This week the country’s best cyclocrossers head to Verona, Wisconsin, for the 45th U.S. national cyclocross championships in a bid for gold and the stars-and-stripes jersey. With a world championship bid and the jersey on the line, expect fierce competition for returning champions like Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) and Logan Owen (Redline).
The current forecast calls for temperatures in the high 20s, and if that holds up, expect a venue that changes from fast and frozen to wet and sloppy depending on time of day.
The elite world championships — being held for the first time outside of Europe on February 2-3 in Louisville, Kentucky — have attracted the attention and imagination of riders, fans, and the media. How important is winning the national title? A nationals win in any of the four categories contesting elite worlds — elite men and women, U23 men and junior men 17-18 — punches an automatic ticket to Kentucky.
“Winning and wearing the jersey is incredible,” three-time elite champion Tim Johnson told VeloNews. “It might take just one hour to win or lose, but the effects last an entire career.”
Keep your browser pointed to VeloNews.com for daily coverage from Verona.
The two-mile course at Badger Prairie Park in Verona, Wisconsin, offers up a multifaceted challenge, with grinding climbs, bombing descents, twisting technical sections, and the balancing act of off-camber slopes, which should be made all the more demanding given the snow and ice that have covered the Wisconsin park’s contoured grass hillsides.
In terms of the course layout, it is nearly identical to the 2012 race, with only a few minor tweaks, according to Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s vice president of national events.
“The course is currently in great shape and is very challenging to ride and race,” Tom Schuler, the local promoter of the event, told VeloNews. “Bike handling skills will be rewarded in Verona. The ground is mostly hard/firm, but a little soft in the south facing hills, of which there are quite a few. Again, bike handling skills will be tested to the max.”
From the start grid, riders will be able to hit high speeds on a long, gently curving paved road, flashing under the finish truss after approximately 500 feet, before cruising onto and around a portion of soccer field. A few quick, technical turns brings the riders to the pit. Then, the climbing begins as the course gently rises along the north slope of the park’s major hill before turning right and ascending steeply up and over the top.
Here, the course will likely stay cold and icy, and riding the hill may prove impossible for some riders. After falling from the hilltop, the course loops back and up a staircase, then wraps around the hillside again before a fast, grassy downhill into the course’s only set of barriers.
After passing the pits for a second time, the course enters a series of slower, likely slipperier corners through trees, sand and spectators. Finally, the track leads out and onto the hillside again in a series of stair-step, steep climbs, only to fall again in a series of tricky, off-camber corners, back into shady trees and returns onto the paved finishing stretch.
“It is looking like we could have much more snow on the ground this year, which will definitely add to the difficulty or excitement, depending on how you look at it,” said Tony Leko, USA Cycling’ national events manager. “It is cyclocross, after all!”
2012 podium: 1. Jeremy Powers 2. Ryan Trebon 3. Jonathan Page
Defending champion Jeremy Powers has been the No. 1–ranked U.S. ’cross rider for the past three seasons. Last year he managed to cast off the bad luck that had plagued him at nationals to win solo ahead of Ryan Trebon (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Jonathan Page (ENGVT). This season he’s either won or made the podium in every U.S. race he’s entered and repeated his overall victory in the Trek U.S. Gran Prix series. Save for a couple of disappointing results in recent World Cups in Europe, Powers has had a remarkable season, and on Saturday he showed off his good form in Chicago, taking a comfortable win in the snow against key rivals and former Cannondale teammates Jamey Driscoll and Tim Johnson.
Unlike last year, when Powers was under tremendous pressure to win after a decade of nationals disappointment, he told VeloNews last week that things are different this time around.
“I feel great going into the nationals again, and frozen conditions suit me well,” he said. “Now that I’ve finally been the national champion I know the feeling and the opportunity that’s there. The motivation is high to try and repeat.”
He’ll be keeping a close eye on Page, a three-time elite national champion, who heads to the Midwest after a string of season-best top-10 performances in Belgium.
“I’m happy that my form is coming around and that I am finally healthy,” Page told VeloNews. “I can’t wait to race nationals — I’d love to be in the champ’s jersey.”
For Page, the sloppier and more technical the course, the better he tends to perform. After finishing third at nationals last year, he’ll be disappointed with anything less a victory on Sunday. If he wins, he’ll start next month’s world championships in Kentucky wearing the stars-and-strips jersey, a fitting honor for arguably the most successful male ’cross rider to come out of North America.
As for last year’s runner-up, Trebon, the former national champion has had a number of podium appearances this season and a month ago won a round of the USGP in his hometown of Bend, Oregon. He’s been keeping a low profile since, training in California. Trebon recently had a setback in his preparation after coming down with stomach flu, but he told VeloNews on Monday that he still expects to be 100 percent on Sunday.
“If I’m not that good this week at nationals then I’ll be even better for worlds,” he said.
Like Page, Trebon’s a mudder and thrives in the worst conditions.
