouts and American Adam Craig.

The high-speed, tactical war on the grass of the Desert Breeze soccer complex will be the second opportunity for recent roommates-turned-rivals Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) to face off. They go head-to-head earlier in the day in a no-holds-barred miniature velodrome match on the show floor at the Interbike tradeshow.

Driscoll, winner in 2009, and new Cannondale recruit Christian Heule, the former Swiss champ, will be on-hand for the evening, as well as almost all of the top Americans in the sport: national champ Wells (Specialized), Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), Ryan Trebon (LTS-Felt) and Daniel Summerhill (Garmin). Canuck Geoff Kabush (Rocky Mountain-Maxxis) will be out of his native habitat in the desert as well, vying with Wells for best post-world mountain bike championships finish.

French champ Caroline Mani (Vienne Futuroscope) and U.S.-based worlds bronze medalist and defending ‘Vegas winner Katerina Nash (Luna) will lead the European women’s contingent against worlds silver medalist Katie Compton (Rabobank), Georgia Gould (Luna) and last year’s runner-up Amy Dombroski (Crank Brothers) for almost $6,000 in cash. Dombroski and new Cannondale signee Nicole Duke showed last weekend that they’re in full-on ‘cross mode with an incredibly violent start in the final-stage criterium of a regional stage race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Strawberries) will look to get on board the first-lap train as well after an early end to her road season.

Take away all of the hoopla, which is hard to do, and CrossVegas is a race unlike any other on the UCI ‘cross calendar. As Wells says, the Desert Breeze course is as close as it gets to a criterium without asphalt and free laps. There is no overly technical feature, but instead long, sweeping corners in the grass and a trio of run-ups on the notoriously power-sapping grass.

Trebon enjoys the racing in ‘Vegas.

“It’s a hard race to control; the fields are so different, so much deeper than at any other point in the season in the U.S. It’s just more of a crapshoot in the end,” he told VeloNews. “It’s a hard race to win because it’s so tactical … The grass isn’t sticky or heavy, it’s just slow, there’s so much resistance and that makes it hard because it’s easy to do these huge accelerations and get a 10-second gap, but then it’s draining to ride hard tempo on the front.”

CrossVegas is a tale of three parts: the first-lap fight for the early breakaway, the middle laps of mostly controlled, but breakneck racing and the final, explosive go-round. It is with that last lap that we truly ring in the first racing of the 2011-12 cyclocross season.

CrossVegas – Las Vegas, Nevada
September 14 7:00 p.m. (Wheelers & Dealers) / 8:20 p.m. (women) / 9:30 p.m. (men)
4 laps (Wheelers) / 40 min. (women) / 60 min. (men)
Purse: $5,905 (women) / $8,723 (men)
*Cross After Dark series

Nittany Lion Cross – Breinigsville, Pennsylvania
September 10 1:15 p.m. (women) / 2:30 p.m. (men)
40 min. (women) / 60 min. (men)
Purse: $1,773 (women) / $2,234 (men)

Sacramento Grand Prix – Sacramento, California
September 10 4:50 p.m. (women) / 6:00 p.m. (men)
70 min. (women) / 80 min. (men)
Purse: $4,000 (men/women)

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