Four young men sat attentively around a dining room table in suburban Denver on a sunny March day perfect for riding their bikes. They ignored their smart phones for over an hour.
They are Ian McPherson, Maxx Chance, Liam Dunn, and Taylor Schmidt, members of a new elite under-23 cycling team. They were learning details about the nature of the organization sponsoring them, COGA (Colorado Oil and Gas Association). Also present were team mentors Taylor Jung, Jason Short, and Anuthee Korder. Jung manages and directs the squad.
Some might not align an outdoor, community-based activity like cycling with this industry. That’s exactly why COGA is championing the young sportsmen. The association hopes the team can spread a message regarding its members’ goodwill contributions in the state.
Jung points out that not many people know, for example, that the industry supplied relief for Colorado communities affected by the September, 2013 flood disaster. According to data supplied by COGA, donations totaled $2.1 million.
In mid-July over two thousand cyclists will have a chance to see the message in action at the Courage Classic. The team has invited COGA energy company employees and their friends to pedal over mountain passes with its riders to reach a $100,000 fundraising goal for the benefit of Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“There are a lot cyclists in the energy industry, which shouldn’t really be surprising since people who live in Colorado tend to love outdoor activity, regardless of what industry they work for,” notes Jung.
Another objective for the organization is to increase understanding about the oil and gas business. On that sunny March day James Cole, an energy subject matter expert with Colorado Legislative Services, supplied industry context and answered questions. Christina Delpone, a COGA employee, passed around information in paper and thumb drive form.
They talked about how most of the parts on their bikes can be traced back to the oil and gas industry, as well as the fabrics stitched into cycling kits.
Jung first contacted the organization through Delpone. “When Taylor first met with COGA he came prepared with a COGA specific proposal that aligned with our organizational mission and values,” she says.
“Also, Taylor has proven a commitment and genuine passion for what he does with the team and we could see that since day one.”
About 50,000 people in Colorado work in the industry, according to a fact sheet on COGA’s website. The organization’s representatives indicate the state ranks sixth nationwide for natural gas production and ninth for crude oil production. Significant growth over several years has brought more attention to the industry’s activities and raised concerns among some residents of mineral-rich communities.
At the meeting the riders and mentors speculated about the response to their title sponsor. Would people welcome a new cycling benefactor? Or would those critical about the industry give them an earful?
Whichever it would be, the four U23 riders seemed confident about handling either situation.
From the team and sponsor’s perspective, ideally when people see these young men wearing the COGA logo while training or racing their bikes they will connect the industry with a sport that is a part of a healthy lifestyle for many Coloradans – or at a minimum become curious about the flame insignia.
Jung says he’s not received any negative reactions thus far.
“I have had some very positive feedback from people in the [bike] racing community. They seem to like the idea of money from outside the cycling world coming into our sport,” Jung says. “Even people who I am guessing tend toward the liberal side of the issue have approached me with ‘So oil and gas…tell me about that,’ which opens a conversation.”
Investing in young adults
By choosing U23 riders for its first cycling sponsorship venture COGA supports a cohort of ambitious bike racers who, Jung says, needs assistance to make a successful leap from junior competition to the serious senior ranks and also lacks the attention and resources focused on other adults or juniors.
“When you’re eighteen you’re not likely to be ready to move to a pro level, no matter how good you are from a racing stand point or how strong you are as a rider,” comments Jung. “There is a maturity that builds over time and so a need for a step in between a junior program and a professional level.”
Jung devotes himself to their cause. He launched his first development outfit in 2012 under the name pedal p/b Cannondale. Pedal, a bike shop in Littleton, also backs the current elite team. Jung owns the COGA Elite Cycling Team through his management organization, Rocky Mountain Velo.
The four U23 riders frequently race in the same field as mentors Jung, Short, and Korder. In their early thirties, the mentors can call on fresh memories regarding the chase for glory and struggles faced by their young charges.
