US cyclocross nationals: Is this the year Hyde takes the title from Powers?

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On Sunday afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, two men whose lives are forever intertwined will, once again, battle for the title of U.S. national cyclocross champion.

And while the scorecard at nationals between four-time champion Jeremy Powers and his former protege, Stephen Hyde, has been one-sided thus far, there’s very good reason to believe that will change. Last year, they finished first and second, and it was clear that for Hyde, who is four years younger, winning a national title was simply a matter of time.

Based on how the 2016-17 cyclocross season has unfolded, it appears that time may be upon us.

Powers has had, by any metric, a disastrous season. After winning the opening weekend in Rochester, New York — beating Hyde both days — he crashed heavily during a warm-up lap at the Trek CXC Cup in Waterloo, Wisconsin, bruising several ribs. His first objectives for the season, the opening World Cup events in North America, were a total loss. Illness followed. Powers (Aspire Racing) hasn’t won a race in almost four months, finishing behind Hyde at the Pan American Championships in Covington, Kentucky, in October, and again at the Derby City Cup in Louisville, in November.

Hyde, whose career was aided by the JAM Fund program that Powers helped launch, has had his best season to date, winning the Pan American Championships and six other UCI events in the U.S. en route to sealing the USA Cycling Pro CX series title. The Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider also registered his best-ever World Cup results — 10th in Iowa City in September, and 18th at Zolder, on December 26. He’s avoided illness and injury, and his consistent results have placed him 13th in the world rankings. Powers is ranked 25th.

Out of the 15 times the two riders faced each other in 2016 — tracing back to the national championship race last January — Hyde has finished better on 10 occasions, with Powers finishing better five times.

However, out of the most recent five times they have faced each other on U.S. soil, beginning with the Charm City race in Baltimore in October, Hyde has won all five races, with Powers finishing as runner-up on three occasions.

Which rider should be considered the pre-race favorite is up for debate, but based on recent performances, Hyde clearly has the upper hand. Powers, who spent the past month training in New Mexico in hopes to salvage a lost season, has the experience of four national titles.

Which rider will carry more pressure at the start line — who has more to gain, and more to lose — is also up for debate.

And while there are other riders who will likely factor into the race — such as three-time national champion Todd Wells (SRAM-Troy Lee Designs), Kerry Warner (Kona), and last year’s U23 champion Tobin Ortenblad (Santa Cruz) — what is certain is that on Sunday, years of mentorship, friendship, competition, and rivalry will come to a head in what is certain to be the most explosive national championship battle in years.

Table: Powers vs. Hyde, by the numbers

Jeremy Powers  Stephen Hyde
 Age 33 29
 Years professional  13 4
 National CX titles 4 0
UCI ranking (January 3)  25th 13th
 Best career World Cup result 6th, Las Vegas, 2015  10th, Iowa City, 2016
2016 worlds result 34th 23rd
2016 head-to-head matchups 5 10

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Hyde: “It would be a dream come true”

Hyde was a relative latecomer to professional cyclocross, invited by Powers in 2012, at age 25, to participate in the JAM Fund, a Massachusetts-based program designed to develop cycling athletes through grants and mentorship.

Hyde, who has a background in BMX and mountain biking, moved to Easthampton, just down the road from Powers and JAM Fund coach Alec Donahue, to absorb as much knowledge as possible, taking a job at a local bike shop to pay the bills. He spent the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons dutifully absorbing any and all advice Powers would share.

That relationship took on a new dimension during the 2015-16 season when Hyde beat Powers twice at the Derby City Cup weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. Hyde also finished ahead of Powers at the 2015 World Cup in Namur, and gave Powers a serious challenge at the 2016 nationals in Asheville, North Carolina.

Whether or not he wins on Sunday, Hyde’s 2016-17 season has already been a success. He’s continued on the trajectory set forth last year, and proven himself to be the top American cyclocross racer of the 2016-17 season, with top 20 results in three World Cup events and a 10th place finish at the Hansgrohe Superprestige event in Spa-Francorchamps in early December.

