With on-form White and Werner in the fold, and the ever-present threat of Hyde, the competition in Louisville will be more open than ever.
Jeremy Powers still replays scenes from his thrilling battle with Stephen Hyde at last year’s U.S. national cyclocross championships. The two traded attacks for much of the race before Hyde, the defending champ, made a slight surge on the final lap to capture the title, while Powers, himself a four-time elite champion, finished second.
“I think about it all the time. I would have liked to have been 1 percent better, but I know that if I could have done it, I would have won,” Powers said. “I’ve won titles in the past and had to push myself really deep. I went that deep last year and didn’t win, so I was beaten by someone who was stronger.”
A rematch between Powers and Hyde looms on the horizon, with the 2018 national championships in Louisville, Kentucky just two weeks away. But this year, a mano-y-mano fight between the two is doubtful due to shifting dynamics within elite American men’s cyclocross. Injuries and illness have decimated the small circle of elite men’s cyclocross this season, and Powers and Hyde have not been spared.
Powers missed much of the early season due to a bacterial infection in his mouth; he returned after several weeks away only to injure his back. Hyde crashed and broke his sternum at the World Cup opener in Wisconsin, and then suffered an ankle injury at the Pan Am Championships in early November. They are not alone; last week Tobin Ortenblad and Jamey Driscoll fell victim to crashes, and both will miss U.S. nationals to recover from broken bones.
Simultaneous to the crashes, several elite men have made sizable strides in 2018, most notably Kerry Werner, who currently leads USA Cycling’s Pro CX standings, and Curtis White, winner of the Pan American Championships. Now, White and Werner are the favorites to battle for the win while Powers and Hyde are unknown factors.
“It’s definitely more open than it’s ever been—nobody really knows who is going to win [U.S. nationals],” Powers said. “Kerry and Curtis are both at a good level, but Stephen and I are coming off big training blocks. Whether we can close the gaps to those guys will be the question we’ll have to answer in the next two weeks.”
Powers has a paltry few race days in 2018—he has finished just seven of the Pro CX series events. And the disappointing season comes after another season of physical setbacks. Powers raced a full campaign in 2017, however his efforts were slowed by digestive issues, and by a lingering heart issue that slowed his pace at crucial moments throughout the year. Now 35, Powers came back to racing for 2018 with a lineup of new sponsors—he is backed by bicycle manufacturer Fuji, SRAM, and apparel company Pactimo, among others—but the problems started early. The mouth infection struck him in September, shortly after the season opener.
Powers recently completed a two-week training block in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his traditional pre-nationals routine. Powers said he completed 24 hours of training in week one, and then spent the second week completing shorter, intense workouts with his former teammate, Spencer Petrov. Powers’s first test comes this weekend at the NBX event in Warwick, Rhode Island.
The race will serve as a major preview for the U.S. championship race, Powers said.
“Numbers-wise, I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’m at a place where I haven’t been in a long time—Hallelujah,” Powers said. “I’m going into the racing this weekend expecting to be at the front.”
Powers said he also has expectations for his performance at U.S. nationals; what those expectations are, he would not say. Whether or not he’s able to grab a record fifth U.S title may depend on another unknown factor: Hyde. Hyde famously nipped at Powers’s heels for years before surpassing Powers in 2016, and assuming the advantage in their two-man rivalry last season.
Hyde last raced on November 4, and recently posted photos of his training sessions on social media. Powers said he expects Hyde to be ready to defend his title.
“What level is Steven at? That’s the question I think everybody is asking,” Powers said. “I can’t imagine he’s going to be at World Cup level like he was last year. But he’s Steven, so he’s very determined, and he’s very good.”