TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — Gage Hecht just can’t stop smiling.
In his place, another rider might cry, swear, throw a bike. You could hardly fault them.
Hecht, among the most promising American junior cyclocrossers in a decade, fought one of the most dynamic battles cyclocross has seen this season, racing Belgian Eli Iserbyt and Netherlander Max Gulickx right up to the final turn for a shot at the silver medal. It would have been the first medal for an American man since 2007, when Danny Summerhill and Jonathan Page scored dual silvers in the junior and elite categories in Hooglede-Gits. Rare company.
It wasn’t to be. Hecht’s frozen, muddy chain skipped as he approached the race’s final 180-degree corner. Gulickx sprinted, and Hecht settled for fourth. No medal, no place on the podium, no photos, no TV. Just walk back to the bus, pack up your bike, and head home.
Hecht, focused on the moment and the thrill of riding his first world championship race, didn’t seem to mind.
“I feel amazing, I’m so excited just with how the race went today,” he said. “I felt great about it. Racing with the best out there in the world, it’s tough. It’s definitely a tough race, and those who got on the podium definitely deserved to be up there.”
Instead, he said, he simply savored a moment in the spotlight, hearing announcer Richard Fries — a familiar voice to American racers — calling out his name on the PA, and the thousands of fans from around the world roar over every punch and counter-punch.
And indeed, he was living a dream — one that almost evaporated before it started. Part of a five-man race early on, Hecht found himself on the wrong side of the gap when the group fractured near the end of the first lap.
He roared back, shedding Swiss rider Johan Jacobs in the process. By the time he got back, gold seemed out of reach, with junior world mountain bike champion Simon Andreassen of Denmark off the front. But his return to near the front set up the three-way fight for the podium that followed.
“I was up at the front and a gap formed and I just wasn’t able to close it down in time,” he said. “But I closed down [the gap to] a few riders. Simon still was off there, but that was still okay, I’m still happy with hanging in the top three. It was great.”
Hecht’s enduring positivity is for real, and he is clearly having fun, unique among the deadly serious European boys who lined up alongside him in the front row. His bike, a titanium Moots, carries a tiny figure of Bart Simpson on its seat tube. In the championship race he looked focused, but never stopped smiling.
Not so his competition. Belgian Eli Iserbyt, the overwhelming favorite, told reporters he nearly abandoned the race when he realized he had made a bad tire choice and could not match Andreassen on the melting, slippery course.
Hecht didn’t waver. When a late fall nearly ended his chances for the podium he picked up his bike, refocused, and got back into the chase.
Undoubtedly, he’ll do the same next season. The top first-year junior in the race, Hecht will return in the fall as the favorite, with an open road to a worlds medal.
On Saturday, he said he was only looking forward.
“I’m a little disappointed, but, you know, I was still top five, which is amazing for a world championships,” he said. “I’m excited about how I did. A medal would have been ideal, but, you know. …”
That medal, the one he missed this year? Will it be waiting for him next year in Zolder, Belgium? Can he do what he almost did this time around?
“Hopefully,” he said, turning to make one last walk back to the vans. “I’d like to. That would be cool.”