BALTIMORE, Maryland (VN) — Spencer Petrov sat hunched on the ground, his legs spread wide, sweat dripping from his brow, eyes glazed in a post-anaerobic stupor, with a hint of disappointment.
Just after crossing the finish line on day two of the US Cup-CX/Charm City, Petrov (Aspire Racing) slumped to the dirt and leaned back against the course’s fencing. It was a race that came down to a last-lap battle with reigning national champion Stephen Hyde (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com). The 6-foot-2 Petrov relished the duel, but ultimately lost the race: When Hyde slipped out in a corner, the two became tangled, and Hyde was able to remount faster and pin it to the finish.
“I just need to keep pushing myself, just find where the new fitness is, where my roof is,” Petrov said just after finishing the race in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. “Today was one of the closest times that I got to it. But there’s more work to do.”
Under the tutelage of Jeremy Powers, and within the supportive atmosphere of his Aspire Racing outfit, Petrov, 19, is quickly taking all of the raw talent and potential that had been evident for years and turning it into unfettered success. On multiple occasions this season, he has outperformed his “boss,” four-time national champion Powers. He has scored several second-place finishes behind established veterans of the sport.
For Petrov, it comes down to being in a place that allows him to thrive, both personally and professionally. The team offers him the atmosphere to balance being who he is — an energetic, social, sometimes zany kid — with the discipline it takes to be an elite professional athlete, where training is serious business.
“[The team] have labeled me as, ‘Okay, this person has what it takes to be successful and is showing great promise.’ And so we’re surrounded by people who help us do the little things that save that percentage point of energy that we can’t waste so we can be at our best when we race,” Petrov said of his new team. “Everything about it is what I dreamed of and better. I was already a hard worker, but now I’m motivated to work even harder because they’re all working so hard for me.”
Powers closely followed Petrov’s racing for years, becoming an informal mentor before finally hiring the developing star in July. Conversely, Petrov’s initial star-struck idolization of Powers as a 12-year-old gradually evolved into professional admiration. Now, the two have a dynamic relationship that is bringing both of them success in different ways.
Onto the radar
When Petrov was 12 years old, his mother Malissa sent Powers a letter describing her son’s adoration for him. She asked if Powers would send some signed posters to her family. Of course he would. That was how the little kid from the Ohio Valley first came onto Powers’s radar. Thereafter, when Powers attended the three-day Cincinnati races, he’d always hear about how this Petrov kid was annihilating the masters racers.
“He looked like he was in Pampers,” Powers said. “Seriously, he was like a child, but that was the moment when I started to pay attention. When someone has that much talent at such a young age, that means something.”
Powers paid attention for years. Racing in the Ohio Valley afforded Petrov the ability to shine in a growing hotbed of the sport. Among the many great mentors who shaped who he is, none were more important than his parents.
“Jeremy has even mentioned that, ‘You have amazing parents. And that means you’re easy to work with,’” Petrov said. “They put a good head on my shoulders, and I worked really hard too.”
Some may have been surprised that Powers chose Petrov — who previously raced for Cyclocross Alliance — to join his Aspire Racing squad. After all, the stated goal of Powers’s professional team is to provide a place for his JAM Fund development riders to aspire to get to. (Hence, the name.) In that way, the JAM Fund serves as a ladder, per se, toward Aspire. If a rider can dedicate enough time to become a professional, if he can make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen, then Powers wants those talents to have a place to go, he said. It’s something he didn’t have as a developing rider.
“I’m very interested in development, I’m very interested in young riders. That’s the direction I’d like to head with all the things that we’re doing,” Powers said. “Spencer fit the right mold. I knew him; I knew that his energy was right. I knew that personality-wise, he was going to be a good fit. That stuff is important in a team.”
In their time spent together, from riding trainers in team mechanic Tom Hopper’s garage in the weeks before Boulder nationals in 2013 to the many interactions they had at races in Ohio and beyond, Powers realized something about Petrov that kept him invested: energy.
“I see a lot of things in Jeremy: friend, older brother, mentor, sometimes a boss.”