“Last year the it dried out and wasn’t super heavy or muddy, and that plays to Jeremy’s strengths a little more than it does mine,” he said. “But if it rains or snows, I’ll have a better chance.”
As for the course, Tim Johnson told VeloNews that it should be more selective than in 2012.
“We had unusually warm conditions last year and the mud didn’t affect the results as much as it could have,” he said. “I’m guessing that we’ll be dealing with some snow and colder temps, which should make for a dynamic race. Combine that with the elevation change on-course and it could be really tough.”
Johnson himself is a threat, of course, and his results have been solid for most of the season. A win in December ahead of Trebon in Bend on day two has set him up for an end-of-season run at nationals and worlds.
Who does Johnson see as his chief rivals?
“Page is the rider with the most momentum,” he said. “He’s been putting together some solid results against the hardest fields and on courses that make our typical high-speed dry course seem like a bunny slope. Transitioning that speed into a result at nats isn’t a given, though. Trebon will be riding well, and with his power he should inflict the most pain.”
One revelation of last year’s nationals was 21-year-old Zach McDonald (Rapha), who won the U23 championship on Saturday and finished fourth in the elite race on Sunday. This time he’s skipping the U23 tilt to focus on the elite contest (UCI rules now prohibit riders from starting both races). Since last year he’s shown that his fourth place was no fluke and that he can ride at the top of the sport. McDonald won the second day of the Providence festival in October and a podium finish on Sunday would serve to solidify his place among the new order of U.S. ’cross.
Another young rider to watch is Danny Summerhill (UnitedHealthcare), who comes into nationals from his road team’s training camp in Arizona. At just 23 years old, Summerhill has either shown himself capable of beating any American rider this season — or found himself on the sidelines with a heavy crash or mechanical. Summerhill’s place in the six-man U.S. worlds team likely relies on a race win on Sunday; look for him to ride like it.
Rounding out the favorites is Driscoll, who on his day can win any race in the U.S. He won a cold battle on Sunday at New Year’s Rosolution, beating Johnson and Page, and all season long it’s as if he’s been waiting in the wings to strike big. Sunday could see him take his first elite title, especially if he and his two teammates, Johnson and Trebon, can work together.
With so many of the best riders coming into nationals with good form, expect a true battle on Sunday, with Driscoll, Powers, Page, Johnson, Trebon, Summerhill and McDonald making up the front group and putting on a show well worth watching.
2012 podium: 1. Katie Compton 2. Kaitlin Antonneau 3. Nicole Duke
No one will be surprised if reigning U.S. champion Katie Compton takes another title this Sunday; it’ll be news only if she doesn’t. Last year she dropped all comers on the first lap and soloed for the win, two minutes ahead of her protégé, Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale). Stateside, Compton has won eight national titles in a row, and in Europe she’s racked up 16 World Cup victories, including four this season. On Sunday in Rome she finished second to reigning world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank) and secured her first World Cup overall title.
Compton’s motivation never seems to wane and she excels on just about any type of course. It’s hard to see anyone knocking the most successful American ’cross racer off her throne. But after all, that’s why they have the race.
As for Antonneau, the surprise runner-up last year, she’s proved that she’s capable of big rides on the national stage. In addition to her elite silver medal in 2012, she won U23 and collegiate honors. A Wisconsin native, Antonneau will be keen to repeat with another podium-worthy performance in front of home fans. But she’s had mixed results this season, both here and abroad. Though she is the only American woman other than Compton to auto-qualify for the worlds team — by way of a World Cup to 10 in Tabor, Czech Republic, in October — since last year’s nationals she has yet to follow through with a big win. If she can put together another podium ride, it will re-confirm that at 20 she’s still the most talented up-and-comer in U.S. women’s ’cross.
Georgia Gould (Luna Chix) didn’t race nationals last year, but has stood on the podium there four times and has been one of the biggest threats to Compton on the U.S. circuit. The reigning cross-country mountain bike national champion, Gould won a bronze medal at the London Olympics on the mountain bike, and in December she took her fourth overall title in the USGP. She’s enjoying another great season, but again has found herself playing second fiddle to Compton. Gould has opted to skip European racing this season and while she is a top favorite for a discretionary selection for the worlds team, a podium ride in Madison would go even further to assure her place in Louisville.
“While I have amassed quite a few second-place finishes at nationals in the past, I’m going to see if I can do myself one better and just win that sucker,” Gould wrote on her blog recently. To do that, she’ll need a perfect ride — and hope that Compton has an off day.
With Amy Dombroski (Telenet-Fidea) absent, Meredith Miller (Cal Giant–Specialized) is a favorite for a podium appearance on Sunday. Last year the 2009 national road champion crashed heavily, but managed to hold on for sixth. A week ago she cracked the top 10 in a European cyclocross race for the first time. She has said that she’ll need to be at her best to finish top three come Sunday, and after hanging tough against the world’s best the past few weeks in Europe, she looks ready to do just that.
