Lessons from racing a bike almost always apply to life in general.
That’s why junior cycling helps kids build more than healthy practices and fitness. They learn how to bounce back from setbacks and disappointment. They learn the value of hard work and commitment. They learn how to work with others to create success.
Adults also benefit from cycling’s life wisdom. Saturday’s 4.5-mile Lookout Mountain hill climb offered lots of it, but a couple of lessons in particular stand out.
The experienced starters knew going too hard too early depletes precious energy reserves and can leave a rider crawling to the finish line, especially when the road there tilts uphill. So they paced themselves. They saved something for the middle and something for a final push at the end.
They knew it’s a good idea to keep the big picture in mind, and sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.
Lookout Mountain hill climb gallery
Adam Rachubinski and Aaron Zoerner started their new venture with four families and ten kids in a Denver suburb. Six years later the Alpha Bicycle Company – Vista Subaru junior cycling squad achieved international recognition during the 2014/15 season with rider Gage Hecht’s success in Europe. That’s a testament to Hecht’s talent, but also to the many hours the two founders and others have put into building the ‘cross-focused team which supports riders aged seven to eighteen.
“We had the idea to fill in the gap for a junior program in the south area of town after the ACA Mudskipper program was cut,” explains Rachubinski, who is the team’s director. [the ACA is the precursor to the current Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado – ed.]
“It really succeeded because the families all got super involved and took the time with the kids. The program has now grown to over thirty-five kids with a fleet of bikes and a ton of equipment.”
In recent years the average age of team members has leaned to the younger side of junior competition. “Our biggest age range is nine to twelve girls, followed probably by twelve to fourteen boys,” notes Rachubinski.
Last season the team increased the maturity of its roster by adding multiple-time cyclocross national champion Hecht. In his first year in the 17 to 18 category he nearly captured a medal at the 2015 world championships in Tabor in the junior race and finished fourth. His results spurred the team’s sponsors to support more riders.
“The people at Vista Auto Group and Subaru have believed in our vision for the team since we launched it six years ago and they want to work with us to continue to grow the sport and help young racers reach their potential,” Rachubinski says. “After all of Gage Hecht’s success, we sat down and wanted to help more athletes. Vista Subaru was immediately on board, no hesitation. Those are the kind of partners that help a program be successful and viable long term.”
While retaining Hecht for the upcoming season, the team has expanded its talent pool in the older junior and U23 categories, positioning itself for more opportunities to shine in international races like the new Pan American cyclocross championships and world championships. Additionally, riders like Ashley Zoerner and Allison Moorhead, who have worn the team’s green and black kit for several years, have aged into the 17 to 18 category.
Ashley Zoerner’s resume includes a national championship and several state titles. She as well as Moorhead have been frequent winners in women’s cat 3 races and competitors in senior elite fields.
The new recruits are brother-sister duo Evan and Katie Clouse from Park City, Utah. Evan Clouse will be a first year in the 17 to 18 category this fall. He has collected UCI junior and cat 3 wins. At 2015 national championships he finished second after a mechanical took him out of the fight for gold.
Katie Clouse will be a first year in the 15 to 16 cohort. She often stands on Colorado ‘cross podiums alongside professional riders and has earned three national titles. Cycling Utah named her 2014 cyclist of the year.
A new U23 rider, Brannan Fix, also joins the youthful armada. Fix competed in the junior ‘cross world’s race at Tabor as well; he finished fifteenth out of seventy-plus starters. Fix and Hecht both live in Colorado.
This cadre of junior and U23 elite cyclists will likely steal the show at next season’s American ‘cross races. Traveling to the UCI junior races will entail planning, transporting equipment over hundreds of miles, and more. But Rachubinski won’t labor over it all alone.
Co-founder Aaron Zoerner contributes to the team’s well-being in multiple ways, including working in the pit during races where he stands for hours in all kinds of weather. In Colorado, that can and does mean snow, wind, and sub-freezing temperatures. He’s Ashley’s dad and father of another female racer on the team.
“It’s a lot of work to get all that gear to the races and get it set up, torn down and maintained,” Rachubinski notes. “I definitely have a lot of support people who help get things done for the team. A handful of parents have stepped up huge in terms of logistics and planning. The guys at the shop fill in a lot during the season and make the effort to keep the kids’ stuff running top notch.”
