GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado (VN) — It is late May … Do you know where your national cyclocross champion is?
Stephen Hyde, the two-time defending U.S. ‘cross champion, has spent this month riding and racing mountain bikes across the western U.S. in preparation for the next chapter in his pro cycling career. Hyde, 31, wants to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in cross-country mountain biking for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“I said, ‘Hey I don’t want to miss the opportunity to do something with mountain biking,’” Hyde told VeloNews at the Grand Junction Off-Road Saturday. “It was my dream, it was what I wanted to do, and I have the opportunity to do that so I really want to push that.”
Hyde’s 2018 mountain bike campaign began May 4-5 with modest results at Utah’s Soldier Hollow ProXCT race, where he finished seventh in the short track and 14th in the cross-country. Hyde then finished 24th at Sunday’s second round of the Epic Rides Series, held in Grand Junction. Two days earlier, he won the short track.
Hyde’s off-road campaign includes 13 mountain bike races this season, culminating with the Mont Sainte-Anne World Cup, August 11-12. It is Hyde’s first foray into mountain biking’s pinnacle series, and will likely show him how far he needs to improve in order to compete against the world’s best.
“Next year if [Mont Sainte-Anne 2018] works out, we’ll go for the whole World Cup series, taking the first World Cup in South Africa on after ‘cross worlds,” he said.
To transform from North America’s male ‘cross racer of reference into an Olympic hopeful, Hyde said he’ll need to become more accustomed to the longer races. A typical World Cup cross-country race is anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes longer than a typical cyclocross effort. It’s not an impossible transformation: Belgian star Sven Nys competed in mountain biking at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.
“He has the power for sure,” said 2016 Olympian Howard Grotts (Specialized). “It’s just the different levels of intensity, going flat-out between every corner, kind of off and on the bike [in cyclocross] is a little different than doing two- to four-minute climbs and then techy descents [in XC mountain biking].”
Hyde has already begun working with his coach and physiologist to dial in his training for mountain bike racing. The challenge they face is to prepare Hyde for longer races without hampering his cyclocross abilities.
“What’s our minimum effective dose of doing this and but also being good for ‘cross, because I don’t want to limit myself in ‘cross,” Hyde said. “I don’t want to take anything away from [cyclocross] until I have to.”
Hyde has also spent plenty of time refining his technical skills on the mountain bike. Grotts believes Hyde is already well-equipped to shred the trails.
“Riding with him [in Grand Junction], he’s very technically proficient,” Grotts said. “He’s not lacking at all — ‘cross prepares you really well for that.” Hyde’s eighth-place result at 2017 mountain bike nationals seems to back that up.
But making an Olympic team isn’t as simple as fine-tuning a training plan and riding a bunch of singletrack. USA Cycling has yet to confirm the final qualification standards for the Tokyo 2020 Games, but in past Olympic cycles, only a brilliant result, such as a podium at world championships, would guarantee a start. Otherwise, the governing body usually makes a discretionary selection to pick its Olympic rider. So, Hyde has to earn some big results in the next two years of mountain biking.
“It’s kind of an inopportune time to try, although we do have more riders at the World Cup, so hopefully we get more [start] spots. They’ve tightened it up; it’s going to be very difficult,” he said.
Grotts agrees that the odds aren’t good for the U.S. to get more than one start spot in the men’s cross-country race at the 2020 Games. The competition to make the Games should be as intense as ever.
“If we really got our act together and did everything right, I’d still say even then we’d have a 50-percent shot,” he said, explaining how difficult it is for American men to get the results needed to boost the country’s overall ranking, which leads to more start spots. “It’s just tough to be in the top-seven countries. We have to have three riders that are just crushing it for two years basically.”
Hyde said he’s started talking with current and retired pro mountain bikers, and the consensus is that he shouldn’t buy his flight to Tokyo just yet. However, he trusts his group of friends and confidants that have steered him into his successful career as a pro cyclocross racer. So far, the team thinks he is on track.
“I trust their opinions, I trust that they’re going to tell me, ‘Hey Hyde you’re full of it, it’s not going to happen,’” he said. “I just feel like the people around me that I really, really trust aren’t going to let me waste my time.”
And Grotts, although he’s just starting to get to know Hyde as a fellow competitor, agrees that the ‘cross champ has a chance.
“It’s a little different sport, but if anyone can do it, I think Stephen could pull that off,” Grotts said.