CEDAR CITY, Utah (VN) — Jonathan Brown (Hagens Berman Axeon) is still getting used to the idea that he is the American national road race champion.
The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah is Brown’s first race since he stunned the nationals field this June, and Tuesday’s stage 1 marked Brown’s debut in the stars-and-stripes jersey. The 21-year-old Tennessee native is not sure the whole national champion thing has quite sunk in yet.
“I think it still doesn’t feel real almost,” he told VeloNews. “It’s huge. It’s a major honor to race with it here in Utah.”
A two-time junior national champion on the road, Brown took a huge step forward as an elite racer this summer on home turf in Knoxville. His history of success in championship races was apparently not enough to concern his breakaway companions at nationals this time around. Brown — whose brother Nate also made the start in an EF Education First-Drapac kit — powered out of a strong four-man selection with some 20 kilometers to go in the race. He ultimately held off the three riders in pursuit to take the victory. The win was a surprise to the others in the break, who couldn’t believe they had let Brown go. It was a surprise to Brown himself, too.
“Going into the race, a top 10 in my mind was going to be a really good ride,” he said. “And then even being in the break all day it was, ‘Dude, if I get fourth, this is really awesome.’ Not until the last ‘K’ did I realize, ‘I’m actually going to win this.'”
The victory catapulted Brown into the limelight as yet another star prospect for Axel Merckx’s squad, which has served as a vehicle to develop and showcase numerous up-and-coming riders over the years. Brown is the team’s second elite national champ in three seasons. Gregory Daniel won the stars and stripes in 2016 and now rides at the WorldTour level with Trek-Segafredo.
The time may soon come when Brown decides to make that same jump. As might be expected, his impressive nationals ride earned him a few phone calls from interested teams. Nonetheless, he sees sticking with his Pro Continental outfit as the best bet for now.
“I’ve already made the decision that I’ll stay with the team for another year. I don’t think for me it would be worth it yet [to sign elsewhere] because I still think I have a lot of growing to do in cycling,” he said. “I need another year of smaller races and U23 races to get myself more equipped for years to come.”
According to Merckx, it was Brown’s idea to continue with Axeon rather than entertaining other opportunities.
“I would totally understand if he said, ‘Well, I’ve got an offer and I’m moving on.’ I wouldn’t have been upset about it, that’s what we stand for,” Merckx said. “But [Brown] said, ‘I think I could use another year.’ And I agree with him, and hopefully next year we’ll prove that he made the right decision.”
As a bonus, Axeon will get to start a rider in the national champion’s jersey for a whole season, rather than watching the stars and stripes head to another squad.
Merckx sees Brown as a versatile, rouleur-type talent who can snatch wins from breakaways while proving a valuable leader on the road. In Merckx’s opinion, Brown already has an elite ability to read races. Rider and team hope that another year of development in a lower-stress environment will help propel Brown to the level required to be a consistent top-tier pro, and they’re willing to take their time to make sure that happens.
In other words, Brown plans to have plenty of fun showing off the jersey he earned in June, but he’s trying not to let it go to his head.
“Even though you win one big race you still have to think about the future,” he said. “Keep planning for thing’s ahead and not get too caught up in the short [term] and think about the long [term], just keep trying to develop yourself and don’t get too crazy.”