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Jeremy Powers may not have been the man to ask how to win nationals last week. He was nervous, and with good precedent.
The Rapha-Focus rider had won the Exergy U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross series for the second year in a row and was the most dominant cyclocross racer in America, but the national title had always eluded him.
Since racing in the junior categories more than ten years ago, Powers had gone to the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships every year – frequently as a favorite. And every year he had lost.
“Everybody has beat me at this race,” Powers said after his victory in Madison.
As a junior, Powers was beat several times by the younger Jesse Anthony. The year Powers had his best chance he caught mono.
His last year as a U23 in 2004, Powers came home from a full season in Belgium, certain of his form. But the skies opened up in Portland, flooding the course, and making much of the lap impossible to ride. Powers played second fiddle to Anthony, a much better runner, again.
Powers started racing the elites in 2005, and held his own against top dogs like Jonathan Page, Tim Johnson, Ryan Trebon, and Barry Wicks.
He was a contender in 2007, but crashed out of the lead. He crashed out of the lead again in 2009. He crashed out of the lead in 2010.
“I’m thinking: ‘am I gonna be the Dan Marino of cyclocross?’” Powers said, recalling the legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback who never won the Super Bowl.
But that all changed last Sunday in Madison when Powers sat in with a select group of Page (Planet Bike), Trebon (LTS-Felt), Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld), and Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus), letting them play their cards first. When Powers laid down his hand on the penultimate lap, nobody could match him.
How did Powers do it?
1. Stay relaxed
Powers had a bad habit of crashing out of the lead at the national championship – unusual for a man who has gained a reputation in recent years as one of the better handlers.
“I would get so excited and be so intense in the moment and just be like ‘I’m winning nationals right now!’” Powers said. “And I would go ballistic. That hasn’t worked for me for four years.”
“There were a lot of things that happened in [the 2012 championship] that made it really dynamic. Jonathan made a really, really hard lap. Tim countered that. Ryan put in a really hard dig. So I just let those things happen and let people kind of show their cards early on.”
“I stayed relaxed, that was the difference between this year and years past.”
2. Stick to the plan
Powers and his coach devised a plan to wait as long as possible before attacking, and it was executed to perfection.
“Just wait, wait, wait, and then pounce,” Powers said.
“This year I’ve done a lot of races where I’ve come in planned and trained, knowing what I was gonna do and then gone out to try to execute … just kind of waiting longer and methodically racing rather than going as hard as I can; that’s something I’ve changed a lot.”
3. Let your team handle the details
Powers said his Rapha-Focus team is extremely well-organized, covering the logistics so he doesn’t have to use his “ADD brain.”
“My mind can go from like cooking dinner straight to needing to be at the course and looking at it in like a 20 second period,” Powers said.
“If I have to think about something, I will. And if I don’t have to think about it – it sounds really simple, but – I won’t.”
Team Rapha-Focus keeps a daily plan and handles the small stuff so Powers can do his job: winning.
4. Have a mean playlist of 80s music
Powers was insistent that his “awesome set of New Wave hits” is a crucial part of his success as a cyclocross racer.
Envision the Rapha-Focus tent blasting Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order. Still envisioning? OK, that’s enough. Stop envisioning that!
5. Identify what you’re not good at
“I used to say ‘if it’s dry, nobody can beat me,’” Powers said. “But when the mud came, even in my head I’d say ‘I know Tim’s gonna be better today.’”
The new Powers is a rider who can win in any conditions. He has proven this in America and the next step is to prove it in Europe.
Powers has learned to shine a light of brutal honesty in every dark cranny of his shortcomings as a cyclist.
“The biggest thing that I did was being really honest with myself about what I wasn’t good at and then I made those things the biggest part of my training,” Powers said.
He developed specific workouts that target those problem areas.
“It’s hard for a cyclist [training to your weaknesses]. It’s like ‘dammit, I’m not making this number of watts.’ But you have to realize, ‘this is what I’m lacking.’ If I continue to do this and I continue to identify where I’m not good, then I can get better. Doing that and sticking to it and working on those pieces one-by-one is a huge part of what happened.”
And it’s a big part of how Powers plans to get a front-row start at the 2013 world championship in Louisville, Kentucky.