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Preview: Worlds looms large as Compton, Powers return to Wisconsin to defend titles

Elite men

2012 podium: 1. Jeremy Powers 2. Ryan Trebon 3. Jonathan Page

Defending champion Jeremy Powers has been the No. 1–ranked U.S. ’cross rider for the past three seasons. Last year he managed to cast off the bad luck that had plagued him at nationals to win solo ahead of Ryan Trebon (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Jonathan Page (ENGVT). This season he’s either won or made the podium in every U.S. race he’s entered and repeated his overall victory in the Trek U.S. Gran Prix series. Save for a couple of disappointing results in recent World Cups in Europe, Powers has had a remarkable season, and on Saturday he showed off his good form in Chicago, taking a comfortable win in the snow against key rivals and former Cannondale teammates Jamey Driscoll and Tim Johnson.

Unlike last year, when Powers was under tremendous pressure to win after a decade of nationals disappointment, he told VeloNews last week that things are different this time around.

“I feel great going into the nationals again, and frozen conditions suit me well,” he said. “Now that I’ve finally been the national champion I know the feeling and the opportunity that’s there. The motivation is high to try and repeat.”

He’ll be keeping a close eye on Page, a three-time elite national champion, who heads to the Midwest after a string of season-best top-10 performances in Belgium.

“I’m happy that my form is coming around and that I am finally healthy,” Page told VeloNews. “I can’t wait to race nationals — I’d love to be in the champ’s jersey.”

For Page, the sloppier and more technical the course, the better he tends to perform. After finishing third at nationals last year, he’ll be disappointed with anything less a victory on Sunday. If he wins, he’ll start next month’s world championships in Kentucky wearing the stars-and-strips jersey, a fitting honor for arguably the most successful male ’cross rider to come out of North America.

As for last year’s runner-up, Trebon, the former national champion has had a number of podium appearances this season and a month ago won a round of the USGP in his hometown of Bend, Oregon. He’s been keeping a low profile since, training in California. Trebon recently had a setback in his preparation after coming down with stomach flu, but he told VeloNews on Monday that he still expects to be 100 percent on Sunday.

“If I’m not that good this week at nationals then I’ll be even better for worlds,” he said.

Like Page, Trebon’s a mudder and thrives in the worst conditions.

“Last year the it dried out and wasn’t super heavy or muddy, and that plays to Jeremy’s strengths a little more than it does mine,” he said. “But if it rains or snows, I’ll have a better chance.”

As for the course, Tim Johnson told VeloNews that it should be more selective than in 2012.

“We had unusually warm conditions last year and the mud didn’t affect the results as much as it could have,” he said. “I’m guessing that we’ll be dealing with some snow and colder temps, which should make for a dynamic race. Combine that with the elevation change on-course and it could be really tough.”

Johnson himself is a threat, of course, and his results have been solid for most of the season. A win in December ahead of Trebon in Bend on day two has set him up for an end-of-season run at nationals and worlds.

Who does Johnson see as his chief rivals?

“Page is the rider with the most momentum,” he said. “He’s been putting together some solid results against the hardest fields and on courses that make our typical high-speed dry course seem like a bunny slope. Transitioning that speed into a result at nats isn’t a given, though. Trebon will be riding well, and with his power he should inflict the most pain.”

One revelation of last year’s nationals was 21-year-old Zach McDonald (Rapha), who won the U23 championship on Saturday and finished fourth in the elite race on Sunday. This time he’s skipping the U23 tilt to focus on the elite contest (UCI rules now prohibit riders from starting both races). Since last year he’s shown that his fourth place was no fluke and that he can ride at the top of the sport. McDonald won the second day of the Providence festival in October and a podium finish on Sunday would serve to solidify his place among the new order of U.S. ’cross.

Another young rider to watch is Danny Summerhill (UnitedHealthcare), who comes into nationals from his road team’s training camp in Arizona. At just 23 years old, Summerhill has either shown himself capable of beating any American rider this season — or found himself on the sidelines with a heavy crash or mechanical. Summerhill’s place in the six-man U.S. worlds team likely relies on a race win on Sunday; look for him to ride like it.

Rounding out the favorites is Driscoll, who on his day can win any race in the U.S. He won a cold battle on Sunday at New Year’s Rosolution, beating Johnson and Page, and all season long it’s as if he’s been waiting in the wings to strike big. Sunday could see him take his first elite title, especially if he and his two teammates, Johnson and Trebon, can work together.

With so many of the best riders coming into nationals with good form, expect a true battle on Sunday, with Driscoll, Powers, Page, Johnson, Trebon, Summerhill and McDonald making up the front group and putting on a show well worth watching.

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