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U.S. cyclocross worlds team: The strongest ever?

BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — Less than a week before the cyclocross world championships prospects for America’s elite women and men look perhaps as bright as they have ever been.

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2010-11 World Cup-Hoogerheide, Jeremy Powers
Powers in the thick of it at the Hoogerheide World Cup

Editor’s note: Dan Seaton’s preview of the women’s world championship race will be published Wednesday.

BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — Less than a week before the cyclocross world championships in Saint Wendel, Germany, prospects for America’s elite women and men look perhaps as bright as they have ever been. Led by national champion Katie Compton, who has not just been unbeatable, but has dominated the international scene for much of the season, the women’s squad appears poised for a very good chance to bring home the United States’ first ever elite rainbow cyclocross jersey.

But the men’s team, with four riders who all appear to be racing at the highest level of their respective careers, could be the strongest men’s team the United States has ever fielded at worlds. The four men all come from New England’s intensely competitive cyclocross scene, and all have proven themselves in international competition before.

Related: Ryan Trebon to skip worlds due to illness’s Tim Johnson has posted some of his best-ever European results in recent months, while Europe-based Jonathan Page, the only American man ever to stand on the worlds podium as an elite rider (silver at the 2007 worlds in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium), has recently showed signs of strong form after a season hampered by injuries and bad luck.

Johnson’s teammates Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll each have matched up successfully against some of the best in the world recently. Powers led last weekend’s Pont-Château World Cup for a while early in the race, and Driscoll, the youngest member of the team, fell just one heartbreaking second short of victory behind France’s Francis Mourey in last September’s CrossVegas race.

And, as a spotlight shines on American cyclocross ahead of the 2013 World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, it is clear that all nine of the riders who will line up in Germany this weekend want to prove once and for all that America can go toe-to-toe with the Europeans who have traditionally dominated the sport.

“The thing is that it just takes more to do these (European) races,” Johnson told VeloNews after fading substantially following strong start in Hoogerheide’s World Cup finale on Sunday. “And the farther forward you go, the more it takes. It’s an exponential thing.”

The challenges of racing in Europe, especially in world championships, said Johnson, who once finished third at the Under-23 world championships, are hard to convey to American fans, used to both less challenging courses and competition that is not nearly as tight as European fans see on a weekly basis.

“We’ve been lucky to have a few Europeans come over at times,” said Johnson, “but to do this week in and week out on courses that are this difficult, it’s not an easy sport. It’s so much harder than people get to see and it’s hard to get exposed to it unless you come over here, and not a lot of people have. You go deeper in the corners, you start pedaling way earlier than you would at home. Because you’re forced to, because the person in front of you is forcing you and the person behind you is forcing you. There’s no such thing as a gimme, everything is hard.”

2010-11 World Cup-Hoogerheide, Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson leads Kevin Pauwels at Hoogerheide

The three-time elite national champion, who claimed two top-20 finishes in as many weeks, with 12th in Pont-Château and 16th in Hoogerheide, said he expected to race for the top ten at worlds.

“I need to get in the top ten,” he said. “I should be able to. It’s like today, am I happy with 16th as a result? No. As a racer, absolutely not. To ride around, yeah, 16th is fine. But racing as far forward as possible, and racing and racing for as long as I can do it, I’m happy about that. Next weekend, if I can roll top 10, I’d be happy. If not, I’ll be disappointed.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s long-time rival for American supremacy, Page, has struggled to find his footing all year. Pag has had more success racing in Europe than any other American man, but has never been able to match his second-place finish at the world championships in 2007.

The New Hampshire native told VeloNews he heads for worlds feeling like he has some of the best form of his life, but he will face an uphill battle, since inconsistent results this season will leave him relatively deep in the starting grid.

“I’m going fast. Next week could be very good for me, but everything has to go well,” said Page. “But that’s the world championships. It’s a very special day, and it’s a day that I’ve done well before, so I’ll try to do it again. I’ve got nothing to lose at this point. It comes down to worlds again. But I’m the skinniest I’ve ever been, I’ve done everything in my power to prepare. So with any luck, I’ll be up there.”

2010-11 World Cup-Hoogerheide, Jonathan Page
A broken derailleur was a setback for Page at Hoogerheide.

Page heads to worlds with an additional challenge ahead of him as well, as his wife Cori is due to deliver their third child this week. Page said that, far from being a distraction, he expects the new arrival to be a source of motivation for him.

“I’ll just become extra-focused, and not only in bike racing but with the family too,” he said. “I’m totally prepared and it’s a great thing.”

Page had a nightmare race at last year’s world championships, crashing together with Niels Albert early in the race, then struggling with a series of mechanical problems on later laps. But he showed he really did have solid form with top-ten results in races both before and after the 2010 championships. If all goes according to plan, look for Page to be inside the top ten next week.

Jamey Driscoll, on the other hand, had a dream race last year in Tábor. The former collegiate national champion drove from a spot somewhere in the upper 30s to a 19th place finish there (Johnson was the top American last year, at 14th). Driscoll said he hopes he can improve on that result this time around.

