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Role reversal: After years of mentorship, Hyde tops Powers

U.S. 'cross may be seeing a changing of the guard as Stephen Hyde beats his longtime mentor and American champion Jeremy Powers.

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The moment when an apprentice surpasses his mentor is one that neither forgets.

Last weekend, in Louisville, Kentucky, that happened twice when Stephen Hyde defeated national cyclocross champion Jeremy Powers at the Derby City Cup.

Saturday night, under the lights, Hyde took his first UCI C1 win, out-sprinting Powers, who struggled with punctures and mechanicals throughout the race. The following day, Hyde and Powers battled at the front until the national champ crashed on the final lap, allowing Hyde to solo to victory.

Over the last three seasons, Hyde has benefitted greatly from mentorship, support, and coaching from Powers, as well as the JAM Fund team. It’s no overstatement to say that Powers took Hyde under his wing, and taught him everything he knows about cyclocross racing.

Hyde had won big races before, but in terms of significance, and symbolism, these wins in Louisville were the biggest of his nascent career. Asked about his reaction to twice beating the three-time national champion — the man who has helped developed his career — Hyde said emotions were mixed.

“Powers has been the first to say, ‘You’re going to beat me, it’s just a matter of time,’” Hyde said. “Everyone around me had the faith in me, so I think for neither of us was it a surprise, but it was kind of emotional. There was a bit of … maybe not passing of the torch, but it was a real step forward. He was very complimentary and respectful. It’s a very respectful relationship.”

Powers admitted that he’d had a series of mechanical mishaps early on during Saturday’s race, but he also acknowledged that Hyde was a deserving winner.

“I had a good chance to win the race,” the Rapha-Focus rider said. “I was riding strong. I did have some mistimed flats, and I was stuck behind a crash at start, so that was never going to lend itself to winning. But when I look back at the last eight races we’ve done together, it’s taken me a full 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the course, to get rid of Stephen, when I time my race right. When I’m not at the front until 45 minutes in, if he rides a different race, it will change the dynamic, as I have to immediately attack, even though I might not be as sharp. Saturday’s race wasn’t a straight-up battle, but on Sunday, it was much more tactical. I didn’t have great legs, and then I made a mistake, slipped, and hit the deck. But that doesn’t take anything away from his races. On Saturday, we went to the line, and he won the sprint.”

The path to the podium

Though he’ll be 29 years old in March, Hyde is young in race years. His background is in BMX and mountain biking; his exposure to road and cyclocross racing came circuitously, working in bike shops.

“I’ve always been an avid cyclist. I started with BMX and dirt jumping, with a bit of racing here and there, and some bike touring,” Hyde explained. “I’ve worked at a few bike shops, and did some mountain bike racing in my earlier 20s. I floundered around, and eventually I fell in love with cyclocross.”

After soloing to victory ahead of veteran pro Adam Myerson at the 2012 Cheshire Cross race in Connecticut, Hyde — who hails from Pensacola, Florida — was invited to join the non-profit JAM Fund program for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.

Hyde spent the last two seasons with the 12-year-old JAM Fund team, which Powers helped establish, basing himself in Easthampton, Massachusetts, just down the road from Powers, working at a bike shop to pay the rent while also racing, training, and learning. He also spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons racing with the Continental road team Astellas, though he won’t be returning in 2016, as all of his training will be “built toward the cyclocross season.”

Hyde won four UCI races during the 2014-15 season, earning a spot on the 2015-2016 squad, his first pro ‘cross contract. He also had his first taste of European cyclocross last year, traveling across the Atlantic twice. His first trip, in November and December, saw him register several top-30 finishes, including 21st at GP Hasselt.

He returned to finish sixth at nationals, in Austin, while nursing an ankle injury. The result was enough to earn a discretionary selection to the world championship squad and a phone call from Cannondale’s team manager Stu Thorne, with an offer to fill the spot left by Tim Johnson’s retirement.

Hyde returned to Europe later that month, alongside Powers and his Rapha-Focus entourage, placing 37th at the Hoogerheide World Cup, one week before worlds. Worlds, in Tabor, Czech Republic, was a bit of a disaster. He double-flatted in the start after compatriot Jamey Driscoll crashed, and Hyde ran over his wheel. Hyde ultimately ran out of spare wheels, and did not finish.

Making the jump

Though the JAM Fund, and his coach, Alec Donahue, in particular, played a critical role in his progression, Hyde said his jump to Cannondale was “massive.”

