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MOUNT LEMMON, Arizona (VN) — On a clear weekday morning in mid-December, the saguaro cactus-studded Tucson desert gave way to the cold, pine-tree-clad summit of Mount Lemmon where Rapha-Focus’ U.S. cyclocross champion Jeremy Powers had rented a house at the summit for a nine-day block of training.
“He went running,” said Redlands Classic winner Phil Gaimon, answering the doorbell with a shrug of his shoulders. “But he left on his bike. That’s what he does, he leaves on his bike, and then runs with it.”
Twenty minutes later, Powers and his training and business partner Alec Donahue returned from their first workout of the day, a ride to a trailhead where they shouldered their bikes and ran. Powers, fresh off his Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross overall win, entered the door fairly vibrating with happiness. Powers is clearly a man delighted with where he is in life.
After making himself a smoothie, a bowl of oatmeal, and pouring a mug of coffee, Powers sat to eat. But even rooted in a chair, he was animated, his lean frame seemingly in perpetual motion. Sam Smith, a filmmaker who has been documenting Powers’ ascent for three seasons in the Behind THE Barriers web show, trained his camera on us.
Powers explained that he ended up on top of Mount Lemmon because of a quirk in his travel schedule. Rather than flying from his last World Cup race in Roubaix, France, to his home in Massachusetts, Powers jetted from Europe to California to take care of sponsor obligations.
“This nine days here made sense for me,” Powers said of his training block at 8,000 feet. “The weather is so good, and I have a lot of friends here in Tucson… So it was easy to put something together, and then this house became available at the top of Mount Lemmon, so I thought, ‘OK, here we go.’
“[Wednesday] we started out with some intensity right off the blocks just to get opened up. But now we are going to be doing some longer rides. Because that’s what you miss when it’s 35 or 40 degrees in Massachusetts; it’s hard to do a four-hour ride.”
Since the national championships moved to January in 2012, many of Powers’ compatriots have marked this third weekend of December as a chance for rejuvenation and a racing break. Meanwhile, many of his European rivals head to Mallorca or other warmer climes after Sunday’s Soudal Classics race in Leuven, Belgium. Powers will resume his season with the Kerstperiode World Cup race on December 23 in Namur, Belgium.
“[Wednesday] was really great,” he said. “We were seeing really high heart rates because we are at a bit of altitude and the ability to go really hard with the warmer air is nice. It’s hard to go really deep when it’s 30 degrees, so for intervals and things like that it’s way nicer to be doing that in the warm weather.”
Because of Mount Lemmon’s altitude — the house where he and his training partners are staying is just below a ski area — Powers said it was easier to reproduce race conditions.
“When you are in a ’cross race and you are going really, really deep, when you get off on in that first lap and start running, your heart rate is seeing a level that it never sees,” he said. “So to be able to do that workout up here, where you are feeling that same thing, you are like, ‘oh man, I’m gassed right now. I’m completely winded.’”
Powers’ running workout lasted about 40 minutes. The 5-foot-11-inch, 150-pound rider explained that he and Donahue went out and rode some of the vast network of hiking and riding trails that crisscross the mountain.
“It’s like basically we are just going out for a ’cross ride, but we get on and off the bike a lot,” he said.
They looked for steep hills and mixed running intervals with riding. While Powers said that in Massachusetts he sometimes gets strange looks from hikers when they spy him running singletrack with a bike on his shoulder, he enjoyed the trails in solitude on this Thursday morning.
Powers is not doing all his training at altitude at this camp, however. The bulk of his road workout on Thursday with Gaimon and Donahue took place at the base of the mountain, at about 2,600 feet. There, he said he could keep up the high-intensity work, “the big power numbers.” Referring to preparations for Namur, which marks the beginning of the build-up to the world championships, Powers explained that, “When you are really high up you lose a lot of power. So that wouldn’t really be good for what I’m doing — I’m going to race in the flats of Belgium.”
Flying from the Roubaix World Cup to California, Powers missed the December 8-9 USGP of Cyclocross finale in Bend, Oregon, where he was awarded the overall title for the second consecutive year. But from the beginning of the season, his plan was to stack up points early on in the eight-race U.S. series so he could concentrate on World Cup events later in Europe. “The goal was always to do well in the early season,” he said. “And it was nice to be able to do it.”
Powers pointed out that success is built on a foundation of paying attention to incremental details. Not racing in Oregon, where he swept both races in 2011, after flying from Europe to California for his sponsor obligations was one of those.
“It’s all the little things. It’s one percent here and one percent there. Flying there and doing that race, yeah, I would still be tired,” he said. “It was weird to not be there [in Bend] because those are my competitors, but I’m really focused on the world championships now in Louisville and the World Cup series. I want to get those World Cup starts in.”
Powers is currently ranked 12th in the UCI standings, with 1,032 points to leader Sven Nys’ 2,270. Powers sits 165 points behind ninth-ranked Francis Mourey for what will likely be the final front row start position in Louisville, with two-time world champ Zdenek Stybar’s (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) start in question. While he says he does not have designs on cracking the World Cup podium tier this year, Powers is getting closer. In October, he scored the best-ever World Cup result for a U.S. man when he finished seventh in Tabor, Czech Republic. Powers has finished in the top 15 twice before at worlds, but admits that getting onto the podium requires another level of concentration.
“You have to focus on every single little detail,” he said. “If you look at the top 10 of a World Cup in cyclocross, it’s a lot different than the top 10 of a road race. Every guy in the top 10 of a World Cup cyclocross race has either been on the podium at the world championships or has been world champion either in the juniors or the under-23… I’m trying to break into a group of guys that has a lot more experience.”
When asked if he thinks doing a high-altitude training block in December will give him a psychological edge over his competitors, Powers laughed.
“Honestly, I’m definitely not worried about what they think of me,” he said. “I try to keep an eye on them, but I’m not too concerned.”
Powers has raced with Jelly Belly-Kenda on the road since 2004, also the first year he spent a full season racing cyclocross in Europe. A solid all-rounder and breakaway rider in the domestic peloton, Powers said he completely compartmentalizes his cyclocross and road training. The workouts he is doing in Tucson have no bearing on his road preparation in the spring.
“I take February and the beginning of March off, and then I start to build up,” he said. The training he is doing now in Arizona “is for nationals,” which take place January 9 in Madison, Wisconsin. Following his title defense, he’ll do another training block in preparation for the world championships.
Powers is contracted through 2013 with Jelly Belly, and he does worry about whether going full-gas for both road and cyclocross seasons impacts his performance in both. But at some point he would like to focus solely on ’cross, saying he would like to stop racing on the road full-time. Most of the top European ’cross professionals race a limited road schedule aimed at maintaining fitness and building endurance.
Powers appreciates the opportunities Jelly Belly has given him, pointing to director Danny Van Haute’s willingness to build a road schedule around his cyclocross events. But as Powers‘ successes over the last two years have shown, his true talent is in the mud and sand — skills he says he first developed when inspired by fellow Connecticut high schooler Tom Danielson to pick up a mountain bike and have a go at New England’s wet, rooted, and slippery terrain.
“If I could just focus on ’cross,” he said, “I think that’s where I am going to see the most gains.”