In their own words: Hyde, Powers reflect on epic cyclocross nationals battle
To say that the relationship between Jeremy Powers and Stephen Hyde is complex would be as much of an understatement as to call their duel Sunday at the US national cyclocross championship a “tight race.”
Just two years ago, Powers was a four-time national champion, a front-row starter at World Cups, and the most dominant man in American cyclocross. Hyde was a rising star, the heir apparent, improving every season having benefited from a cyclocross mentorship program Powers helped launch.
Today, Hyde is a two-time national champion, the strongest American man in cyclocross, while Powers has struggled to win, even domestically, due to injuries and troubling cardiovascular issues.
All of that — years of mentorship, friendship, competition, and rivalry, as well as recent setbacks and challenges for both riders — came to a head Sunday during the final three laps of the elite men’s race at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno, Nevada.
In the end, Hyde (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) successfully defended his national title, but only just, finishing 13 seconds ahead of Powers (Aspire Racing) after a final-lap attack snapped the elastic that had held them together the entire race.
It was a victory for Hyde but also for Powers, who performed better than he had all season — and perhaps since the 2016 nationals in Asheville, North Carolina, where Hyde made his first nationals podium.
A relative latecomer to professional cyclocross, Hyde was 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 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 master-apprentice 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, Belgium, and gave Powers a serious challenge at the 2016 nationals.
After his best season ever, Hyde took his first national cyclocross title in January 2017 in Hartford, Connecticut. Powers, who had struggled with injuries and illness all season, was caught up in a first-lap bottleneck and never saw the front of the race again, finishing 24th, two laps down.
Since then, Hyde, 30, has worn the crown as top American ’crosser. Though he hasn’t had the 2017-18 campaign he hoped for, beset with illness, injuries and mechanical issues, Hyde has still had a successful season. Domestically, he won the US Cup-CX national series title and a second consecutive Pan-American championship. Internationally, he finished just outside of the top 10 at World Cups in Namur (11th) and Zolder (13th). A persistent knee injury saw him off the bike in the lead up to nationals, questioning whether he’d be on top form.
Heading into nationals, Powers, 34, had been a shadow of his former self during much of the 2017-18 season, struggling with heart arrhythmia as well as adjusting to fatherhood; his son was born in June. Many openly questioned whether the four-time champion would even be a contender for the podium in Reno, and whether it might be his final nationals appearance.
Instead, Powers showed up on form, benefitting from the fast conditions he prefers, drove a hard pace from the gun, rode a nearly flawless race, and almost took a fifth title.
A six-man group formed on the first lap that included Hyde, Powers, Kerry Werner (Kona), Tobin Ortenblad (Santa Cruz-Donkey Label Racing), Curtis White (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Jack Kisseberth (JAM Fund-NCC). One by one the group thinned, with White and Kisseberth both suffering punctures while Powers drove the pace. With three laps remaining Powers launched an attack that saw Werner lose contact. Ortenblad was unable to respond, drawing out Hyde, who countered with his own attack. Powers clawed his way onto Hyde’s wheel, and from that point on it was a two-man battle for the stars-and-stripes jersey.
After countless changes at the front of the race in the final laps, a late pass by Hyde in the last half of the last lap proved to be the difference, with Powers finally relenting inside the last moments of the race.
Here, in their own words, Powers and Hyde share their perspectives on a national cyclocross championship battle that will be talked about for years to come.
Video: 2018 US National Cyclocross Championship, Elite Men
Powers: I really wanted to win. I think anyone could see that. But you’ve got to be gracious in defeat as well. I haven’t really looked at the coverage, just because I haven’t had a moment to, but the way I remember it, I think Stephen rode a really strong race, and I think that there were moments that I maybe could have capitalized a little bit more, but I think at the end, the way that he rode the final, he took a lot of risks. I played it more conservative on that final descent, which is one part of it, and he also… we went to that last corner, where it turns to a singletrack, it goes over a bridge, and I’m not sure how much the coverage showed this, but my handle bar was probably a millimeter from hitting this post as we came into this section, two-up, and it was a battle all the way to that corner. I think we both know, not only from training together often — not as much recently because we’re both traveling — but we both come from the same place. And I think that we both knew that that race was gonna go to right there, and that person needed to be there, because the rest of the race is singletrack. Neither of us were passing each other on the run, it was just too steep to get footing on the other side. Once the race was to that corner it was like, if you didn’t eat it going down that technical section, I think it was really over.
