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The sole American racing ‘cross full-time in Europe works to be among the best
By Chris Milliman
Two years ago Jonathan Page was in limbo, his up-and-down career as a bike racer was on another upswing, but he was still struggling to keep doing what he loved, and seemed destined, to do.
In the winter of 2002, and without a pro contract, Page moved to Belgium to race cyclo-cross, the biggest gamble he’d taken in a cycling career that started in his teens. But the gamble paid off when the New Hampshire native won that year’s rain-soaked U.S. ‘cross nationals in California. The win, along with steadily improving results on the European circuit, earned Page a professional ‘cross contract for 2003 with Italian sponsor Guerciotti, and his renaissance as a bike racer was seemingly complete. He capped the 2003 season with another national title, again in the mud, in Portland, Oregon.
So it seemed only natural with mud and a West Coast venue on the docket for the 2004 national championship, that Page would win a third straight stars-and-stripes. And he did.
But Page knows better than to get too comfortable. While he lost Guerciotti as a sponsor for 2004, he knew he wanted, indeed needed, to stay in Europe to continue racing as America’s only full-time professional ‘cross racer. So, with a laundry list of personal sponsors – Cervelo, adidas, Mavic, and Hot Tubes – and a support system of family and friends, Page has remained a Belgian-based ‘cross pro, despite obstacles that would have stopped lesser riders in their tracks.
Page’s recent win in Portland might not go down as his most dominant, but it reinforced his reputation for toughness and working hard under difficult circumstances. Page entered the December 11th championship having raced two World Cups in the previous week, one in Switzerland and one in Italy, all while trying to recover from a hard crash and a lingering illness.
He, his wife, Cori, and three-month-old daughter, Emma, arrived in Portland two days before the championship, yet the admittedly jet-lagged 28-year-old held off a strong challenge by Kona’s Ryan Trebon to win the national title.
“At Koksijlde, the week before nationals, I fell down and I had some deep muscle bruises and that took a while to get going,” explained Page. “It took me a week to feel OK again. I thought I was OK and even at Wetzikon [Switzerland] I wasn’t good at all. I had a little cold and I think because of crashing I kept it a little longer than I should have. Basically I was nursing it along for a while hoping to recover. Then in Wetzikon I wasn’t good and I had only two days before Milan then at the end of the week I was in Portland. It was difficult, I just had to keep it together without cracking.”
Page did keep it together, even though his pre-race warm-up sent him some unmistakably negative signals, signals born out as the race unfolded. “I knew the morning of the race that my legs weren’t good,” said Page. “I knew right from the beginning. The first couple laps are always OK, but then when you settle in you worry about the rest of the race, then it’s when it really counts. I just rode my own speed. Ryan was good that day and I wasn’t that far ahead of him, so I wasn’t too panicked when he caught me.”
Using his superior technique and skills, Page managed to drop Trebon and scoot home for the third consecutive national’s win. In a season in which bad luck has been the rule and not the exception, Page relished the win.
“There was a lot of pressure,” said Page, “and people maybe don’t understand how hard I work and how hard my family works and the people who sponsor me. The network of people behind me that support me means a lot to me, so if I can win it makes it all worth everyone’s effort.”
While Page became the first American man to make the podium at a European elite race, with his third place in Ardooie, Belgium, and he’s become a regular in the top-20 in major races, his 2004 European campaign has had its share of bleak moments. Untimely flats, crashes, and mechanicals have scuttled otherwise solid performances. Page knows that bad luck is part of racing, but also knows that he can ill afford to put himself behind the eight-ball on a regular basis.
“Bad luck is definitely part of the deal,” said Page. “It’s also learning and preparing everything correctly as well. You can do everything right until the race and then stuff does happen. But you see a lot of the good guys, they still have some bad luck but they’re able to overcome that. I can’t make too many mistakes and come back to the lead group, I only have a couple times to do that. The good guys can have something go wrong and they can normally make it back and then do OK. At this high of a level it’s difficult to stay at the front with bad luck.”
But, says Page, this season’s results have given him the confidence in his speed and skills to race at the front of the major European events. A win, he thinks, could be in the cards given the right day.
“I can ride with the top guys, maybe not every day, but I can ride with them,” said Page. “The key is, and what I’m looking for in the rest of the season, is making the selection but being in there at the end also. It’s one thing to make the selection, but then struggle to stay there. I believe there will be a few races where I can make the front group and be sprinting for the win, or at least the podium. It’s a good feeling to have that.”
With a third U.S. championships in the bank, Page remains upbeat about his prospects for the future, though he readily admits that an American racing ‘cross in Europe remains something of a curiosity. A good ride at the world championships, he knows, will cement his spot in the Belgian-dominated ‘cross scene, and could, perhaps, result in a contract with one of the major ‘cross teams for 2005. While it’s a bit of a chicken-egg conundrum, such a contract, with its attendant team support, could help Page secure even better results.
“I am getting more interest, but what it comes down to is will they take a foreign rider, because it costs them more. Now I’m getting more exposure so maybe it will equal itself out. Having an independent sponsor like I have, and not a bigger team, is more difficult on me. I have to go out and find the sponsors and make sure that I have this, this, this and this. Still, I have to buy some parts and that makes it a little more difficult because I have to go through different steps instead of one person getting me what I need. And of course I don’t have the budget of the big teams.
“I want to be top-10 in the world. I will be targeting some of the World Cups and any race that suits me from now on. I’ll take any opportunity I can get is what it comes down to.”