“We got the same ‘crazy’ going on up in the head all the time!” Petrov said. “It’s really funny when we start going off — we get each other, and everyone else in the car is like, ‘What are you talking about?!’ We get it, and that’s all that matters.”
Powers also noticed from years of watching Petrov that his disciple had an “insane work ethic.” In short, in his combination of determination and boundless energy, Powers saw a lot of himself. Over the years the mentor has downloaded much of what has helped him balance those sometimes contradictory qualities, schooling the student in the nuances of dealing with a very active brain.
“I see a lot of things in Jeremy: friend, older brother, mentor, sometimes a boss, and sometimes someone who is looking out for me, and someone I can go to for help in life, in my racing, and my training. I have it really good here,” Petrov said.
In person, the similarities are easy to see, from the silliness to the distractibility to the poise. Ellen Noble, the third member of the Aspire Racing family, has a front-row seat for all of it.
“They’re both really, really silly,” Noble said. “The two of them play off of each other really well. I think Jeremy wanted that goofiness and that friendship with me but I couldn’t really give him that [laughs]. So to be able to grab Spencer, put him in a headlock, and give him a ‘noogie’ while I’m reading my book in the corner is the perfect dynamic.”
Into the future
While Powers and his contemporaries, riders such as Tim Johnson and Jonathan Page, had sporadic success at the World Cup level, things have changed. According to Powers, programs now exist to help riders like Petrov go much further. Geoff Proctor’s EuroCrossCamp, for example, exposes young riders to that eccentric, cutthroat world of European cyclocross, and it makes them better riders, if only by awakening a sense of how difficult it will be to succeed in such an environment. Petrov first attended the camp when he was 13.
In such a setting, Powers said, the necessary work ethic becomes ingrained, as does the sacrifice it takes to make it. Petrov already has several top-five results at high-caliber European junior races, including a fourth place at the Namur World Cup stop in 2015.
“Now [riders like Petrov] have a good understanding of what it’s going to take,” Powers said. “I think Spencer’s going to have a way easier time being able to be there, be comfortable there, be accepted by his peers there … That process is already well underway and he’s only 19. I hadn’t even stepped foot in Europe at his age.”
But first, Petrov is having plenty of success in the U.S. On four occasions this season, he finished second in UCI races: day one of the KMC Cross Fest, day two of Charm City, day one of Gloucester, and day one of Cincinnati. Each time he has outridden Powers.
As he puts it, this season is about what he calls ‘living:’ being serious while being funny; relaxing and working really hard; remaining on schedule and being ready to adapt; and keeping relationships with parents, friends, and sponsors going smoothly.
“It’s the circle of life: you have to be in flow,” Petrov said.
“Spencer has already over-exceeded expectations by being on the podium multiple times at the pro level.”
Powers does not hesitate when asked if Petrov will one day exceed what he was able to accomplish. Oh, yes, he said. Given where he is now, the teenager could be a “multi-generational rider,” able to race with three generations of riders, with enough natural talent to take it to the world level, Powers said.
“If he were from Europe and had that amount of talent, he would be on a big professional team,” Powers said. “I am in a position to help him here. As a business owner, from where I stand, Spencer has already over-exceeded expectations by being on the podium multiple times at the pro level.”
The Aspire team has become Petrov’s new home. He has moved to the Northampton, Massachusetts area to ride and train with his teammates, as well as those by extension, on the JAM Fund squad.
“He fits in really well because that’s how Jeremy and I are: We’re all fun-and-games but we have that switch and take our racing very seriously,” Noble said. “Having Spencer fall seamlessly into that approach has been better than we could have anticipated.”
’Cross is Petrov’s devotion. The inevitable question about choosing between a road or ’cross career? He simply suggests you look at the pro team he’s racing for. He wants an inaugural win in the pro field in the U.S. (It seems only a matter of time.) He wants success in Europe: In his mind, he’s going to win a U23 world championship.
Powers says that confidence is the most important quality he looks for in aspiring racers.
“More than anything, he wants it,” Powers said. “He has ‘the kill,’ as I call it. You really can’t train that mentality, that desire. He has it.”