“My trajectory has been up, through steady work, 1% here, 1% there,” Hyde said. “I’ve just put it all together, and made it consistent. It’s been about getting everything lined up — my health, the gym work to be prepared to do workload, my coach [Donahue] not allowing me to go too deep over my head. I’m only doing as much racing as I can handle, so that I’m always fresh to train for the next block. It’s been about taking steps forward, without running into avoidable setbacks. That’s been the plan from start, and we’ve been able to stick with it.”

Hyde said that before the season, he and Donahue initially broke the race calendar into four blocks — the World Cup openers in the U.S. in September, a block of domestic races in October and early November, his European campaign in late November and December, and the final block, U.S. nationals leading into the world championships. Asked which racing block has gone the smoothest, Hyde said they’ve all been fulfilling.

“Honestly, I’ve been so happy with all of them,” Hyde said. “It’s been a great season.”

Video: 2017 U.S. Cyclocross National Championship course preview, featuring Stephen Hyde

After previewing the nationals course — Hartford is a 40-minute drive from Easthampton — Hyde described it as “technically difficult.”

“When you look at the terrain, it seems similar to Louisville, which was a pedaling course,” he said. “But there is a lot of running, a lot of climbing, there are not a lot of big open sections to pedal. It’s going to be a dynamic race, not one where a person will be able to chase anything down. If it’s frozen and rutted, it could be a real mess.”

And if he were to pull off the win on Sunday? “It would be a dream come true,” Hyde said.

“[A national title] is something I have been working for, absolutely. It’s been on my radar of things that I know I can accomplish. I have a plan I want to execute, I’m confident in that. I want to fulfill what my coach believes I can do, what I believe I can do, and what I want to do. You work as hard as you need to, to get it. My parents will be there, they’re flying up from Florida, and with the race being so close to my adopted home, and with a team that’s taken such good care of me, that believes in me, it would be a real honor to win that — for myself, and for everyone who has supported me.”

Who will win? Three former national champions share their predictions.

Hyde, Powers, 2015 Derby City
Tim Johnson, national champion in 2000, 2007, and 2009: I think Powers has more pressure than a normal year, coming in as the defending champion who had had a tough season. He’s such a mental rider that it’s either going to be great fuel or a crushing weight, and it’s up to him to put together a race that deals with either of those options. I’d say Hyde has every opportunity to win on Sunday, based on everything leading up to it — fitness, health, mental fortitude, and course knowledge — he’s checked off all the boxes. I’ve been the pre-race favorite, and I’ve been the underdog, and I can tell you that the way you line up is entirely up to you. Stephen has a good handle on what it takes to get yourself to the start line. Jeremy is in a year of trying to find himself again, and that’s never an easy thing to do. A guy like Hyde, way he approaches these things, he’s all about taking advantage of the opportunity, he doesn’t have any weight on his shoulders. When you are looking at a defending champ who had had a bad year, if he doesn’t win it, the season is a failure. Hyde has already won the Pro CX series and the Pan Am Championships, so this is just another in a line of opportunities, not an expectation. I think Jeremy will feel the weight of expectations.

Ryan Trebon, national champion in 2006 and 2008: I think Hyde will win. Personally, I’d like to see Todd Wells win, but I don’t think he will. He’s old, but he’s a good bike racer. I think Hyde’s level is very high; he’s a little bit stronger than everyone else, and it looks to be a hard course. Hyde’s biggest issue will be the stress and expectation of it. I think Jeremy will be a little more relaxed. Hyde has had a good year, so even if he doesn’t win, he’s proven himself. He should just relax about it; it’s hard to put it all together on a given day. But I think he’s the biggest favorite. I’d like to see him win for the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com program.

Todd Wells, national champion in 2001, 2005, and 2010: Hyde and Powers are on another level, but right behind them you have about 10 guys who can pop a good race on the weekend. It’s not going to be easy, but we all feel like we have a shot. Powers has had a rough year, he’s not been riding at his normal level. Hyde has really stepped up — to be consistently placing in the top 20 in World Cups, that’s legitimate. If Powers is riding at his normal pace, those guys are the top guys. I don’t think pressure will affect either of them. Someone is going to win the race, and it’s not going to be because of pressure. It’s already muddy, slippy, and it’s supposed to be frozen on race day. You have to have good fitness, but then you will also have to have the focus and mental toughness needed for a cyclocross race like that — a race where things will go wrong, where there is a good chance you will crash, or maybe twist your ankle a little bit running on an off-camber hill. There is so much going on, more than dealing with pressure, you just need to not have a lot of bad luck on the day.

