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Analysis: Small percentages at ’cross worlds will go to the Americans

British Cycling has built its empire on 'marginal gains' and come early February, Louisville will give U.S. riders a boost

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There is no doubt the discussion about the quest for that extra couple of percentage points in bike racing has been nauseating with all the British talk of “marginal gains” and continuing headlines surrounding doping, but needless to say, innumerable micro percentage points can be the difference between a win and the top 20 at the top level of cycling.

This season, the American podium hopefuls for the 2013 cyclocross world championships — including Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), Logan Owen (Redline), and Rapha-Focus riders Jeremy Powers and Zach McDonald — are performing at their best, and the possibility of multiple U.S. podiums in Louisville, Kentucky, is looking promising.

If ever there were a chance for the stars to align for American cyclocross racers, it’s 2013. The tables will be turned against the Europeans, who will be the ones suffering jet lag, racing on an unfamiliar course with fewer resources than they are accustomed to, and faced with other disadvantages that the visitor incurs.

With that in mind, we may very well see Americans pull out performances beyond the fans’ expectations.

“The Americans have to travel way more than the Europeans do, and when you’re talking about small percentages setting people apart, that makes a big difference,” London Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould (Luna) told VeloNews. “So for ‘cross, to be able to stay stateside — like I am this year — and have the world-class racing come to you is awesome.”

The advantages of racing domestically cannot be quantified, and the cyclocross worlds have never run outside of Europe, so the example set by cross-country mountain biking is one that does shed some light on the role location plays in American performances.

Despite the rather weak American showing on the international cross-country scene since the early 1990s, in each of the three years that the cross-country world championships were held domestically, the top U.S. female result was no lower than a silver medal. Only Ruthie Matthes has pulled off silver- and gold-medal world championship results outside of the United Statets, in 1991 and 1996, and besides Alison Dunlap’s 2001 win in Vail, Colorado, no American woman has won a world championship since 1991.

In the men’s field, Tinker Juarez took world championship silver in Vail, Colorado, making him the only American man to podium at cross-country worlds since 1991.

Beyond the issues of travel fatigue and jet lag, the level of team support will be reversed for this iteration of worlds as well. European champion Helen Wyman (Kona-FSA) thinks it’s about time that the Americans get the home-field advantage.

“The Belgians aren’t going to have their 20-foot trucks and they aren’t going to have everything they’re used to, and suddenly they’ll have the same advantage as the guy that comes with their team just out of the back of a van,” she told VeloNews.

The advantage of having raced on the course shouldn’t be underestimated, either. While the worlds course won’t be identical to any other race hosted at the Eva Bandman Park venue, elite racers at all levels agreed that come February, past experience of top-level racing in Louisville would be a notable advantage.

In the press conference following the Derby City Cup earlier this month, U.S. national champion Compton listed scrutinizing the course and planning her tactics for the world championships as her top priorities during the fourth and fifth rounds of the Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross.

“Today I was just riding so I could attack different sections of the course and thinking about the world championships — where I could attack and where I would need to recover and push in certain sections,” she said.

The differences won’t be monumental, but they don’t need to be. With realistic hopes for U.S. podiums in each of four categories — elite men and women, U23 men and junior men — the Americans will finally make out in the numbers game.