By Chris Milliman
He’s a New England kid with the initials JP, he’s been racing cyclo-cross in Belgium all fall and he will definitely be a factor in this weekend’s U.S. Cyclo-cross National Championships.
While two-time defending elite national champion Jonathan Page meets all of the above qualifications, so does Jeremy Powers. Powers, 21, will line up in Portland as one of the favorites for Saturday’s Under-23 national title, but since he’s spent the vast majority of the 2004 ‘cross season in Europe, he could be one of the most overlooked ‘cross specialists in the U.S.
Were it not for a string of bad luck leading into the past two national championships he’s raced at, Powers could have two national titles to his credit instead of none. A case of mononucleosis scuppered his nationals in 2001 and a bout with the flu stole Powers’ best-ever form days before the championship last year.
“It’s kind of been like that for me,” says the affable Connecticut resident, “I seem to always get myself into a bad situation right before nationals. I feel great now, which is all I really care about. Last year’s nationals was definitely a big disappointment, but I also broke my elbow at worlds, so that wasn’t great either.”
Far from giving up on a ‘cross career, Powers, who raced mountain bikes with the DEVO squad in the late-90s, decided to head in the opposite direction and go whole hog for ‘cross. After racing a full domestic schedule in the U.S. for the Jelly Belly-Aramark squad, Powers traveled over to the U.S. Under-23 house in Ghent, Belgium run by Noel Dejonckheere with an eye on trying to make an impression on the European ‘cross circuit. Powers knew it was a big risk for a rider with no big results, but he felt it was worth the gamble.
“Road racing is awesome and I used to race mountain bikes too, but for some reason I’ve always loved racing cross,” explains Powers. “It’s been the most fun for me, so I knew Europe was where I could grow. For me, this is my last year racing U-23 cyclo-cross, then I have one more year on the road as an U-23. So next year in ‘cross I race with the pros all the time. I wanted to see where I’m at and if it’s possible for me to race with them. If there’s not a possibility for me to race ‘cross in Europe professionally then I have to pick something else up.”
Powers raced all of the major European World Cups and Super Prestige events, usually racing in the U-23 events, but sometimes dipping his toes in the shark-infested waters of the elite men’s race. The speed and skill on show in the elite division, says Powers, took his breath away.
“I got 12th a couple times in the Super Prestige in the Under-23,” says Powers. “That’s the real deal, the Super Prestige, so those were my best results. But at Niel I rode 7th in the U-23 and I had a good race there. I was only three minutes off Richard Groenendal. I had some OK rides. Last year when I went I was minutes off the pace, I was getting lapped with two laps to go. I knew I needed more fitness this year so I went back and did a good season on the road and that really helped me out with the fitness for ‘cross this year.
“Believe me, you have to look at the big picture when you go. I get really excited when I have a good result and I feel like I’ll be able to see the front of the races at some point. Then there’s part of me that knows there won’t be big gains at any stage of the game.”
Apart from the high level of racing, the life of a full-time Euro ‘cross racer takes some getting used, says Powers. Living and training by himself made him question his Belgian Immersion program at times, admits Powers, but then he’d score a good result and his morale would increase.
“I was living by myself for a month-and-a-half and it’s boring sometimes, I’m not going to beat around the bush, but that’s part of the game,” says Powers. “You get into a certain mentality when you’re there by yourself just training.
“I definitely got a lot friendlier with the other guys in the U-23 category. Radomir Simunek, he’s actually the guy who crashed into me and fractured my elbow last year, and we got to talk a bunch at the races this year. I see these guys pretty much every couple of days. Geert Wellens, Radomir, almost all of them speak English, and we talk quite a bit before the races. It’s nice to know that those guys think I’m serious even if I’m not making their groups, which sometimes I would. They know that I’m there and racing as hard as I can. Some of them actually remember me from Tabor in 2001 because I was hopping the barriers in the race.”
While he wasn’t hopping any barriers, Powers flashed some of his hard won Euro’ form at the final race of the New England Series last weekend in Rhode Island, driving the lead group for most of the race before a last lap crash dropped him to fifth. As for his future beyond this weekend’s nationals, Powers says regardless of whether or not he wins the U-23 jersey, he thinks a good race at the World Championships and future as a pro in Europe are in the cards.
“There are a lot of sacrifices, you have to live in Europe all year like Jonathan Page is doing, but I had a really good time there for two months,” says Powers. “I think it’s a possibility for me. It feels good, especially for worlds, because I won’t be as nervous at worlds. A lot of kids go to worlds and it’s their first race in Europe. For me, it’s going to be just another big race and that’s definitely an advantage. That’s one of the problems with U.S. ‘cross: worlds is not the place to have an experience. You should be going there to race as hard as you can.”