Gage Hecht is now the best American cyclocross racer in the men’s Under-23 division — just don’t tell that to him. When posed with that label, Hecht offered a modest smile and spoke the names of his rivals.
“I don’t know about that, it’s a strong field right now,” the 19-year-old Hecht says. “Eric’s [Brunner] been right on my heels every race we’ve done. Spencer [Petrov], I haven’t really gotten to race a fair U23 race only with him. He was super-strong at the beginning of the season, and he broke his chain at Pan-Ams. … It’s been a pretty strong pack.”
His argument was not entirely compelling.
In his second year in the espoir division, Hecht has won three major U23 races in the U.S., including the Pan-American championships in Louisville, November 5. Although he’s still finding his place in the international races, Hecht was a respectable 15th in the muddy Namur round of the U23 World Cup Sunday — making him the top American by nearly three minutes.
His exceptional results are part of a long progression that began when Hecht was a pre-teen. Along the way, he won six junior national championships, including two in the increasingly competitive junior 17-18-year-old age group.
That first Stars and Stripes jersey he won in January 2015 as a 17-year-old capped off a big year in Hecht’s development. He won the junior race at Koksijde in November and collected four top-fives during the Kerstperiode European races over the holidays.
“It was amazing; I was shocked when I won,” Hecht said in 2014 after winning Koksijde. “It was my first race over there, and I hadn’t had the chance to see what the competition was like before that.”
But perhaps more important than the results, which also included a fourth at worlds, was the fact that Hecht joined Colorado’s Alpha Bicycle-Vista Subaru development team.
“We had the idea that we could put together some things for him,” says team director and Alpha bike shop owner Adam Rachubinski. “That just happened to be the breakout year he had when he finished fourth at worlds and won a national championship.”
In that first season, 2014-2015, Hecht would often cram into the Alpha van alongside luggage and bikes to travel to races with his father and Rachubinski. It was a grassroots approach, but the young racer was a quick study.
“It’s huge. Being a junior, you start to realize how much the sport actually demands,” Hecht said.
The relationship was mutually beneficial. Hecht began to learn the craft of being an elite cyclocross racer, and his success boosted the Alpha team’s profile.
“That season lit a fire with the program and sparked an interest with the cycling community with some of our sponsors,” Rachubinski says.
Now with more resources and sponsorship, the team’s riders usually fly to races instead of cramming into a van. Alpha-Groove Subaru is also home to junior national cyclocross champion Katie Clouse, collegiate national cyclocross champion Brannan Fix, and Turner Ramsay, a former junior champion herself.
“It’s a labor of love. It’s not a business decision at all,” Rachubinski says of his program. “The goal for it is to continue to develop riders from the ground up. Find the young riders with potential and give them resources to succeed.”
Hecht’s success this season has gone beyond dominance in under-23 races as well. He won his first elite UCI race November 18 at the Major Taylor ’Cross Cup in Indianapolis. Since the second day of the US Cup-CX/Cincy, Hecht has always finished on the podium — five times in elite races plus a win at Pan-American under-23 championships.
The Cincinnati race, two days before Halloween, was the catalyst for Hecht’s exceptional November run.
“Coming into Cincy and getting second there, I think that gave me a lot of confidence,” Hecht said. “Kind of, ‘Wow I actually kind of belong in this pack.’ Instead of just racing for being in the group I can race for the win.”
On his current tour of the Kerstperiode races in Europe, Hecht is drawing on that confidence. Following the Namur World Cup, he’ll race Waaslandcross in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium on December 23. Then, he’ll close out the trip at one of his favorite venues, the World Cup in Zolder. “That’s an amazing course,” Hecht said. “I love that course.”
After a couple weeks at home, Hecht will have a chance to reemphasize his standing as the top under-23 rider January 14 at USA Cycling’s national cyclocross championships in Reno. A Stars and Stripes jersey there (to follow up on a silver medal in his debut U23 nationals) should be enough to convince even the humble Hecht that he’s the top young cyclocross rider in the States.