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Cyclocross

Cyclocross nationals preview

A thick layer of permafrost outside Madison, WI will be beaten into the cold muck of glory by America’s best cyclocrossers this week

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Note: Watch live streaming video of the women’s and men’s elite races from the USAC Cyclocross National Championships beginning at 11:50 am (Central time) on Sunday, January 8 on VeloNews.com. Go to VeloNews.com/live!

A thick layer of permafrost outside Madison, WI will be beaten into the cold muck of glory by America’s best cyclocrossers this week, as the USA Cycling cyclocross national championships begin Wednesday at Badger Prairie Park in Verona, WI. The championships run all week, through the main event on Sunday.

Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant) has won the last seven elite women’s championships and seems the clear favorite, but the Elite men’s race will be an icy melee featuring four men who, given the right set of circumstances, could ride away from the rest. The outcome of the elite men’s race has only one guarantee: there will be mud!

Three-time champion Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) returns from a season of racing with the world’s best in Europe. Two-time champion Ryan Trebon (LTS-Felt) will line up after exploding back to form with two wins in Chicago after a November knee injury sidelined the tall man for seven weeks. Three-time champion Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) proved his form last month in Bend, Oregon. And Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) comes to Madison after his best season ever, ready to finally get the nationals monkey off his back and beat out the old guard.

Current US national champion Todd Wells (Specialized) will not be defending his jersey, preferring to end his cyclocross season early and focus on the 2012 mountain bike season and the 2012 Olympic Games.

Traditionally held in early December, the US championships have hereafter been moved to January to put the United States in line with the majority of European nations holding their championships this weekend. This move opens up the US cyclocross calendar for more races in a discipline that’s getting much more popular in the America every year, said USA Cycling’s Andrea Smith. The move also bridges the gap in racing that American elite crossers have traditionally had to fill by racing in Europe in December and January before the world championships.

The date also gives American masters racers the perfect tune-up to sort everything out one week before the masters world championships in Louisville, KY the following weekend.

The January championships in Wisconsin has elicited a lot of talk of races resembling the Iditarod on cyclocross tires, but the Weather Gods have apparently given Madison their blessing this year. An especially mild winter so far has left the ground dry – with a layer of permafrost beneath the surface, and no snow in the forecast through the weekend. Above-freezing highs forecast every day during the championships could thaw the permafrost into a thick stew, but there will be no trudging through snowdrifts.

The course favors a powerful rider who can pin the long, selective climb and keep the bike upright on the fast, slippery downhill.

Elite men

Todd Wells will not defend his jersey, but even without perennial favorite Wells off the start list, the names to look for on Sunday are very familiar: Powers, Trebon, Johnson, and Page.

The US domestic scene was the J-Pow show all year. But that came screeching to a halt last weekend in Chicago, when Ryan Trebon came out of a seven-week hiatus and won both days over Powers — finishing a whopping 1:42 ahead of the Rapha man on Saturday.

“I feel pretty good,” Trebon said after Chicago, his first time riding off-road since he injured his knee in a crash during warmup at the Louisville USGP.

“My knee isn’t one hundred percent,” Trebon said. “I have a little trouble with the barriers. Other than that, I can ride as hard as I want and the running doesn’t bother me.”

Three-time national champion Page races mostly in Europe these days, and he skipped nationals last year. But he is taking the trip to Madison this year — undoubtedly hoping to win one in his sponsor’s back yard.

If Page is on top form, and as he demonstrated with a silver medal at the 2007 UCI Cyclocross world championships he can outride America’s best with room to spare when he hits top form.

With Trebon, Johnson, and Page at the starting line, it will be hard to break the cycle of dominance by the select group who have swapped the stars-and-stripes skinsuit for the past 11 years.

Powers’ story

Since the year 2000, only four men have won the elite national championship: Page, Johnson, Trebon and Wells. They have all won more than once. And they’re all over 30 years old.

At 28, Powers is the heir apparent to US cyclocross. His Behind the Barriers video series, his DJ mixes, his string of wins and podiums in 2011, and his ability to hop virtually anything have made him the superstar of American cyclocross. But he hasn’t won the national championship yet.

“I’m pretty unique in that I’ve won against all the national champions,” Powers said. “I’ve won against Todd, Tim, Ryan and Jonathan. So for me, I can’t really put all my cards into nationals anymore. In the past I built up nationals so high.

“But nationals is just one day of racing. Anything can happen and it has happened to me in the past.”

Last year in Bend, it was a two-man grudge match between Wells and Powers before the two tangled in a corner, putting Powers’ brake pad into his rim and his star-spangled aspirations in the mud. Powers lost precious seconds sorting the bike, while Wells rode away to victory.

“I just hope to have good luck this year,” Powers said.

“I’d love to have [the national title],” Powers said. “It would really complete me as a rider. I’ll go out and do the best I can. But at the end of the day it doesn’t change who I am as a person or anything with my team. If I don’t win, life continues on.

“I’m not thinking of it like my season is over in a week. I’m thinking like my season is over in four weeks. My goal is to push myself to be good all the way through the world championship.”

Women

With seven national titles in the last seven years and a business as usual season of complete American dominance, Compton looks primed to add another star-and-stripes skinsuit to a closet that must resemble a presidential campaign stump-speech background.

Compton is a bit more coy, though. “It’s not a race if you assume who’s going to win before the gun goes off,” The Rabobank woman said. “I have won a lot in the past but that doesn’t mean I will win again.  Anything can happen and I need to have a strong clean race in order to win.”

With Compton’s perennial rival, Georgia Gould, done for the season and Amy Dombroski staying in Europe due to illness, the women best positioned to unseat the queen of American cyclocross this year are Meredith Miller (Cal-Giant), Nicole Duke (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), and Compton’s young protégé and Wisconsin native Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale). Antonneau is the current under-23 women’s champ and the odds-on bet for a 2012 U23 repeat.

U23 Men

2010 U23 champion Danny Summerhill has grown out of the espoir ranks and moved on to training for his 2012 road season with Garmin-Chipotle. This leaves 2010 runner-up and current collegiate national champion Zach Mcdonald (Rapha-Focus) the favorite to ride into stars and stripes in the men’s U23 contest Saturday.

“[Cody] Kaiser (Cal-Giant Strawberries) is definitely going to be up there and there will be others as well,” McDonald said.  “It’s the only separate U23 race all year in the US and it creates a completely different dynamic than our races throughout the year in the pro field.”

McDonald famously sidled up next to eventual-winner Summerhill on the finishing straight going into the final lap of last year’s U23 championship and offered Summerhill a handshake before their bell-lap duel. With that kind of class, McDonald will have a lot of fans this weekend. And without his USGP U23 rival Yannick Eckmann — a German national who cannot race — young McDonald looks poised for a great race.