Rachubinski owns Alpha Bicycle Company, a bike shop in Centennial, Colorado where the team is based. Running a business takes dedication beyond nine to five work hours. So what compels him to take on three dozen kids, their parents, and caring for a raft of equipment?
“I just have a drive to grow the sport in a healthy manner. I’ve seen too many kids get burnt out or not be able to realize their potential due to the associated costs,” he says. “Those are two things that should never happen in a healthy cycling community like we have in Colorado.”
American cyclocross fans searching for ways to express their passion for the sport during the US’s first World Cup race at CrossVegas can gather lots of tips from spectators at ‘cross worlds. Here are five ideas.
1. Be patriotic
2. Be creative
3. Repeat a colorful theme
4. Make LOTS of noise
5. Support your favorite rider
More fan photos
Cyclocross experts call him “the real deal.” They rated American Gage Hecht’s chances for a medal at this year’s cyclocross world championships pretty high. And they were right. He competed among the top three to four on course for the entire junior men’s race on a dicey track at Tabor in the Czech Republic.
Hecht deserves that assessment of his promise for more than his results; he’s already professional in his approach to the sport as evidenced by his reaction to placing fourth at worlds on Saturday.
It’s painful enough to finish fourth and miss out on a coveted UCI medal as well as stretching arms skyward on a podium pedestal. But to have those privileges stripped away in the last corner before the finish line in front of thousands of people, that qualifies as heart-breaking.
Hecht’s heart, however, seems to possess a special muscle for weathering adversity.
Saturday’s race began without a hitch. Coming off the start line he raced in fourth position as the field funneled off the pavement and onto dirt where a frozen moat split the track into two ridges.
He contended for a medal, racing off the front with the strongest riders and moving into third by the second lap. Whenever he lost ground, he made it up. With two laps to go he attacked and advanced to second on course.
For the next two laps the threesome of Hecht, Belgian and World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt, and Max Gulickx from the Netherlands were locked in a nail-biting contest for the silver and bronze medals.
“That was getting really intense,” Hecht said. “We were having a lot of fun though I think, just jockeying for placement the entire time because you don’t want to be really stuck behind anybody with all these ruts and accidents happening.”
One then another slid out as they took risks or succumbed to the slick conditions and then caught back on. In the last lap Hecht slipped to third.
It still seemed they would charge to the finish line pretty much together.
Then on the last corner, a little over 100 meters from the finishing truss, Hecht lost the momentum that may very well have carried him into the first US junior worlds medal in eight years.
After the race he said possibly mud had clogged his bike’s drive train and caused the gears to skip.
Was he disappointed? A little. “But I was still top five which is amazing for world championships. I’m so excited about how I did,” he said.
His first trip to cyclocross worlds exceeded his expectations about the event. “It was so cool to see all the spectators along the side just cheering me on and everybody else on. It was such an amazing feeling to be out there.”
But recalling that moment didn’t erase the smile from his face. He wore the same happy, relaxed expression while warming up in the Team USA tent and when he cruised down the pavement to the start grid.
How does he do it? His upbeat reaction shared during the near-cancellation of the 2015 US cyclocross championships explains his healthy attitude.
“Keep positive on everything,” he said, “and you’ll pretty much be happy all the time.”
The next medal
The last time an American junior won at cyclocross worlds was in 1999 with Matt Kelly. Danny Summerhill earned a silver medal in 2007.
Summerhill coached at cyclocross camps in Colorado that Hecht attended in his early teens. “I’m so excited to be just following in Danny’s footsteps,” Hecht said. “He’s an amazing guy and I’m so proud to be where he was a few years ago or close to it.”
An Australian racing schedule with his United Healthcare team prevented Summerhill from watching the race live online. Knowing the results, Summerhill wrote in a message to ProVeloPassion, “I’m a bit bummed for him as I truly thought he could be the next American world champ. I’m still proud of him nonetheless.”
Hecht will race in junior’s men’s class again for the 2015 – 16 ‘cross season. His chances to do even better next year appear pretty solid.
Junior men’s race photo gallery (more to come)
The energy discharge bouncing between them in the form of banter and jokes could be the by-product of recovering from hours squeezed in a car, then a plane, and a car again. Or it could simply reflect boisterous boyhood – they are after all, 16 to 17 year-olds far away from home.
