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Analysis: Elite American men chase varying degrees of success in Louisville

The U.S. National Team members are all chasing success in Louisville, but what that means is different for each one of them

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — The wait is over. The training has come to an end. The Super Bowl of cyclocross descends on Louisville, Kentucky, this weekend for the UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships, the first held outside of the sport’s historic epicenter in Europe. And the elite American men’s team has high hopes on home soil. Call it the “host-nation effect,” but the U.S. National Team staff, the riders, and the American fans all wish for great things come Sunday.

“Every single one of the [American] elite men seems like they could be our best guy,” Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling’s cyclocross program director told VeloNews. “It’s going to be tough for one of those guys to get on the podium. Slightly more realistic is top five. If one of those guys could be in the top five I think it would be a great day. A couple of them in the top 10 would be good, really good. It would be great for the fans to see at least one of them racing in the top groups.”

Defining success

With no absolute star on the team — and with up-and-down results late in the season — it’s anyone’s guess who the top American will be, especially given the changing weather and course conditions. Each of them defines success differently. For Gullickson, though, he is looking to three men — Jeremy Powers, Jonathan Page, and Danny Summerhill — for the most interesting outcomes, while admitting that the other three — Tim Johnson, Ryan Trebon, and Jamey Driscoll — are just as likely to pull off a great result, depending on the day they have and the luck they find at Eva Bandman Park.

Powers has been the most successful American at the World Cups this year, specifically the early season round in Tabor, Czech Repubic, where he finished seventh, the best-ever results for an American elite man. He has also dominated the domestic ’cross scene this season. His only hitches this year — and they are significant ones — were a late season push through Europe just after a heavy training block that saw him drifting backwards in a series of races over the holiday season, and an unfamiliar off day at the national championships in Verona, Wisconsin. After another training block before last week’s Kings International event in Cincinnati, Powers was pleased with the way he was able to shake out the “cobwebs and open it up at the end of that race.” He’s come around after feeling frustrated by his late season dip.

“[The goals] are still the same. What’s possible and what’s reality are two different things though,” Powers said. “I’m going to smash it, hurt myself, decimate myself, put myself in a bad place. It’s not that I don’t always do that, but worlds will be all the more so. Top five? Yeah, I’d love it. Can I? I’d really love it. But the reality is I have no idea.”

Powers has the passion, if not the outright skill to contend with the Belgians and pull it off. Gullickson agrees.

“If he could put another performance like he did in [Tabor], I think he’d be happy. I hope he’d be happy. To be within striking distance of a top five would be great,” Gullickson said.

Perhaps surprisingly, Gullickson is also looking toward the youngest member of the elite squad, 24-year-old Summerhill, to have another amazing ride to follow on the heels of his breakout season.

“Summerhill has a big question mark over him. He’s taken it a lot more lightheartedly this year, or it seems so to me, but he’s had some of his best results,” Gullickson said. “In the back of my mind I’m thinking he could have a breakout ride here. He’s had some amazing rides this season and is coming in with the least amount of pressure on him.”

The lack of pressure is a key component to his success this season, according to Summerhill. And he continues to dream big while staying low-key about it all. Here he is, on the verge of his neo-pro road season, having thought he would hang his ’cross bikes up after the mid-December Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross event in Bend, Oregon.

“Being here is a success in itself,” Summerhill told VeloNews. “I didn’t think I’d be able to go too much further than the USGP in Bend. So the fact that I’m even here is incredible.”

As for his chances in the race, his biggest disadvantage will be starting deep in the field — having raced only a select schedule this season, he has the lowest UCI points ranking among the elite Americans. That doesn’t stop him from thinking about another amazing result to go along with his silver medal at the 2007 junior world cyclocross championship.

“Things could go my way and I could have a good day… a top 10 would be unreal. A top 15 would be very cool, and anything after that would be fine with me, too,” Summerhill said.

Page is on an upward trajectory that sees him poised for another standout performance at worlds, to follow his own silver medal at the elite level in 2007. The relief of signing with new title sponsor Fuji has only helped his cause.

“Page has a history of bringing his best game to worlds, especially when he has a slow start to the season which he did this year,” Gullickson said.

Page, a veteran of countless big-time European races and many world championships, is a bit more cautious about his hopes, and vaguely defines success, as does any seasoned ’cross racer who knows how variable things can be — both in the body and from the skies.

“I don’t know how good a race I’ll have, but I want to go as fast as I can on the day. I’m not going to say what place I want or will make me happy. The higher, the better, of course,” Page told VeloNews.