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Powers: “Whoever wins, it will be a total blowout”

Spending the month of December training alone in the desert was never the plan for Powers. But then again, almost nothing this season went according to plan.

After showing up at the season opener in typical early season form, winning both days in Rochester, Powers watched months of hard work go up in smoke after a heavy crash in Wisconsin bruised his ribs and irritated a longstanding injury to his sacroiliac joint — the joint between the sacrum and ilium bones of the pelvis. He soldiered on, managing 18th in Las Vegas, but finished only 43rd in Iowa City a few days later. He went without a win in the U.S. in October, and scrapped a planned trip to Europe in December, choosing instead to hit the reset button with a dedicated four-week training block in Albuquerque.

“It’s been a hard season, with a lot of hits to my morale,” Powers said. “I’ve been in [U.S.] races, finishing seventh or eighth, and it’s so weird for me, just very strange. At the end of it, you have to stop this cycle, draw a line in the sand, and walk forward from there — just treat it as if it were the beginning of the year. As pro you know what you can get done in four weeks, top to bottom, as opposed to traveling from race to race each weekend.”

Though Powers has been self-coached for several years, he enlisted the help of former road pro Mike Creed in New Mexico.

“He’s been a friend of mine for a while, and I told him I needed someone to look at my training, basically to tell me whether or not I’m doing too much,” Powers said. “He reached out to me and asked if I needed help. And I did. He came down to New Mexico and drove the scooter [motor pacing] a lot of days.

“When you have four weeks, you can do different types of builds, and from what I can tell you, I should have a good end to the season. I’ve done everything to be 100% myself. I’m still able to produce the numbers. I’m in the same shape as last year at this time. In theory, it’s enough to win a national championship. It’ll be enough to be in the front group, but getting the win takes a special day.”

Of course motor pacing on concrete is no substitute for accelerating through muddy corners against the best in the world. After previewing the course in Hartford, Powers said he was surprised by how difficult it is.

“The course has a fair amount of steep running and steep hills. It’s very power oriented,” Powers said. “There are big, steep hits, back to back. It all depends on who is bringing a bazooka. You will just have to hit again and again and again. It’s all about power output, everywhere. There’s a little bit of ‘bike driving,’ but the steep sections are where you can take 20 seconds from someone.”

Video: 2017 U.S. Cyclocross National Championship course preview, featuring Jeremy Powers

Asked if he thought the race might come down to a last-lap battle, Powers said he imagines the race will have been decided before then.

“There will be big gaps,” he said. “I will very surprised if it comes down to a sprint. Whoever wins, I think it will be a total blowout. You’d better come ready to suffer. You’ll have to want it. It’s a hardman’s cyclocross course.”

Given how the season has unfolded, and that Hyde is, for the first time, the pre-race favorite, Powers acknowledges that the dynamic their relationship has grown complex.

“This time last year we were together at a training camp in Girona,” Powers said. “I’ve had a lot of camaraderie with him. I feel I gave him the tools to build upon — not just me, a lot of people did. He’s not a typical rider, he’s 30, he’s a grown up, and the more you give someone like that, the faster they can climb. He’s trained hard. I’ve seen his work ethic. What he’s doing is not easy, and it’s never going to be easy.”

And if Hyde should take the title from Powers on Sunday?

“I’ll be happy for him,” Powers said. “We haven’t talked a ton. We’re head-to-head competitors now, and I have to treat him as competitor. I don’t know if I can win, we haven’t gone head to head in many weeks, but I believe I can do it.

“Would I be happy for Stephen at my own expense? I would be. He’s had incredible season, and he should be very proud. He placed top 10 in a World Cup [in Iowa City] at what was a very, very hard cyclocross race. I think it’s clear he is the heir apparent to the national title. But obviously I want to win on Sunday.”

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