These young men are among America’s finest young cyclists: Gage Hecht and Brannan Fix from Colorado, Gavin Haley from California, Lance Haidet and Cameron Beard from Oregon, and Vermont’s Cooper Willsey. Five of them have piled into one of their rooms in a hotel on the outskirts of Tabor in the Czech Republic. On Saturday they will compete against a field numbering almost 100 in the cyclocross world championship junior race. The ultra big time of bike races.
They talk about worlds as “just another race,” another beast they’ll try to tame but in a different suit of battle armor than that belonging to their regular teams during the ‘cross season: a royal blue skin suit splashed with the red letters “USA” and each athlete’s last name inked on the back.
Hecht, the current American champion in their junior 17 to 18 age group, sits on the floor leaning against nondescript taupe curtains gathered in folds. He’s the focus of the interview for this story and a bit out of the fray, but within range of a random flying object like a balled-up pair of socks.
However on the ‘cross track he’s very much in the fray. Leading into and now after his latest national title, American cycling media outlets and some European journalists have been paying special attention to him this season.
The 16 year-old became the inaugural junior Pan American Continental Cyclo-cross Champion in Kentucky, won a non-World Cup race at the fabled Koksijde venue in Belgium, and just placed third at the Hoogerheide World Cup last weekend in Holland, not to mention another European cyclocross podium and two more World Cup top five results. At Hoogerheide he led alone at the front of the race early on ahead of the junior World Cup leader and rainbow jersey favorite, Belgian Eli Iserbyt.
He says he likes getting noticed. It’s good for the sport he loves. “It’s always fun to get attention and having everyone backing me up,” he comments.
The others hanging out in the hotel room have performed well too. Haley, for example, won the junior’s race over the Milton Keynes World Cup weekend.
They have taken the spoils that for many years the European boys have typically owned. The last time the US has enjoyed several junior podiums in Europe was during the 2012-13 season with Logan Owen, now a U23 racer. This season, with Hecht and his worlds teammates racing like pros and taking two wins, the continentals don’t know what to make of the red, white, and blue invasion.
“I think it’s taken them by surprise a little bit. They are a little curious and I think a little in shock just because we don’t typically have a lot of riders that come out of the US,” Hecht says. “This year we’ve had quite a bit of talent coming to Europe from the US. It’s cool.”
Back in 2008 Hecht was an unknown not only in Europe, but in the US too. He completed his first big cyclocross race then at age nine, the national championships.
“I don’t think I even knew what to expect; I was just going into it really blindly. We showed up to the line and I was wearing a jersey and shorts and everybody was wearing super-nice clothing and skin suits.” He and his parents thought, “This isn’t going to work out so well,” he recalled. They changed their minds when he finished second.
Since then he’s netted five national gold cyclocross medals. Road racing suits him as well; he won the category 3 contest in the Tour of the Gila stage race in 2014 and beat local pros in the three day Superior Morgul Classic in Colorado.
Over seven years of racing he’s developed a personalized victory salute that reflects his strong religious faith. He stretches his right arm skyward, his gaze following it and past his pointer finger. He explains the pose’s meaning: “It’s giving the glory to the one who has taken me to where I am.”
He says he hasn’t mastered a clean form that clearly represents the intention until this season. “I’ve always tried to do it but it never really worked out. Sometimes it looked like I was falling over sideways.”
He and other members of the International Christian Cycling Club he belonged to prior to 2013 would huddle in prayer before races. Now even no longer on the team he’ll still look for ICCC members at competitions and enter the huddle. Sometimes, he says, he, Haley, Haidet, and Spencer Petrov – who didn’t make the worlds team this year, will join in prayer at the start line.
Before racing, after racing. The American juniors in Europe spend a lot of time together. When they’re not training on their bikes, they hang around their rooms, watch TV. If townie bikes can be found they’ll amble into a village for coffee. Yep, they do their homework too.
In fact, listening to them filling the hotel room with their voices, they seem much more a singular group than distinct individuals, more like five different voices inhabiting the same body.
Even the forty minutes of battle at worlds seems in some ways not so dissimilar from the season’s other challenges in Europe. “It’s actually not as different as I think a lot people look at it,” Hecht says. “I think everyone thinks it’s a huge enormous race, but it’s pretty similar to most of the stuff we’ve been doing. It’s the same guys. We know who we’re up against and the kind of racing that it will be.”
