With four UCI wins to date and a second-place overall result in the US Cup-CX series, Kerry Werner (Kona) should be happy with his best season yet in 2017. The soft-spoken 26-year-old isn’t looking for incremental improvements, though. He wants to dominate.
Werner had a front-row seat when Tobin Ortenblad (Santa Cruz-Donkey Label) won seven of eight consecutive races in October. He was also there when Stephen Hyde (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) won six UCI races in a row, including the Pan-Am championships in 2016.
Now, Werner wants his turn.
“I really want that,” Werner says of Ortenblad’s and Hyde’s streaks. “I don’t want to be like the Kevin Pauwels of America where I get on the podium, get second every now and then, but not really ever win.” The Belgian Pauwels has scored five bronze medals in seven years at the elite world cyclocross championships between 2011 and 2017.
Although his first UCI win came five years ago in North Carolina (the year Hyde made the jump to pro racing, in case you’re keeping track), Werner never went supersonic. Instead, he collected top-10 and podium finishes at an array of UCI races, mostly on the East Coast.
Werner wasn’t winning at will, but he had caught the cyclocross bug. After spending his teenage years as a mountain bike racer, he loved how tight ‘cross racing was and how tantalizingly close he could get to the sport’s heads of state.
“When I was coming up as a development rider when you have a good start and you find yourself latched onto this pack with J-Pow [Jeremy Powers], Stephen [Hyde], Ryan [Trebon],” Werner recalls. “Man, I’m like knocking on the door right now. You might get your doors blown off in two laps, but still, you touched that.”
Werner wasn’t always getting his doors blown off, either. He won three collegiate national cyclocross championships in a row, starting in 2012, while attending Lees-McRae College. With those results and his exploits beyond collegiate racing, he got a spot on the Optum-Kelly Benefits team in 2014 and then rode for Raleigh-Clement in 2015.
He split with Raleigh-Clement after 2015. This presented the opportunity for Werner to build his own one-man team. Best of all, finding a sponsor proved easier than he’d expected.
The deal with Kona came together quickly in late June 2016. “I was like, ‘This is too good to be true. The industry doesn’t work this way,’” Werner says. “It’s like a family.”
“He’s a little quirky, he’s kind of funny,” says Kona founder Jake Heilbron. “That really fits I think with the way we operate our business.
“I think he fits into that oddball group of characters within the company. He’s very comfortable with it.”
Knowing Kona would value a big result at 2017 USA Cycling Cyclocross Nationals, Werner skipped the usual Christmas block of European races during the 2016 holiday season. Instead, he stayed home in Winston-Salem, training specifically for nationals over three weeks. He motorpaced and prepared specifically for the course’s features, such as the long run-up.
He ended up third at nationals in Hartford, Connecticut. It wasn’t exactly the domination that Werner is dreaming of, but it was his best result ever in the elite championship on a particularly difficult course covered in ice, snow, and mud.
Now at the halfway point of his second season with Kona, Werner is still looking for ways to contend with riders like Hyde, who won that day in January last winter.
“That’s kind of what I’m struggling with right now,” Werner says. “I need to find the recipe to dominate.”
One of the ingredients missing from Werner’s recipe is the tactical nous that wins early season races. He says he had the legs in many of the September races where pack racing was more common. He notes that Ortenblad was able to take advantage of those situations, in part due to his road racing experience.
“For me to move into that top step, I just have to pay super-close attention to where [Hyde] is hurting and just wait for the perfect moment,” Werner says.
He also expects to benefit when the winter weather begins, making courses muddy, heavy, and more technically challenging.
Heilbron recognizes the 26-year-old’s potential and believes Werner will keep getting faster. He and Kona take pride in supporting up-and-comers like Werner.
“I feel like Kerry can get to a higher level,” Heilbron says. “Maybe he’s capable of making the jump to a top-10 Euro cyclocrosser. That’d be really cool if he could get himself there.”
Werner would probably agree, even if it meant he was finishing alongside Pauwels.