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Cyclocross

Jeremy Powers Q&A: The tricky trade between US cyclocross and gravel scenes

Four-time US national 'cross champ talks race commentary, and the challenges facing CX in the wake of huge growth of gravel.

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With four U.S. national titles among his 94 pro victories, retired cyclocross ace Jeremy Powers remains one of the most prolific ‘cross racers the United States has seen.

And with former side-projects including his own Aspire Racing team and the JAM Fund development project, the Connecticut-born ‘crosser knows a thing or two about what makes the U.S. scene tick.

Although Powers retired from racing in 2019, he’s far from done with pro cycling. The 39-year-old works in marketing with wearables powerhouse WHOOP and adds his own brand of stoke to cyclocross commentary for GCN.

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Powers’ retirement in 2019 came at a point of transition in North American cycling culture. Gravel racing was hitting the big time, and a generation of home ‘cross greats like Tim Johnson, Todd Wells, and the now-banned Katie Compton were retired or at the twilight of their time in the saddle.

VeloNews caught up with Powers before the U.S. nationals about the state of the North American cyclocross scene, and how he’s finding life on the other side of the barriers as a race commentator.

Powers won the U.S. national title in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

VeloNews: Jeremy, nice to speak to you. It feels strange after spending so much time listening to you call cyclocross races for GCN! How are you finding the role?

Jeremy Powers: Oh man, I love it. It’s super fun for me. I’m very much a creative. Even when I was racing, I had my YouTube show, and I was writing a lot. And I really enjoy staying in touch with the riders, I enjoy being able to go and research the event, and understanding what’s going on. And that also helps with my role at WHOOP now.

I also really like how I feel pushed by it – I like to be focused and having goals. I’m always grading myself, like thinking how I interplay with other commentators and figuring out how I can best add something for viewers that they might not get otherwise.

VN: You commentate a lot on the UCI World Cup, where Clara Honsinger is really leading the way for U.S. racers in a Euro-packed peloton. How would you describe the North American cyclocross scene right now?

JP: Rebuilding? We had a lot of momentum in that 2010-18 sort of period. They were the halcyon years. We had a lot of sponsorship, a lot of momentum. And we had some really big champions from that – Katie Compton, Katerina Nash and so many others. They were all in the picture and racing in the top-10 of the World Cup. But they were also really focused on the racing here in the U.S.

VN: What’s changed since that time?

JP: I think that in my days, riders like Todd Wells, Tim Johnson, and Geoff Kabush commanded a certain amount of attention. And it was easier for the scene to thrive.

What’s happened since is that gravel has become extremely popular in the U.S., meaning a lot of marketing dollars, and so also development dollars, went towards gravel.

And there’s less of a bar to entry with gravel. If you’re doing cyclocross, you have to like be able to get off your bike and run and jump, and to go really hard for 40 minutes. In gravel, you could roll up and be a hardcore chiller and still have a really great experience. And I think because of that, fewer people are getting into cyclocross – there’s something else for them now.

Powers lines up alongside Kevin Pauwels and a very youthful Wout van Aert at the 2016 Cross Vegas.

VN: Honsinger is active in the Women’s WorldTour as well as riding a full winter of ‘cross. Guys like Eric Brunner and Curtis White have less of a busy road program though …

JP: I think for the men, the WorldTour has stunted it a little bit — all of the attention is on the WorldTour. For most riders except maybe Belgians, it seems even the best ‘cross riders either need to be racing either the mountain bike World Cup or the road calendar to really make it. Riders from my generation were road racers or mountain bikers that came together at ‘cross. And that is still what it is.

But I think now there’s just not any money in it for U.S. ‘cross riders, and, well … that’s fucking everything. If you can’t make a living at the pro level, how are you going to dedicate all this time to being the best?

And of course, the problems I had with the travel over to Europe, the time away, the different conditions – they still exist. And if you want to do well in the World Cup, you need that regular exposure to things like the heavy mud in Namur.

VN: You mention the influence of the rise of gravel on the U.S. ‘cross scene. Can the two disciplines co-exist? 

It seems people in marketing want riders to naturally go and do gravel, and there aren’t two things less alike [i.e., gravel and cyclocross].

Like doing a six-hour gravel event versus having fast twitch muscles for a ‘cross event – it’s hard to even contextualize why a ‘cross rider would want to do a six or 12-hour race. Like Eli Iserbyt would never do Unbound Gravel. He might do a four-hour road stage at Tour of Belgium, but he’s not doing the duration of gravel.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to drag the funding situation – I want everyone to have a tall building. Gravel is close to cyclocross, and cyclocross is close to close to gravel.

It’s just that there seems to be a thing now where gravel has to be huge epic events, it’s a distance thing. But I think like where short track has a place in MTB, cyclocross and gravel could have a place together if gravel races weren’t so much about being 300km long.