Worlds will be really tough, he notes, at a high pace. Hecht would love for it to be snowy and frozen.
However he does say worlds carries “a little bit more significance.” After all, it’s only the culmination of a season’s worth of work, joys, and disappointments as well as three medals on offer just once a year to the best-of-the-best in the world.
A healthy jolt of mayhem helps take them out of their heads and shut all of that out so the only thing they will think about on Saturday is racing their bikes.
As Hecht logs off Skype, one of the others in the room yells, “Get it Brannan, get it!” They are wrapping up the evening with a push-up contest.
Could the cyclocross win that Yannick Eckmann wanted so badly in January 2014 fall into his hands one year later?
The start in Austin earlier this month hinted at that possibility. During the initial moments of this year’s U23 ‘cross national championships, last year’s winner, teammate Logan Owen, now sprinted behind him. Eckmann (California Giant Berry Farms/Specialized) viewed empty pavement ahead instead of the dozen or so riders that had occupied his view in 2014 at Valmont Bike Park, where he finished second.
But within nine minutes Eckmann knew Owen wasn’t having a bad day. That’s about when the reigning champion pulled away. He quickly separated himself from the field and stayed away to win again.
“He was in his own race and we were racing for second today,” Eckmann said, post-race.
Even so, Eckmann didn’t let go of the vision of another U23 title like the one he captured in 2013. With a racing age of 22, it was his last chance to claim one.
“I tried to give everything for that first place. I never gave up. When I was in that second group I was like, ‘I’m just riding in the front. If I blow up, I blow up,’” Eckmann said.
It seems he started with that intention too. “I think I just burned too big of a match on the start and blew up half-way through the first lap.”
But he recovered and battled with the other main contenders for second, Curtis White (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com) and Drew Dillman (Cyclocross Network Racing).
While he didn’t jump onto the top step of the podium, Eckmann won that race-within-a-race for second. He competed at the head of the field, a position he hadn’t enjoyed very much this season while racing a reduced ‘cross calendar and dealing with the lingering effects of a severe road racing accident.
Eckmann also balanced considerable tension: the desire for that win in Austin with the knowledge that, as he said, his heart beat faster for road racing than cyclocross.
About a week after nationals he traveled to Switzerland for training camp with his new road team, Roth-Skoda. The UCI continental team is based in Switzerland and has an international roster of seventeen.
Eckmann was chosen for the US ‘cross worlds squad but relinquished the opportunity so he could concentrate on moving ahead with his new team. “I gave up the worlds spot to focus on the road and to get the full benefit of going to team camp in Majorca,” he recently shared. Additionally, the team wanted him fully present. He’ll also compete in the Majorca Challenge races which run at the same time as ‘cross worlds.
If he returns to cyclocross next season he’ll start in the elite category. “I probably will [race ‘cross],” he said, “like I did this year, not as many races – just to even it out and have fun a little bit when I’m not racing road.”
In the crush of riders and photographers after winning the U23 race in Austin Owen leaned over the barriers to hug his mom and other family members.
“My mom made a sign that said ‘Time for Ten.’ I don’t tell her to do any of this. She just really likes to makes signs and be very supportive of me during the race. It’s really cool to have them [family] out here again and really cheer me on. It makes me really happy to be able to win in front of them again.”
That tenth consecutive title presented a unique challenge.
At some point in his cyclocross racing career Owen started a finish line tradition at the national championships. With arms raised he flashed the new tally of titles he had earned, using his fingers as hash marks. Last year in Boulder he held up nine fingers.
However, he said if he extended all ten digits this year the gesture could be misinterpreted; it might simply resemble the expected arms raised in V for victory.
“So I figured I’d pay off Specialized for hooking me up with a really cool bike and give some love to the sponsor,” he said, explaining why he hoisted the bike at the finish line.
Owen also recognized his Cal Giant support team’s role in his tenth victory – muddy conditions dictated bike changes about every half lap which sent the mechanics running to the power washers every four to five minutes.
“[They were] perfect, perfect in the pits. We had one little bobble when I was changing bikes. It was a little bobble; it happens.”
His next stop is the world championship U23 contest this coming Sunday.
