BRUSSELS (VN) — Belgian fans are used to seeing a rider in the stars and stripes tear up and down the slopes of the Citadelle de Namur in the front of the peloton in the cyclocross World Cup. And they are used to seeing a rider who hails from Colorado on the podium in muddy, muddy Loenhout. It’s just that this year, it wasn’t the rider they expected to see.
While American champion Katie Compton struggled to overcome asthma and allergies during her winter Belgian cyclocross campaign, a fellow Coloradan stepped up to fill her shoes. This time it was Gage Hecht, 16, who flew the American flag, doing battle with the sport’s biggest young stars.
In fact, Hecht probably had raised a few eyebrows even before these past few weeks, when he stormed the dunes to win in sandy Koksijde — a non-World Cup junior race nonetheless held on one of the world’s most grueling cyclocross courses — in November.
Last Tuesday he capped a four-race block with USA Cycling’s Cyclocross Development Program with a terrific ride in the Bpost Bank Trofee race in Loenhout, Belgium. In brutal conditions, with temperatures hovering near freezing and the course a fearsome slurry of mud, snow, and ice water, Hecht rode to his second European podium of the season, recovering from an early mistake that left him marooned deep in the field to finish second place in the junior race.
“I’m ecstatic“ said Hecht. “It’s the first time this trip, the biggest race yet I podiumed on … The first part of the race I was in a battle, just the first few laps. The middle of the race I was trying to catch people, and coming into the last lap I caught the third place, which was kind of the real battle right there. I was able to drop him before we got to the finishing straight.”
It was his best result, but hardly his only impressive finish. Two days before, he finished just off the podium in a snowy, frozen race in the Brussels suburb Diegem. Two fifth place finishes in junior World Cup races, in Namur and Zolder, put him into fifth place in the overall junior standings, perhaps even in striking distance of the final podium with a good result on a course that suits him particularly well in Hoogerheide, Netherlands on January 25.
Not bad for a kid who juggles his nascent cycling career with college courses, which he takes alongside students who are years older, in place of more traditional high school studies. For Hecht, outsized achievement is just business as usual, and, says U.S. national team coach Geoff Proctor, who runs the federation’s cyclocross development program, he brings the same mental strength to his racing as he does to his academics.
“I think what impresses me the most is his mentality,” Proctor told VeloNews. “The mental side of his game is special, I think. I think that’s what’s really giving him the edge, because right now, technical — I saw it this summer at the national team camp — he still has a long way to go with his skills … But that to me is one of the biggest thing as a younger rider. The tactics and the technique will come. … He’s got the power, he’s just an ox, he’s just a horse out there.”
Hecht is hardly the prototypical cycling hopeful, though, especially among the European juniors he rubbed elbows with these past weeks, many of whom have been racing bikes their whole lives. Hecht is a relative newbie, by comparison. He’s an easygoing teenager who says he loves bikes, but aspires to one day be an airline pilot, who proudly races a titanium Moots from his home state, alone in a sea of young men on the latest and greatest carbon fiber wonder-bikes.
Ahead for Hecht is the national championship race in Austin, Texas, January 11, a race in which he is surely the overwhelming favorite. But nothing is a given, and Hecht will surely remember the sting of finishing second in the 15-16 age group in his home state in 2014. Then, he returns to Europe for the final race of the World Cup in the Netherlands and on to Tabor, in the Czech Republic, for the world championships, January 31-February 1.
Does he have a chance for the United States’ first worlds medal in two years? Proctor, who saw promising signs when Hecht raced against his prospective worlds rivals in Belgium, is nonetheless circumspect.
“He certainly has a chance at a top 10,” he said. “With juniors, I wouldn’t want to put that pressure on anybody; it’s just too hard to predict.”
Hecht, however, appears to take pressure — and the attention that comes with his latest success — in stride. Left alone after the podium ceremony in Loenhout, he leisurely strolled back to the national team’s camp at the race, carrying a gift basket of dairy products, part of the booty presented to him on the podium. He joked and smiled with Belgian spectators, slightly bemused by their interest. He patted teammates on the back as they went to the showers. And, he soaked up the chilly December sun.
On his way back to the team vans, he summed up his 10 days in Belgium — four huge races, and the best results by an American junior since 2012 — with characteristic understatement.
“It was a great trip,” he said. “This just tops it off really well.”