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By Fred Dreier
Katie Compton has the legs. Heather Irmiger has the lungs. Mary McConneloug owns the technical skills and Georgia Gould has the speed.
Each of these four racers brings a unique set of skills into this weekend’s USA Cycling national cross-country championships, held at Sol Vista resort in Granby, Colorado. The four sit atop the list of favorites to win Saturday’s cross-country race, which awards one year of bragging rights to the victor.
So who is the absolute favorite to win?
“Everyone’s riding really strong right now,” said Gould, who in 2006 took the stars-and-stripes jersey. Gould nearly added another jersey to her closet last year, but lost by a hair in a two-up sprint with McConneloug at Mount Snow resort in Vermont.
Gould, who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, has spent the early season showing the strength of her legs, winning the opening round of USA Cycling’s ProXC Tour in Fontana, California, as well as the Sea Otter Classic.
However, she said Saturday’s cross-country race could go any direction.
“Heather showed at the (July 4 marathon championships) that she’s going good,” Gould said. “You can’t count Mary out because she can always pull it together for nationals. And you can’t count Katie out either. You just never know who is going to have their day.”
Irmiger (Subaru-Gary Fisher) had her day two weeks ago at the Firecracker 50 race in Breckenridge, which awards USA Cycling’s marathon national title. The Boulder, Colorado, resident demolished the women’s field, taking a 16-minute win over Pua Sawicki in the 50-mile race, which climbs high into Colorado’s thin air. The victory marked the first national title for Irmiger, who finished second to Gould in the 2006 nationals race.
But on Saturday Irmiger will face off against a much deeper field in Sol Vista. She said she’s maintaining her confidence.
“Physically I’m feeling really good and mentally I’m super excited,” Irmiger said. “I only get excited for races I think I can do really well at. My preparation for the season is really coming together, and everything has fallen into place.”
Irmiger has a history of excelling at high altitude races, and the Sol Vista course tops out at over 9,000 feet. She and her husband, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, spend their summers living in nearby Winter Park and training on the trail network in the Fraser valley.
“Altitude is going to play a factor, but I think it’s going to be a fair fight,” Irmiger said. “People have been doing their homework this year, even riders from (sea level).”
McConneloug, the two-time defending champion, tops that list. The native Californian and her partner Michael Broderick have spent the last three weeks living and training in Colorado for the nationals race. McConneloug lined up for the Firecracker 50, but said the event fit into her schedule as a training race.
“I saw (the Firecracker) as a good way to kick start the elevation training and I ended up feeling horrible,” said McConneloug, who finished 9th. “There’s a certain level of power output that I just can’t sustain (at altitude) that I can at sea level.”
McConneloug, who owns four national cross-country titles, says she’s confident she can put together a good race to win number five. The Californian said she’s going to respect the challenge that comes from racing at high altitude.
“The race is going to be won on the climbs because the descent is so abrupt and bumpy that it’s hard to pass, and there’s chances for crashing there for sure,” McConneloug said. “If I’m riding close to redline, I have to just back off here. I don’t want to blow up.”
The race’s true wildcard is Compton, whose name was added to the list of favorites after the Colorado Springs resident defeated Irmiger and Gould at the Teva Mountain Games in late June. Compton, the five-time cyclocross national champ, previously struggled on the long, sustained climbs found on most alpine mountain-bike courses. But Compton says she’s spent the winter and spring months bettering her climbing. And with Compton’s skill level and high power output, she could put together a winning ride on the course as well.
Compton recently lost her longtime sponsor, Spike Shooter, and will line up Saturday flying the colors of the Independent Fabrication bicycle company.
The 2009 USA Cycling mountain bike national championships kicks off Friday with the junior and U23 events.