“I’m really excited for Tabor,” he said. “I did fourteenth last year [at worlds], my best result of this year at a World Cup.” He’s hoping for better on Sunday and is targeting a top ten result. That would require a reversal of fortune.
This season he’s run into a spate of bad luck in Europe. “I haven’t had a lot of bad luck over there in the past; you gotta pay your dues at some point,” Owen said. “I hope I’ll have some better luck and have some good legs again and be able to give it my all and make USA proud.”
Owen has one more year left to contest the U23 cyclocross national championship. He also races on the road and this year returns to Axel Merckx’s development program which is now called the Axeon Cycling Team.
He alternated between mouth open and teeth clenched.
Jeremy Powers‘ face resembled that of a hunted man at this year’s cyclocross national championships, until the last bend when he turned and confirmed that Jonathan Page (Fuji-Spy) hadn’t caught him. Then his jaw relaxed. He punched his fist in the air with an extended pointer finger signifying his continued number one status in US ‘cross.
Powers (Aspire Racing) won with a margin of 34 seconds over Page who early in the first lap emerged as his most significant rival. Cyclocross is cruel and that day it targeted Page who had arrived from Belgium lean and fit. For Page the race was lost by a flat out of the pit early in the race.
From then on Page chased alone. As the race entered its second half, almost every man behind him soldiered on solo as well.
Next on course, Zach McDonald (Cyclocross Project 2015) charged on in third.
McDonald’s expression appeared alert though nearly stress-free. He was one of the few that seemed to be having a good time; if others were too, they hid their joy behind grimaces and intense focus as they pushed bikes up slippery inclines and ran around off-camber turns that threatened to take them down.
Each man labored on alone with his thoughts. “Don’t forget to lift feet higher so the shoe spikes will clear the limestone stairs. Breathe, just breathe. Here comes that gnarly descent – you’ve got it. I need pedals that clear better in the mud. Make the most of it, great practice for next season. It’s just a bike race.”
And, in the back portion of the field, “Dang it. Powers just lapped me. Cool.”
She’s acquainted with the word “slow” as it exists in the English language, but it’s more enemy than friend. For example, when asked about switching to disc brakes when they first appeared on ‘cross bikes, she replied with a question along these lines: why use something that slows you down more when the goal of bike racing is to go fast? Photos of her in action on a Trek Boone 9 at World Cups this season exhibit cantilever brakes, though Trek has provided her with a disc set-up too.
Physiological adversaries like mold and food allergies and asthma insist on reducing her speed. This season they have plagued her consistently.
“She hasn’t been feeling good for months,” husband and mechanic Mark Legg said in Austin on Monday, the day of the women’s elite race at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships. “The last time she felt good was Valkenburg.” That World Cup race took place on October 19.
At nationals after the race, referring to the stretch of time before the whistle signaled go, Compton said, “I definitely was a little more stressed than I usually am, but mostly because my lungs aren’t functioning as well as they could.”
In the press she sounds very practical when it comes to the physical demons that hamper her breathing. There’s no use crying over spilt milk. Instead she focuses on how to adapt her activities and choices. Avoiding certain foods, for example.
The skill of adaptation served her well Monday when she let the need for speed drop, if temporarily. It proved essential for winning her eleventh cyclocross national championship against a field of women hungry to take advantage of any iota of weakness.
“I raced it smart; I didn’t go too hard at the start, which I usually do,” she said. “I was just conservative and kind of waited [to move up.] And then when I came through after the first lap where there were ten minute laps, I was like: ‘OK, it’ll be four laps and I can gauge my effort by that.’ I just needed to stay within myself today.”
She made another change too. According to Legg, at nationals she rode an entire race with disc brakes for the first time. Granted, peanut butter mud aided the decision by clogging the cantilever brakes during pre-ride.
Those messy course conditions became her ally. Running was the preferred way for most riders to negotiate slippery, off-camber sections and some uphill turns.
“I think today was so technical. That helped me a lot because there were places to recover. Whereas if it had just been super-fast, it probably would have been harder for me,” she said. “So I loved the fact that it was techy and hard and a lot of on and off the bike so I could save some time there.”
Luck in the form of weather took her side too in another fashion. Officials had delayed the race one day after Saturday night’s heavy rain caused locals to raise concerns about damage to the Zilker Park venue and its valued heritage trees.
