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Can U.S. men be competitive in European ‘cross?

American men have yet to see the same success as their female counterparts in European 'cross racing. What would it take to make the leap?

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What will it take for American men to be a factor on the international cyclocross stage? With the domestic season and nationals behind us, only two weekends remain before world championships in Luxembourg.

U.S. women, most notably 13-time national champ Katie Compton, have had an impact in the sport’s European heartland for quite some time. Compton has won three silver medals and a bronze in the last 10 years of ‘cross world championships. Georgia Gould and Kaitlin Antonneau have also finished on podiums at cyclocross World Cup races.

Of course, differences exist between the men’s and women’s elite fields, but what needs to happen for riders like the new national champion Stephen Hyde to realistically aim for the medals?

Compton says that, in part, the difference is in preparation. “The training and the racing over there is so much different than it is over here. Tons of acceleration, tons of sprinting, tons of just off-and-on, off-and-on. Riding the technical stuff while you’re full gas and just out of breath, struggling on the edge. There needs to be more specific training for that.

“A lot of our racers, once they get dropped, once they’re racing on their own, they fall back to doing a time trial just steady-state effort. For ‘cross it’s really not the right effort.”

She raced much less in Europe in 2016, due to the difficulty of transcontinental travel. Most pros queried for this story agree that is also a significant disadvantage for Americans. When Compton split time between the U.S. and European circuits, a few years ago, she would force herself to remain on European time while in Colorado, eight hours behind, waking up in the middle of the night, and going to bed late afternoon. “That’s the kind of commitment that you can do so many seasons in a row, but eventually you’re like, ‘Eh I’m done. I’m over it,’” she adds.

Jonathan Page is one of the few American men to move to Europe and race there full-time, based in Belgium for 13 years. He’s also the only one to have medaled at elite worlds, silver, 10 years ago in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium.

“In a way it’s like learning a foreign language,” Page says. “You can get all you want in school here in America, but once you’re over there, you’ll be fully immersed. You’ll come out with success and learning more.”

Much is made of the technical difficulty found in European courses. Retired pro Ryan Trebon, who earned a few top-10 results at major international races during his career, says that is less of a factor than fans realize. “I think on the whole they’re not that much more difficult than those [courses] in the U.S. It’s not hard to ride things — it’s hard to ride things fast.”

Perhaps part of the reason that American men don’t cotton to European racing is that there’s less incentive to devote their entire seasons to the circuits in Europe’s lowlands. “People have this love affair with racing in Europe but it actually doesn’t have a practical application still,” says Tim Johnson, who won bronze at 1999 ‘cross worlds in the U23 category. “I made far more money racing in the U.S. than in Europe.

“We made an income that was far superior to what you would get for being an eighth to 20th European guy. We helped be a part of this growth in the U.S., which I believe is far more valuable than going there and racing in anonymity.”

European racing remains alluring, prestigious, however, regardless of the payout. Former national champion Jeremy Powers, has a handful of World Cup top-10s to his credit in the last six years. Hyde, who is close friends with Powers, finished top-20 in the Zolder and Namur World Cups. He was 10th at the Spa-Francorchamps Superprestige.

If you ask Page, Hyde might be the one to give Americans something to cheer for in the elite men’s race.

“He went over there this year, didn’t come back with his tail between his legs,” Page says. “Doesn’t seem to be scared of anything. That’s the attitude I had when I went over there.”

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