Hyde: I was both impressed and humbled, and you know, excited to see Powers do that. It was awesome. I knew that I had to be patient. It was 100% about patience on that course. I mean, it’s not super high, but there is a ton of elevation you know, it was at 4,500 feet, so for a bunch of guys racing at sea level, it’s important. I knew Powers was in Albuquerque for a couple of months. He’s also shown that he can win at altitude, even higher altitude, you know, in Boulder [5,430 feet elevation] he rode away. And so I really took a lot out of his playbook. If you re-watch Boulder, he went with just a few laps to go, and really played it really cool in the start, and he didn’t win the hole shot or anything like that. He really held back in order to be fresh at the end and not let the altitude get to him and so that was my plan. I was like okay, “Alright, this is a known play out of the playbook.”
So I knew that I just needed to be composed and watch, and just be as vigilant as possible, and keep really calm and not let anybody push me out of my boundaries. So the plan kind of went exactly how I wanted it to. I just didn’t expect him to be so strong in the end, especially after just pulling the whole race. I’ve seen him do it before. When he’s on, he does that. I mean he’s a diesel of a guy. He used to be really, really snappy and really had a lot of acceleration, but I think over the years he’s really changed his style a lot, and you don’t often see him in the front of the race that early. But I know when he’s on point, he can drive like that for a long time. He’s just got that endurance in him, that he can just, you know, he’s got the muscular endurance, he can just keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing until everybody pops off.
Powers: I think that we both really wanted to win. I think Stephen is the best rider in the country at the moment. I think that he has been the best rider for the last two years. I think he’s been really strong, I think he’s done really well. And we’ve seen this in American cyclocross, where someone gets on a level and then it’s for everyone else to catch up and get there. I think for me, I believe that it’s possible for me to get there, I just don’t have the same… maybe the word isn’t dexterity, but I don’t have the same ability to morph into this world-class rider every single weekend. My body just physically doesn’t let me do that like I did when I was younger.
I think that when I looked at this race on paper, I knew I could prepare really well for altitude. I know that Stephen is beatable, and I really just focused, for me, on this day as being this thing that I was gonna try for, above everything. I figured this may be my last chance for the title And maybe it’s not, also, but maybe it is. And for that reason, and that reason alone, I just wanted to give 110% and leave no stone unturned in my preparation, and the way that I came into this race.
When I got here and I saw the course, I knew that it was definitely possible, but again, who knows what comes on the day? It could have been a day where I didn’t have great legs or something happened. But everything that led up to it looked like it was going to be a really good race. My power numbers were great, my weight was great, my head was in a good space. So I believed in it, and my coach and I, and everybody that is around me, really believed that it was possible, and we talked like it was possible, and I think that is mentally, when you’re a rider that’s had success like I have, but then hasn’t put everything together at this level, I think that the mental piece is probably the thing that I’m most proud of yesterday, regardless of the outcome.
Hyde: I never saw the front of the race until three laps to go and I knew, that’s the fighting zone right there. Three laps to go to to laps two to go, right? And if I left it two to go, you know maybe it would have played out differently. Maybe both of us would have had a lot more snap, maybe he would have had a lot more snap to take it. So it was time to put the battle out there. And for me I was watching what was happening with Tobin as well, and for that last lap, Jeremy was putting in a really consistent lap, and got a gap on Tobin, and I was sitting on Tobin and he couldn’t close the gap.
And so what I needed to do is see, for that lap, basically check in with Tobin to see if he could close the gap. And so I sat on him and kept at a reasonable distance, and I was like, “Okay well as long as I can jump across to Jeremy, I will sit on Tobin.” And I watched Tobin, I watched his body language, and I watched him not be able to close the gap on the start straight, and that’s when I knew I needed to pounce then.
— USA Cycling LIVE (@usacyclinglive) January 14, 2018
So when we got to the uphill, long, grassy section, that’s why I attacked there, because I knew he couldn’t close the gap, I knew Jeremy was also hurting from trying to get away, and I was pretty fresh at that point. So you know, it was hit it, break the group up, and see what was going to happen after that. When I did that acceleration, it was hard, and I definitely was like, I was on the rivet, and I certainly couldn’t have done three laps like that, at that pace.
I made a little bit of a mistake in the sand pit — not a mistake, but my line wasn’t perfect, and so that kind of allowed him to come back a little bit. And he’s super, super smooth and consistent, and when the heat is on like that, he really shines in those conditions. So, I wasn’t surprised that he was able to come back.
On that last lap, I think we swapped off like three times. He passed me going into the hill on the downhill. Going into that section on the downhill, the lap before, I was like, “Okay, alright. He’s ready to fight, and so this is how is going to play out. He’s definitely got snap.” And when we went to the hill, he held the inside line on the run, and I tested him by kind of creeping up on him the run, like I was going to try and pass him. I wanted to see how much acceleration he had running. I know I’ve got an advantage on him running, so if I could get to that hill first, I could drop him.