“If the race was yesterday, I think we might have a different result; she wasn’t feeling very good at all,” Legg said Monday. “We think she may have had some food that didn’t quite agree with her.”
At the world championships a little luck would come in handy for Compton to at last win the rainbow jersey. To secure those stripes at the Tabor venue in the Czech Republic, she needs that one perfect day that’s eluded her. No leg cramps. A course venue without allergens that trigger an asthma attack.
Based on her own comments in a recent interview, for that perfect day she also needs to exercise those adaptation skills to make another kind of change. Her coach, she said, has told her if she stops wanting the worlds win so badly, it will happen. “I wish I could do that,” she said after recounting the coach’s observation.
Her post-race remarks Monday indicate that, after a season of having no choice but to make friends with the word slow – or at a minimum its cousin “slower,” she may have already accomplished that attitude shift.
When the race announcer asked her about expectations for worlds, she said, “If I can race and have a good race and just feel well, then I’ll be happy with that.”
We’ll find out how the approach works on January 31 at Tabor.
The 2015 cyclocross national 17 -18 men’s title went to Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Co.) after an intense showdown in a talented field that left the winner undecided until the final push to the finish line. This close, exciting contest further confirms the strength and grit of a set of young American men that should continue to infiltrate the top ranks of cyclocross in the coming years.
Hecht’s fast start carried him first off the pavement and onto dirt. Right on his tail were Jerry Dufour (Team Mugshots), Spencer Petrov (Element Cycles), Cooper Willsey (Cyclocrossworld/Cannondale), Christopher Blevins (Team Specialized Juniors), and Brannan Fix (Boo Bicycles).
But halfway into lap one Lance Haidet (Raleigh Clement) found Hecht’s wheel after sailing past about six riders, and then moved into the driver’s seat and quickly opened a gap.
In lap two, when Haidet and Blevins remained on their bikes, Hecht made a change and Blevins slipped by him. Haidet’s lead rose to twelve seconds and at the time it wasn’t clear if Hecht could limit the new Raleigh Clement rider’s gains.
But Hecht got after it. He led the chase group with Blevins, Gavin Haley (Red Zone Cycling), and Willsey. Petrov, last year’s national champion ahead of Hecht in the 15 – 16 category, hung just behind them.
Petrov looked strong despite recent illness and near the end of lap two leapfrogged Blevins, Haley, and Willsey into third position on course after Hecht. Cameron Beard (Cyclocrossworld/Cannondale) had also entered the picture; he chased alone behind them.
It wasn’t until late in lap three, in the off-camber section leading into the long limestone staircase, that Hecht stole the lead. He scaled the steep, uneven stairs with about four seconds’ advantage over Haidet. Haley arrived next, followed by Beard. Petrov was missing from the head of the race.
“I was running better lines than everyone else so I started picking everyone off and found my way to Gage and we were catching Lance,” Petrov later said. “And then my derailleur snapped which was horrible. I felt like I had amazing legs.” He ran more than half a lap.
When the bell lap began Hecht and Haley powered up the pavement in a two-man paceline with the Alpha rider in front. A minute or so later Haidet tapped along the pavement with his bike shouldered, his chance at a medal evaporated.
“I was going through the last couple off-camber switchback sections before coming onto the barriers and I got off, slid out a bit and my chain got caught in between my wheel and cassette,” Haidet said. “I tried to yank it out and it was not budging. My derailleur was so close to being snapped off, so there was nothing I could do except for run.”
Ahead on course Hecht outdistanced Haley by five seconds with about half a lap remaining and then steadily increased his lead, winning by 18 seconds. Haley took second. Then the next three finishers arrived split by gaps of six to eight seconds. Beard placed third, Blevins fourth, and Willsey fifth. Haidet finished nineteenth.
Hecht shared modest post-race comments. “I kept it smooth, kept pushing it, and somehow ended up first, so it was good.”
When prodded a bit more regarding his hard-fought win, he added, “This is so amazing, I’m so excited.”
Haidet said he might have pushed too hard early on, but if not for the mechanical, thought he could have remained a factor in the race to the finish. “I was feeling good out there. [I could have got] at least second, I think, if not the win,” he said. “Gage is fast, so, you never know what he’s going to do, but yea, I had bad luck.”
