AUSTIN, Texas (VN) — The heavens opened over Austin, Texas Thursday night, spitting a cold rain down on the dust and parched grass of Zilker Park, home of this year’s U.S. cyclocross national championships. The course, a technical pinwheel of limestone steps, fast straights, and sharp corners, will be battered by three days of rain and ice before the elite fields line up on Sunday.
The nation’s fastest men wouldn’t have it any other way.
The odds-on favorite in the men’s elite race is Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), recently returned from a European campaign over the holidays.
Tim Johnson (Cannondale) is sitting out on Sunday, and believes the elite men’s race is Powers’ to lose.
“This is a race Powers has to win. No question,” Johnson said. “I think all of the pressure is on Jeremy, and no one else. He is clearly the favorite. [Jonathan] Page has always had decent results, but they’re not winning, and when you’re used to winning, you need to win again. I think for Jeremy, this year is not like last year or the year before. This is the race he needs to win.”
Powers’ victory is far from guaranteed. Zach McDonald (CX Project 2015) and Jonathan Page (Fuji-Spyoptics) have come on strong in recent weeks. Page has years of experience racing in Belgium’s technical conditions; Powers has said that his own experience in Belgium this year will benefit him on the technical Austin course.
McDonald, who recently won both days at the Resolution Cup UCI race in Dallas, TX, excels on technical courses, and has ridden well at nationals before, finishing second in 2013.
“Zach McDonald has a lot of range and absolutely no expectations,” Johnson said. “So that makes for a very clear hour to race, and it makes it easier to not make mistakes, to be patient, and to race the race for what it is. When you set your own bar as high as Jeremy has, that’s what creates all of those other elements. That’s what makes the race different for Zach than it is for Jeremy, even though it’s the same race.”
Jamey Driscoll (Raleigh-Clement), a perennial podium favorite, is going to be watching out for McDonald and Powers come Sunday. While he is hoping for wet and boggy conditions, which will force riders to dismount more often, he knows Powers will be a threat regardless.
“There’s a lot of punchy stuff. A lot of those things will get chewed up enough where you’ll have to run them,” Driscoll said of the changing course conditions. “Not huge long sections of running, but definitely a lot of getting off the bike. I’m hoping for nasty conditions, just because I think I like my chances in the worst conditions. [Powers] is one of the best starters, which isn’t one of my strengths, so my goal is to get a good start.”
Powers may be the strongest rider in Austin, but with changing conditions and a difficult course, Driscoll believes a rider like McDonald could surprise.
“Zach [McDonald] showed last weekend that he’s actually been riding. When you combine his skills with any kind of fitness, he’s dangerous,” Driscoll said. “The faster the course, the more I’ll be looking out for Powers. The nastier the course, the more I’ll be looking out for Zach, and then Page if everything comes together for him.”
Powers is optimistic about his chances, despite having a potentially season-ending knee injury after the last round of the World Cup in Zolder.
“I’ve been going to PT every day here. I’ve been pain-free these last two days, a little soreness after a couple hours of riding, but I’m really happy about where I’m at,” he said. “I thought the season was over, honestly. As serious as that is, I thought, ‘This could be it.’
“I think that will benefit me a lot more. I feel confident, as confident as I have any year based on what’s expected in the forecast and what I’ve experienced in this year. Summerhill was good earlier this year, before he took a break, but with the weather changing, that could be a leveler. Then there’s Zach McDonald who is notoriously good in these conditions. I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that I’m zeroing in on. I’m staying optimistic and paying attention.”
The course, which is changing by the minute, could indeed be the leveler come Sunday. Arriving early and inspecting the course will prove to be a near-useless effort, as the course riders saw earlier this week is hardly the same as what they’ll race Sunday.
Logan VonBokel contributed reporting from Austin, Texas; Caley Fretz contributed reporting from Boulder, Colorado.