So when we came around, I let him lead up, and then I jumped him going into the ditch, he jumped me back, and then yeah, that line there all week had been ridden by everyone, and it was a muddy section and so it had all these ruts and ridges, and so basically it formed two lines almost. One was a little riskier on the inside and on the outside it was pretty smooth. But changing lines once you were in to one of them was very difficult, right? Because you had to go over these concrete ruts. So I kept that one in the bag, I practiced it a few times in pre-ride, but never did it in the race and so, I knew that was going to be my last chance before the run.
So, I attacked into that corner, and we were shifting at the same time and it was totally like, “Oh God, I don’t know who’s going to make this,” and you know, as racing as it gets, it was going to close off and pinch off, so one of us is going to have to hit the brakes. My bars were in front of his, and so he hit the brakes.
I knew I had one acceleration after that. I had one more acceleration after that, that was it, and it was going to be on that run-up. But if he got to that run up before me, it would have been a more evenly matched sprint probably. I mean if he would have gotten to those downhills, he was riding them well enough, that once you get into that … the off -camber section, like, there’s an absolute speed limit on it, and either one of us was going to crash on it, or we we’re going to come out together at the exact same time.
So, absolutely, I put the rest of my race into that run up, that was it. That was my last effort, that run-up. Honestly, I almost lost it on the off-camber too. I mean it was super, super slick. Really, really dusty and rocky, you know, it was difficult and I very well almost lost on that last bit but, I cracked him enough that I had some wiggle room.
Powers: Although I’ve had some rides that I’ve been really happy with, that probably is my best performance in a year. I’ll just say one thing about the 2017 Pan-American Championships, which was another race that I targeted where Stephen and I were one-two, although not as close in this race, and my performance wasn’t as dominating. I went much more calculated into how I raced that race, but had I not had that thing that happened with my heart where I had this tachycardia happen, I certainly believe that I, at minimum, would have been second place, and I know that Stephen had raced the day before in the U.S. Cup, and I didn’t, I stopped halfway through and really just focused on Pan Ams. I look at Pan Ams as a race that I think I would have had a shot at as well. I think we would have went at least close, if not to the line together, I think it would have been very close as well. And that was a race that was really happy with, but it just didn’t go the way it wanted to.
To come back to form, yeah, I think it is really satisfying. I think one of the reasons that I do it, that I like cycling, is because I think it is inspirational and I think it gets people out there and I think it makes people believe. If there’s one thing that they can believe in, it’s that even when things are kind of shitty and they’re not going in a great direction, and no one has said that you’re the favorite, or this or that, I think if you believe in yourself, this is part of the reason I get out of bed in the morning. And I think it is really special to do it.
And I think that that, for me, has been one of the things that’s like, “No, I know it’s possible, I know what’s possible for me and what my performance could be here.” Nothing else really matters outside of that. I know that if I can do these power numbers, and that if I can weigh ‘this,’ and then if I can look at this with a positive affirmation versus “Wow, it’s probably not possible because this guy from whatever magazine said it wasn’t,” if I can get past that, and I can get my head on straight, then I think it is possible. And I think that’s really a lot of the beauty of cycling, is obviously there are so many great things about it, but if you follow it, I think it’s a nice story, and it probably did get a lot of people excited, because I know that I had a lot of messages, I’ll just say that.
Hyde: I enjoy a tight race as much as anybody else does, I mean, for me, it’s more fulfilling riding away and just riding off into the sunset, it’s impressive, but it’s not necessarily a good race. And yeah as much as I want to just win races, we’re all here to absolutely put on a good show and so, I’m really happy that it was a tight race. It’s a nailbiter for everybody.
Powers: Afterwards, I felt like Stephen was the rightful winner. Did I think about anything else other than “he beat me”? No. Because we’ve trained, like a hundred times, and sometimes it goes one way, and sometimes it goes the other way. I mean, we’ve had so many duels like that. I’m being serious. I mean, we’ve trained like that a lot of times, like hundreds of times, or at least 50 times. I mean we’ve trained like that so many times that it didn’t feel all that wild to me to be in that position with Stephen. It didn’t really feel out of place.
But given where I’ve come from, I am really happy with how it went. I was in full cyborg mode on race day. I don’t do well when I think about what’s happening in the race, I just kind of black out and I just do what I have to do. I don’t think about anything. If I start thinking about stuff, that’s typically when I’ll have some problems. And so it was just, once you know what you’re doing, and once you know that the legs are there, you just ride the course and you let it happen and you don’t think about what’s coming up. With the tactics, that’s the only thing that I thought about, was that I need to be here first, and that I know that this is going to be the moment and this and that. Other than that, I didn’t think about anything.