“Last year was really good, and it was strange because last year I was recovering from being sick, and so I didn’t really have the high end that I do now,” said Driscoll. “I think that played in my favor last year, because not going so hard, I was able to focus on the technical stuff, and you really needed to do that on that course because it was so fast and technical. Pretty much everyone I passed was while they were on the ground. And I didn’t truly deck it myself last year.”

But Driscoll, who bobbled several times towards the end of the Hoogerheide World Cup, said he’ll have to stay collected to meet his goals next week.

“I’m not sure what the conditions are going to be like, but I feel pretty good about my fitness,” he told VeloNews. “Hopefully my technical skills will come around, so I won’t be losing places because of that. You need the complete package at worlds and hopefully I’ll have that.”

If the American contingent has looked stronger in the weeks leading up to worlds this year than in the past, the final team member, Jeremy Powers, attributes it to a successful post-nationals training block. Powers, Driscoll, and Johnson took some time to train at home in the U.S., while Page spent two weeks refining his form alongside his family in the Swiss Alps.

2010-11 World Cup-Hoogerheide,  Jamey Driscoll
Driscoll runs the mud at Hoogerheide

“Last year Tim had this formula where he came over later, and didn’t come and do these Christmas races where we beat up on ourselves right after nationals, which is a lot of travel. Coming over here to do the Christmas series takes a lot,” Powers said in Hoogerheide.

“I know people don’t realize it, but there’s family, there’s travel, and our base isn’t so solid over here that it feels just like home,” he continued. “All those things wear on us. And it’s hard to train here too, since it’s cold and it’s wet. So this year, instead, I went to Greenville, South Carolina, and got my head and my legs back under me after nationals. I took a break. And all those things kind of play into us getting where we need to go. Tim went to California, I went to Greenville, and was with my friends and my girlfriend, and I had a good time and it was positive, versus the other times when it’s been difficult. So that is definitely what makes a big difference.”

Powers, who has experience racing cyclocross in Europe going back to 2001, said he and his teammates were finding ways to adapt to an increasingly international sport, both by carefully balancing travel and training and by setting goals for both domestic and European competition. Nonetheless, he added, competing abroad is simply harder than competing on home turf for everybody.

“I think people in general see a result and that’s all they look at. And that’s OK, but it’s not always the whole story,” he told VeloNews. “I invite anyone to try doing this. You see with the Europeans who come over (to the U.S.), we win when they come over. Tim and I won when the Europeans came, Jamey almost won ‘Vegas. We’re a force when we’re at home, and it’s just a different world. When you submerge yourself in it and move your whole family here — and kudos to Jonathan (Page) for doing that — it means a life change. That’s commendable, but it’s not for me. So for me to do it this way, to use this formula, I think I’m making it happen.”

Powers didn’t cite a specific goal for next weekend’s championship race, but said he felt confident that he could improve on his past performances this year.

“I know I have good fitness, and I’ve gotten (to Europe) the best I’ve come in the longest time. So I’m not sweating that,” he said. “I just need to have no problems in (Saint Wendell). I had a decent race last weekend, and this weekend I’m looking forward. We come here with a lot of support and a lot of people who want to see us do well, and I want to live up to those expectations.”

2010 CrossVegas: Francis Mourey and Jamie Driscoll
French champion Mourey pipped Jamey Driscoll at CrossVegas. Niels Albert says Mourey or another outsider could win worlds this year.

With less than a week to go before the climactic hour of the cyclocross season, Powers’ and his teammates’ supporters don’t have much longer to wait to see how the American men measure up.

And they certainly have reason to be hopeful. After all, it was a former world champion, Niels Albert himself, who said that he thought that this was a year in which the big European contenders might fall to an underdog, something that hasn’t happened in more than a decade.

Venturing a prediction after his victory in Hoogerheide, Albert told VeloNews, “They talked about three people — Styby, Sven, and me — but every year we’ve said an outsider could win the race. And I think this year, an outsider wins. It could Francis Mourey, but I really think this year it’s an outsider.”

If Albert is correct, will the rainbow stripes go to a man in the stars and stripes? It’s a long shot, perhaps, but the chances look better this year than ever before.

The question gets answered in Saint Wendel at two o’clock local time on Sunday afternoon.

Editor’s note: VeloNews senior online editor Charles Pelkey, along with photographer Graham Watson, will be on scene in St. Wendell providing coverage of the world championships this weekend.

seaton_headshotEditor’s note: Dan Seaton started writing about cyclocross when he moved from New Hampshire to Belgium in 2008. He started covering European cyclocross for VeloNews in October 2010. Dan has a Ph.D. in physics and spends most of his time working as mission scientist for a spaceborne solar telescope at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. He somehow finds time to race as an amateur ‘crosser in Belgium during the fall and winter. Dan and his wife, Mindi, live in Brussels.

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