Even with slight changes to the course to mitigate concerns that had emerged on Saturday about damage to the Zilker Park venue in Austin, Texas, slippery mud coated much of the course. The younger juniors in the day’s prior races struggled with brakes and cogsets clogged with mud. More than a few finished by running their bikes.
“This mud is like almost European conditions, just having to get the bikes cleaned every lap or so or even half lap and just being really smart about when you run, when you ride, when you pick up the bike so you’re not rolling your bike through tons of mud and getting the wheels and stuff all clogged up,” Haidet said after the race. “So you really have to think about what you’re doing in conditions like this for sure.”
Co-course designer Pete Webber built a course with a heavy dose of off-camber lines on the front side. Many riders slid to the outside away from the netted fencing to their right. Hecht, who normally dismounts to the left, dismounted to the right in this section as did Haley. Choosing the right side helped them grab poles and fencing more easily for better stability while running.
Haley later explained in a message that he dismounts naturally to either side. “It depends on the course and what happens in the moment,” he wrote. “[At nationals] it made a big difference to do both!”
Unfortunately for Haley, those exemplary skills didn’t shut down Hecht’s power.
“I really wanted to win this race my entire life. But when you’re racing somebody as strong as Gage Hecht and his quality as a rider, I’m content with that,” Haley said. “I’m really happy for him. He’s dominated all season and he definitely deserves it. But, when you’re that close to winning…I have a mix of emotions right now, but I’m content.”
Petrov also started with high ambitions, seeking to make good after some trying months.
“The whole season’s been pretty rough. I found out I have asthma, [had] bronchitis, a sinus infection. Nothing too good for the lungs. I was hoping I could pull out a good race here to get a discretionary pick for worlds. We’ll see. Hopefully I can still get a spot. I really want to go. I love racing in Europe.”
Hecht goes to Tabor in the Czech Republic for world championships at the end of this month. Haley said he’ll be there, and the selection committee has chosen Haidet too.
The national champion has seen video footage of prior Tabor races. “It looks like a really fun course. I’ve heard it might be very snowy and cold.” And if that comes to pass, he said, “I’ll be so excited, it will be just like being at home. I love the snow. I love the cold. It will be fun.
“I think I can medal there and I definitely think I can pull a top five, which is super exciting.”
Gallery (more to come)
Many cyclocross riders slipped into bed Saturday night in Austin listening to what they’d call sweet music: the drip-drop of rain falling, sometimes drilling heavily on the roof.
“I was ecstatic,” 16 year-old Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Co.) said about the rain. “I was like, ‘Yes! We’re going to get more rain, more mud.’” Hecht was to race the junior men’s 17 – 18 category at cyclocross national championships on Sunday as one of the favorites.
Athletes in the 15 – 16 junior category as well as U23 and elite competitors were to race Sunday as well. They dreamed of the mud they’d slice through the next day that would cake and dry on their faces, spot their teeth, and ink the backs of their kits chocolate brown. The mud that would test their skills in sloppy conditions.
But most of all they likely dreamed about how it would feel to become a national champion. Being the best. Punching the sky. Blinking into camera flashes as they stood on the highest step of the podium.
“People have trained hard to get up to this point,” said junior Katie Clouse, who won Saturday’s junior women’s 13 to 14 race. “This is the thing they’ve been training for the whole year…”
But the next morning on Sunday racers arrived at the Zilker Park nationals venue and found police cars with spinning lights blocking entrances. While the police turned some people away – others continued to walk or ride into the park, the competitors heard rumors about possible cancellation. “The mayor of Austin has decided the event can’t go on,” one junior said.
Next the juniors, parents, U23 riders, spectators, photographers and journalists – it was too early for the elite riders to make an appearance, were advised there’d be a delay while the race officials worked with the city representatives to decide what would happen. It turns out damage to the park, especially potential damage to trees, was the main concern.
At about 10 o’clock word filtered out that the event was to be cancelled – cycling industry representatives in the expo area and others had been told they could pack-up. An 11 o’clock press conference would provide more details.
Athletes and spectators milled around the team tents, trying to absorb a decision that seemed unreal and illogical. Cancel a cyclocross race due to the impact of weather? Since when?
Author and racer Molly Hurford summed it up in a story on the Canadian cyclocross national championships website: “At its heart, cyclocross is what you do when the weather sucks too much to ride on the road or single track. The sport is based on how bad the weather can be and how tough you are and how much you can get through.”