And, for me, it always takes a couple of days to set in, to what the impact has been or how I will treat the result and so on. But there’s no question that I really wanted to win but I didn’t, and so… you know, I did that to a lot of people. A lot of people got second to me over those years, and I think it’s a good thing for me to also get second, because it makes me realize how special those wins were.
Hyde: There were certainly doubts. I mean, I was off the bike for five, six days leading into it in my build period, when everyone else is … you know I’m looking at Instagram and Facebook and stuff and everybody’s training, they’re all at altitude or behind a scooter somewhere warm, and I’m watching a race in Diegem and I’m going, “Alright, well I can’t pedal my bike.” Then I get back to the States and I can’t, I still can’t pedal my bike. I know I’ve got good form and I’m confident in that, but not racing these guys for so long, having that big separation there, it’s … it’s really daunting.
I mean you’ve got to have a lot of respect for your competitors and I know these all want it, and I know that they all work really hard, and I know on any given day they can pull of a result. And so knowing that, it’s difficult for me to just be like, “Okay, well I have to rest, I can’t do the training that I think I need, or I should do,” and feeling like you’re kind of falling behind. The little things start to add up and all of a sudden like, you’re just kind of grasping at straws a little bit, and for me I needed to just know that I left with good form, and I was on some of the best form I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some really good results, and I know that I have a good kind of race ethic. And I just needed to get my head straight. At some point during the last two weeks I just came to realization like, “Okay, I might lose. That’s fine.” There’s always another year. It’s okay to lose. You’ve just got to deal with it. Going into it I knew that as long as I had my head right, I could do more than I thought.
For me it’s like, one year is great and if it skips a year or skips a few years, you know, that’s normal. But, for me to be able to put it together especially when I’m not at 100%, it’s really special to me and it’s almost more meaningful in a way than the first one.
Powers: The truth is that the last year has been wild for me, just because of everything that I’m doing, which has been the same for my whole career. It’s like the team, the show, then having a baby. I mean, the baby is really the haymaker for me because my life has changed pretty significantly. There’s been a lot more things asked of me just on top of the company that I keep with the things that I’m doing before I had a child. And so I think that that has been a very big life adjustment for me, and it might not have been for other people because things are different, but I really have tried to be there for Emily and for my family and so that’s been… it’s not an excuse, that’s not at all what I think. But it has been impactful for me.
And so it’s hard, because the heart thing, my health problem, all that stuff …. “Well, I didn’t sleep any because I was up at 3am, at 5am, at 7am, at 9am.” When you finally just go away and you’re like, “I’m gonna do this work, and I’m gonna make this sacrifice,” that’s what I’m saying about I don’t know how much longer I can make the sacrifice when things are being asked of me, or, things have to significantly change if I want to keep doing this, which is what I’m looking at. Like, we’ll get rid of the team, we’ll get rid of this, we’ll get rid of that, so that I can focus primarily on racing, if that’s what’s most important. So that’s kind of the decision that I’m looking at now — what does the future hold and how am I going to balance my time and my energy? Because so much has changed.
I want to be there for my family. Because I’m so absent for a lot of other things, and because we do do a lot of travel. Emily’s been able to go with me, and she’s awesome, but it it’s important to me that I’m not just someone who says, “Hey, that’s great that we have a kid, see ya.” That’s just not who I am. I think that that’s the other thing that I really do care about, and I want to be able to make sure that I’m not just some absent father, but also an absent husband, because I hated that. I saw a lot of that on the road, and I hated that. So, yeah, that’s what it is. But all things considered, it is really great, and I think it is nice, and it means a lot to hear the nice things that people have said, because it all adds perspective to where I come from.
Hyde: With all this time off, it’s going to be a little bit difficult I think, to find that form that I had originally for the world championships. I’ve also still got to get this knee taken care of, it’s not necessarily 100% for me. Now that I think most of my kind of goals have been met for the year, worlds is really all that is left. So, I’m going to take a little time off, I won’t do the World Cup in Nommay, but I’ll show back up for Hoogerheide, hopefully with a functional knee. So, yeah, I hope for a good ride, but you know, my season is at its high right now. I can only get better with some kind of miracle. I’m looking forward to a good race, I hope I have a good race in Hoogerheide or in Valkenberg, but we’ll take it day by day. Anything after this, it’s a total plus in my book. I’m happy to keep training and I do have some aspirations in mind, and some goals in mind, but yeah, I’ve just had so many ups and downs this season, so, anything else is just icing on the cake.