“Georgia will be my main rival because she’s both technically and physically strong and she goes into every race she does wanting to win as well,” Compton told VeloNews on Monday. “I never discount any of the other women, either — anything can happen and I have to ride a smart, clean race.”
Those other women include Mo Bruno-Roy (Bob’s Red Mill-Seven), Nicole Duke (Alchemy), Crystal Anthony (Cyclocrossworld.com) and Elle Anderson (LadiesFirst).
Barring disaster, expect Compton to take her ninth title handily. The race for silver and bronze should be more interesting, with Gould likely making things difficult for other podium hopefuls.
2012 podium: 1. Zach McDonald 2. Cody Kaiser 3. Jeffrey Bahnson
With McDonald skipping the U23 event this year to focus on the elite race, look for any number of eager young riders try to claim the title of U23 champion. The clear favorite is Yannick Eckmann (Cal Giant). A dual citizen of Germany and the U.S., Eckmann can race nationals — his first in the States in four years — but can’t race worlds for the U.S. for another year because of UCI rules. The U23 national championship is effectively his worlds.
[Cal Giant-Specialized announced on Thursday that the team expected Eckmann to be selected to the German squad for the world championships —Ed.]
Others to watch closely include last year’s runner-up, Cody Kaiser (Cal Giant) as well as Kerry Werner (BMC U23 Development MTB Team), who will be looking to capitalize on McDonald’s absence and his own excellent results this season. First-year U23 riders Andrew Dillman (Bob’s Red Mill) and Tobin Ortenblad (Cal Giant) should be in the mix, as well as collegiate cross-country mountain bike champion Richard Cypress Gorry (Whole Athlete–Specialized). Last year’s fourth-place finisher, Jesse Keough (Champion System–Keough Cyclocross), will be looking to move up a step on the podium as well.
Junior men 17-18
2012 podium: 1. Logan Owen 2. Tobin Ortenblad 3. Richard Cypress Gorry
One name, that of seven-time national champion Logan Owen, is atop the men’s junior field. Owen has won every cyclocross national championship he has entered. And while Curtis White (Hot Tubes) has emerged as another legitimate threat for the U.S. in Europe this season, Owen has been better than ever, winning at Namur, Belgium, and sweeping all four USGP races he started.
Beyond Owen and White, a cadre of riders will try to make their mark in the worlds selection. Maxx Chance and Spencer Downing (Clif Bar Development), Nathaniel Morse (Hot Tubes) and Peter Goguen (CF-Trek) are among the young men angling for a worlds berth in Madison. While the top step on the podium is Owen’s to lose, the junior men’s tilt should see some of the most wide-open and surprising racing of the week.
USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships schedule
Badger Prairie Park
January 9-13, 2013
Thursday January 10, 2013
9:30am Men Master 60-64 (40 min)
9:31am Men Master 65-69 (40 min)
9:32am Men Master 70+ (40 min)
10:30am Women Master 55-59 (35 min)
10:31am Women Master 60+ (35 min)
11:30am Women Master 45-49 (35 min)
11:31am Women Master 50-54 (35 min)
1:00pm Women Master 40-44 Cat 1/2/3 (40 min)
2:00pm Men Master 55-59 (40 min)
3:00pm Men Master 50-54 Cat 1/2/3 (45 min)
Friday January 11, 2013
9:30am Men Master 45-49 Cat 1/2/3 (45 min)
10:30am Women Junior 13-14 (20 min)
11:15am Women Junior 17-18 (30 min)
11:16am Women Junior 15-16 (30 min)
12:00pm Men Junior 10-12 (20 min)
12:01pm Women Junior 10-12 (20 min)
12:45pm Men Junior 13-14 (20 min)
1:30pm Men Junior 15-16 (30 min)
2:15pm Women Master 30-34 Cat 1/2/3 (40 min)
3:15pm Women Master 35-39 Cat 1/2/3 (40 min)
Saturday January 12, 2013
9:30am Men Master 40-44 Cat 1/2/3 (45 min)
10:30am Men Junior 17-18 Cat 1/2/3 (40 min)
12:00 pm Women Collegiate Division 1 (40 min)
12:01 pm Women Collegiate Division 2 (40 min)
1:00pm Men U23 19-22 (50 min)
2:00pm Men Master 35-39 Cat 1/2/3 (45 min)
3:00pm Men Master 30-34 Cat 1/2/3 (45 min)
Sunday January 13, 2013
9:30 am Men Collegiate Division 2 (50 min)
10:30 am Men Collegiate Division 1 (50 min)
1:00pm Women Elite/U23 17+ Pro/Cat 1/2/3 (40 min)
2:15pm Men Elite 19+ Pro/Cat 1/2 (60 min)
Velo magazine managing editor Chris Case and VeloNews.com editor Brian Holcombe contributed to this preview. Case, technical writer Lennard Zinn, photographer Wil Matthews, and contributor Emily Zinn will be on the ground with daily coverage beginning Thursday.