NAMUR, Belgium (VN) — Jonathan Page is going to Louisville, Kentucky. In one muddy trip around the slimy steeps of the Citadelle de Namur, the Belgium-based American took what was beginning to look like a lost year and made it into something. Exactly what that something is remains to be seen, but it is hard to argue that Page has not kickstarted his faltering season.
Page, arguably the most accomplished American man in the history of cyclocross — and the only elite American man ever to stand on the podium at a world championships — has spent a season in limbo: without a title sponsor, finishes mired seemingly permanently in the mid-twenties. When Jeremy Powers rode to a blazing seventh-place finish in the first round of the World Cup in October, bumping Page down a notch on the list of all-time best World Cup results by an American man, many started to wonder whether Page’s time had passed.
But a 15th-place finish Sunday in the fifth round of the World Cup in Namur all but guaranteed Page a slot on the American team for the world championships in Louisville. More to the point, Page’s 15th on one of the most demanding ’cross courses in the world, nearly two minutes ahead of the next American, also sends a message. Page, it seems, is still among the American elite.
Page’s ride on Sunday satisfied the fifth of six automatic selection criteria for USA Cycling’s elite men’s team for Louisville. While he is not assured a place in the team until USAC announces its selection on January 14, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Page is not selected. Most likely, a rider other than Page, Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), Ryan Trebon or Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) — the top three Americans on UCI points by the most recent count — would need to win the U.S. national championship and another rider would need to finish inside the top five at the World Cup in Zolder on December 26 or Rome on January 6 in order for Page to miss the team.
The road back from purgatory for Page has not been easy. Page showed signs of life in November, finishing 12th in a tough race in Gavere before illness sent him sliding back into obscurity with finishes in the thirties in World Cups in Koksijde and Roubaix, France. Then, in what had to be the sloppiest conditions anyone has seen this season, he broke through again on Saturday in Essen, finishing 12th despite a GPS that left him lost and stranded on a dead end road, in a mobile home with an overheated engine, just hours before the race.
Working out of the back of the family minivan on Sunday, Page was undeterred. After flatting early in the race, he once again found himself adrift among the mid-high twenties. This time, however, he responded. He surged through a group of some 10 riders, moving himself to within striking distance of the magical top 15 in a single lap, and posting one of the fastest final laps of the day to seal his spot on the worlds team. Only Sven Nys posted a faster time in the last lap.
“This is very good for my season, very good for the possibility of sponsorship,” a visibly relieved Page told VeloNews after the race. “I’ve been struggling for a long time now, and things are finally turning my way — our way, my family’s way, I’m just very happy.”
The sale of his long-time sponsor Planet Bike, left Page without a title sponsor for the season. Bike sponsor Blue has been sold as well, leaving that sponsorship package in doubt as well. Results like Sunday’s, he hopes, will help him to recruit new sponsors to fill the gap next season.
“I’ve been riding on a wing and a prayer,” he said, of his logistical struggles. “And all I can say is that I have control over myself, that’s the only thing I can keep control of, so that’s what I’ve concentrated on.”
Page said, with the hurdle of qualifying for worlds now cleared, he would next set his sights squarely on earning a fourth national title in Madison, Wisconsin, in just a few weeks’ time. Only once in the past 10 years has Page failed to make the podium at nationals when, in 2010, he opted to skip the race in order to remain with his pregnant wife, Cori, in Belgium. Despite a decade of good results, Page has not won a title since claiming his third straight in 2004 in Portland, Oregon.
That Page is able to talk seriously about the possibility of winning a fourth national title is testament to the psychological boost two days of good races have earned him. That Page spoke so emotionally of aspiration to a result for which he would have been the favorite just a few years ago is testament to the depth of his recent slump.
And, while it’s a long way from a good weekend of racing to a career renaissance, it does seem that the 36-year-old has turned some kind of corner.
“After the beginning of the race, it would have been very easy for me to have given up,” Page said, “but before the race, I talked to Franky and he said, ‘It’s going to be a mental game today, and no matter what happens, I think you’re going to start to feel better, and if you have anything left in the tank, I think you’ll start to catch people.’ And I didn’t have a great start at all, but then I was able to put the hammer down.”
Franky is Page’s mechanic, Franky Van Haesebroucke. Page, who purchased a house in Utah earlier this year and talked about returning to the U.S. more or less full-time before making the decision to remain in Europe for at least one more season, saved a few special words for a man who he credited with helping to keep him going even though the lowest points of a months-long low spot.
“Franky and his wife Cindy have been here every since Cori and I got here. Since before we were making any money, before kids,” Page said, his voice laced with emotion. “And they’ve been through it all with us. Franky’s been with me every step of the way. Even when I ride like crap, he’s always saying, ‘I think you’re going to get better.’ Franky means a lot to my whole career, and there are very few people who you find in life like that. He’s a longtime friend, and always will be no matter what.”
But with barely more than a month until Louisville, Jonathan Page doesn’t have time to wax nostalgic — at least not yet.
“I have a lot of work to do,” he said after Sunday’s race. “But this work is nice work, because I know what the goal is now.”