“It’s made a huge difference. It’s not just eight people in a sprinter van, filled with bikes, with me gluing wheels at races, using what we have, making the best of the situation,” Hyde said. “With Cannondale, my bikes show up in a giant trailer, there is three staff, four riders, and we are well taken care of. The equipment is top-notch; we have some of the best sponsors you could ever want to have. I didn’t have much expectation going into the program, but it’s been a phenomenal step-up. Stu knows so much, Tim is around, willing to be a mentor. Same goes for Ryan [Trebon]. And we have a great mechanic. There is all this wealth of knowledge that people are willing to give, if you are willing to listen.”

In a June interview with The Bicycle Story, Hyde said he was “in tears,” after signing his contact with Cannondale. In that interview, he was also asked his goals for the 2015-16 season, and beyond. “I haven’t won a C1 race yet,” he said. “Somebody has to beat Powers. I’d love to be the guy to do it. That’s what Powers wants. That’s why he created the program.”

On Saturday, Hyde ticked two boxes at once — he won his first C1 race, ahead of Powers, who had become almost unbeatable in North America. On Sunday, he did it again.

“It was a good course for me,” Hyde said. “And it’s been coming. I’ve been second to [Powers] several times this year. I’ve been battling with him up front. I’m learning every single race. I felt confident, finally. It wasn’t just him pushing me. On Saturday, we both had problems. We were both outside the top 30 at the start. We both had flat tires; we both managed to come back and keep cool. It came down to the last quarter of the race. I beat him over a long drag, followed by a punchy climb. I got in front, dove into the technical section, and I managed to hold him off. I made it onto the pavement with a bike length, sprinted as hard as I could, and managed to get it.”

Powers was pragmatic about the defeat. His race on Saturday, with more UCI points on the line, was a comedy of errors — he chose the wrong tires, swapped bikes to correct that, punctured, got back on the first bike, still with improper tires, and ran into rotor-size conflicts on spare wheels. Still, that’s all part of racing, he said.

“I mean, I’m not pumped. I don’t want to lose to anyone in the U.S.,” Powers said. “Any time any of the Euros come to the U.S. I am bringing my A game. I don’t want to lose to anyone [in the U.S.] until I hang up the wheels.

“That said, we are proud of what we’ve been able to do, to have had a big hand in helping riders, including those who haven’t made it to Hyde’s level. Seeing him come up, he’s making a living racing cyclocross bikes, and that makes us all happy. It’s a mixed emotion — I’m a bit bummed I lost a race, but that comes back to me. I’m also proud to have helped someone change his life. It’s a way for us to reinvest into the community. I’m pissed I didn’t execute on race day, but that comes second to what a cool achievement and impact we’ve made in someone’s life. That’s important, and I do rest on that. I do care about how I leave the sport, and what I’ve left behind.”

Still scratching the surface?

Based on his trajectory, it’s fair to ask just how far Hyde can go. If Powers is capable of top-10 finishes in Europe, does that mean Hyde is as well?

It appears the sky is the limit, and it helps that Hyde is unmarried, without kids, and fully committed to pursuing pro cyclocross racing for the next five years.

“We’re just going to take it one step at a time,” Hyde said. “There is still a steep learning curve. We can benchmark where I’m at, against other riders, in other situations. I’m a pretty adaptive person. I’d love top be in the top 10 in Europe in the next three years. I don’t think it’s unreasonable. It’s wild, but it’s not unreasonable.

“I’d live in Europe. I’d like to make it viable for other Americans, not just for me. I’d like to help make that pathway more accessible for younger Americans, riders like Curtis White, Logan Owen, and Gage Hecht, who could really make a name for themselves. It’s still a hard pathway to get over there as an elite rider. I’d be willing to try, to try to make it easier for me, to make it easier for everyone.”

“I don’t think we know,” Powers said of Hyde’s potential. “The thing he has going — he’s able to learn, he’s able to listen. It’s always valuable when a rider can listen, can take intel, can take critiques, and make changes, and not be hurt by it, but grow from it. I’m not surprised to see him ride well. He’s made a huge jump this year. I don’t know what he can do in Europe, there are too many variables, but I think he’s riding well currently.”

The rest of Hyde’s season includes a training camp and cyclocross clinic in Pensacola, followed by Jingle Cross, and a trip to Europe, where he’ll race the Namur and Zolder World Cup races in late December. He’ll return to the States for nationals — where will be one of the heavy favorites — and back to Europe for the World Cups in Lignières-en-Berry and Hoogerheide. Assuming he’s selected, he’ll cap the trip off with a return to the world championships.

“I live a life around all of these people, who have all of these years of experience, and I’m still tapping into it,” Hyde said. “I am a few years deep into the program, and I am still scratching the surface, still figuring out how to train. I am breaking barriers every step of the way. I’m still learning every single day, every training ride, every race. It sucks to lose, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s more, ‘How did I mess that up? What did he [the winner] do right?’ It’s one step forward, every day. As long as I can continue to do that, I think the progression is endless.”