For his part, Trebon seems even more nonchalant than Summerhill.

“It’s a bike race and stuff can go really wrong, really fast, and sometimes you don’t have control over what happens. For me I just want to have a good start, ride the race, feel good,” Trebon said. “I’ve done bad at worlds before; I’ve done well at worlds before. I’m not going to be disappointed either way.”

His teammate Driscoll is more concrete about his aspirations. His trajectory is similarly pointed skyward as Page’s, though with less degree of success — he took third at the national championships on the frozen Verona ruts.

“I’d definitely like to best my current top worlds finish,” Driscoll told VeloNews. That was a 19th place in Tabor three years ago. “I just don’t know how the Euros are going to respond to the travel, and there are five other really dedicated Americans that also want to put on a good show.”

How the race is run

With such variable conditions in Louisville this week, it’s difficult to say how the track will set up for Sunday’s men’s race. Temperatures topping out near 25 degrees on Friday will be followed by temperatures above freezing over the weekend. That could make for a progressively sloppier and heavier affair. This is cyclocross, and weather always plays a roll. But if they could get down on their knees and pray to the weather gods, the Americans would fall into two camps: give me heavy, or give me fast.

He wasn’t born in the mud like the Belgians, but Page has played in it more than any other American. His choice is obvious.

“I’m liking [these heavy, rainy conditions] right now,” he said. “The muddier the better.”

Likewise, Trebon hopes for rain.

“I don’t really like it when it’s frozen, but other than that I don’t think about it much,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if that course was 10 inches deep the whole way around. The harder, heavier, and slower the course is, the better.”

Driscoll, Johnson, and Powers are rather indifferent, preferring to stick with the same game plan no matter the conditions.

“After the first lap I have to be in the top 15,” Powers said. “There will be a lot of bumping and shaking and the top 15 will be sorted in the first corner. That’s where I need to be; that would be great. Then I have to ride my own race. I know how this course wears on you.”

Powers knows this well; he has swept through four USGP races held on a very similar course in Louisville in 2011 and 2012.

Summerhill? He’s a roadie. He wants as hard a surface as he can get. When he realized that organizers had routed the course twice through the sand, he shook his head and cursed.

United or untied?

Unlike the national teams of other countries, like the Italians and Belgians, which can be seen on team rides cruising along River Road in Louisville near the venue, Team USA has no unified camp, no obligation to come together like you might expect. Was it a choice by USA Cycling to allow the riders their freedom? Or is the governing body unable to manage the team as a whole, given its budget?

“We can manage it, and I’ve told everyone that I’d like them to stay with us, but at the same time, teams like Italy and Belgium have a long history of mandating things to their riders. And we don’t,” Gullickson said. “Having said that, I encouraged people to stay with us, and having said that, all these riders have raced here every year for the last five or six years and some of them — like Katie [Compton] and Powers — have people they stay with every time. They’re very comfortable. And Katie and Powers are two examples of riders that are having a lot of pressure put on them and want to try to keep their routine as similar to them and most comfortable as they can.”

The riders agree that what’s best for them now is to do what they’re most comfortable with. Why go changing the routine, especially in a sport where routine is crucial to success? On the other hand, a number of the team members voiced a desire to see things go differently in the future.

“It’s a little sad that we don’t stay as a team. I wish for that. I would love nothing more than to pass on my knowledge to the younger guys,” Powers said. “But why would I do that, too? Why would I go with other mechanics and without the scooter right now?”

Powers’ sentiment was shared by most of the team. Trebon, however, remained relaxed about his race preparation, much like his aspirations.

“I much prefer to do my own thing, and train and relax here,” he said. “It’s easy being here since we know it so well. It’s comfortable, it’s convenient; nothing is a pain in the ass, which is the exact opposite of how it is every other worlds.”

Ultimately, what works for the riders is what will make for the most successful team. Gullickson was presented with either pressuring the team into staying as a cohesive unit or saying, “Go with your best instinct and do your own thing.” He chose to allow them to go with their own programs.

“These guys are professionals and for the biggest race of their career — the first worlds in their country — they don’t want to try something new,” Gullickson said. “My biggest goal is to win medals here, not to look like we’re a U.S. team. Who is to say looking like a U.S. team isn’t going to help those guys, but in their minds that’s not going to help them. We’re trying to keep them happy and fast.”

And if all goes according to plan, there will be six happy and fast Americans in Louisville on Sunday afternoon.