Sport veteran and Raleigh Clement team manager Donn Kellogg said he’d never seen a ‘cross race cancelled due to damage to the landscape.
“I’ve seen races cancelled because of high wind on the road, where it was absolutely putting riders in danger. I’ve seen races cancelled due to lightning, tornado warnings, those types of things, when it’s really pretty sketchy. But this, no. This is new ground.”
Reactions to temporary cancellation
Some riders responded with humor. “Spencer’s already voted himself national champion,” Hecht joked, speaking about one of his main rivals for the 17 – 18 title and last year’s 15 – 16 national champion, Spencer Petrov. A win by his younger brother on Saturday will undoubtly fire-up Petrov despite recovery from illness that dogged him in Europe.
Hecht was processing the decision in a balanced way. “I’m a little torn because I would really have liked to race today; it looked like a really fun course. But I don’t want to get Austin in trouble or [jeopardize] any cycling here in the future.”
Others were just beginning to make the mental shift around lost goals and opportunities. After a bumpy start last year due to contact with other riders, Yannick Eckmann (California Giant Berry Farms / Specialized) took risks to return to the front of the action but lost the U23 title in a close contest with Logan Owen.
When asked what the cancellation meant for him, Eckmann said, “It’s a weird feeling. I’m sad it’s cancelled. I really wanted to race and see where I was at. When I rode ‘cross at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t at the point where I was hoping to be, closer to Logan [Owen] and Curtis [White].
“My goal for nationals was to battle up front with them. I was going to go for the win for sure.” A cancelled event, he said, “cuts out my last time to be a U23 champion as well. Everything…it’s just gone.”
This season some elite riders have progressed to their highest ever level of potential to win or podium. And their chances for becoming champions seem very good right now due to issues the perennial favorites have recently faced. Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing) has been struggling with health problems for much of the season. Jeremy Powers (Aspire Racing) has been recovering from a knee injury.
This could be Courtenay McFadden’s (GE Capital/American Classic) year for an elite women’s title, for example, or Jamey Driscoll’s (Raleigh Clement) or Danny Summerhill’s (K-Edge/Felt) time for a red, white, and blue jersey for the elite men. After a disappointing showing in 2014, a win for Summerhill would electrify the meaning of redemption.
The show goes on after all
At about 10:30 a.m. USA Cycling officials announced to teams that a compromise had been reached. The event would not be cancelled; Sunday’s races were now rescheduled to the following day starting at noon, with a compressed schedule to reduce the amount of time wheels touched the course.
In the press conference USA Cycling’s Micah Rice and Sara Hensley, Director of Parks and Recreation of the City of Austin, provided explanations.
“…we just have to protect our park and particularly our trees which we value so much in the city,” said Hensley. “We’re going to walk the course and mitigate some areas we know are sort of out of control with some deep ruts and a little bit better mitigation around some trees and some root zones. We spent a large amount of money over the last years, particularly in Zilker Park, protecting some of these trees and we want to make sure that we keep them viable and growing. But we don’t want to send people away without completing this event…”
She continued to say that while the trees, some of which are 200 years-old, were important, the protection of the park in general and visitor safety were at issue as well.
USA Cycling officials indicated they strove to find a way to avoid nullifying the event. “We are just happy that we are able to run a national championship here in Austin, Texas at Zilker Park,” Rice said. He also said changes to the course could be made.
The decision about whether to stay on an extra day to race brought on intense, conflicting emotions for riders, families, and support crew.
For some the situation presented no choice. They had to return home to work, family, or other obligations, or couldn’t afford the cost of changing airline tickets, losing a day’s pay, or another night’s lodging. Even if their time was flexible, parents with one or more junior racers faced considerable costs to extend their travel.
Yet with so much time and effort and funds already invested in contesting nationals, choosing to go home also seemed inconceivable.
Monday is going to be interesting. Rider motivations may be stronger or deflated. Reduced field sizes could affect the podiums. Less spectators will likely show on a weekday and some of those who flew in will have gone home.
Emotions are bound to surface. A combination of gratefulness to be able to take a shot at becoming a national champion, anger over footing increased expenses, and the feeling of racing in a second act will probably all show up at the start line.