Together with this guidance the riders benefit from logistics planning, transportation, housing when traveling, fully built Cannondale CAAD10 bikes outfitted with Shimano Ultegra components, and performance coaching if a rider hasn’t yet secured it. Additional equipment sponsors on board are Cannondale for helmets and gloves, Pactimo for performance-grade kits, Fizik saddles, and Continental tires.
This season riders expect to compete in a set of major events they likely couldn’t enter on their own; that could be due to cost or coordination for travel and items like mechanical assistance during events. Racing fees are covered for events that include the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas, the eleven-day Wisconsin Tour of America’s Dairyland in June, and Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic in July.
“On a small scale I want the team to operate as much like a professional team as possible,” says Jung. “We allow them to focus on the racing instead of housing, transport, food, etc.”
Collegiate cycling offers a development opportunity for the U23 group and all four of riders compete as members of collegiate squads at Fort Lewis College, the School of Mines, or the University of Colorado. However, the collegiate road racing season is short and concludes in May when local and national competition is just heating up.
From the racing perspective the team has already enjoyed success with three wins. That means podium and finish line photos featuring the COGA insignia in communities across the Front Range and beyond.
Even when they aren’t winning, the riders have proved able ambassadors for their title sponsor. Last weekend after the three-day Superior Morgul road race ended, Jung walked along the finish line, meeting people, handing out business-sized cards titled “Frack Facts,” and talking about the oil and gas industry’s support for cycling.
Anyone interested in joining the team at the Courage Classic can contact Taylor Jung for more information.
Abby Mickey (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) and Michael Burleigh (GS CIAO) won from the pro-1-2 fields after breaking away late at Colorado’s Morgul-Bismark road race. The Morgul-Bismark took place on day three of the Superior Morgul event which opened with a time trial last Friday.
They each savored victories that transpired on the course where their competitive cycling days began.
Mickey crossed the line with an extensive post-up sequence. It began with arms raised in a victory salute. Then she smoothed out and pointed to the “UHC” logo on her blue and white jersey. Finally, she extended her arms wide looking for all the world like she was embracing the entire scene: finish line truss, official’s trailer, and the spectators watching from behind orange fencing and up on the adjoining hill.
“It’s not a huge race, but it is one of the first races I ever did on the road,” Mickey said. “I love this course.
“And to take the win with such a big gap and by myself, it was really fun. And even better to go one-two [with teammate Coryn Rivera].” Mickey’s advantage measured three minutes.
During her first Morgul-Bismark outing she had competed as a Cat 4 rider. Now she’s twenty-four and in her second professional racing year.
Burleigh began his celebration with a peaceful expression near the crest of the final steep climb dubbed “The Wall;” the rise concludes the 13 mile loop the men circled six times. Then he punched one fist skyward over the line. He chose the hand on the same side as his heavily bandaged right leg which had been injured in a crash the day before.
“I love this course,” Burleigh said. “This is the first road race I ever did, as a Cat 5, and I was hooked. So this is incredible to win in the p-1-2’s here. It’s certainly the best result of my cycling career.”
Burleigh is thirty-two and started racing about four years ago. GS CIAO is one of the top amateur men’s cycling teams in America.
With under two laps remaining Burleigh stepped up the pace to put pressure on the other teams in defense of teammate Josh Yeaton’s placement in the omnium competition. He soon realized he’d outdistanced the reduced peloton.
“I didn’t really imagine I would be able to hold that to the line,” he said. When his lead steadied at a minute and a half he changed his outlook.
“I started to let myself believe I might hold that and I did. It was quite a great redemption after yesterday, hitting the deck so hard and taking myself out of the GC and causing so many of my teammates to have to drop back to get me.”
The satisfaction these two athletes experienced stemmed from a significant span of progression, from newbie to queen and king of “The Wall,” a storied hill made famous by the Coors Classic.
Of course progression takes more shapes than winning, and sometimes it shows in those you’ve influenced. Jennifer Sharp (Stages Cycling) coaches with retired pro racer Alison Powers at Alp Cycles Coaching. Mickey is one of their clients and Sharp motor-paces her. While cooling down after the race coach Sharp was ecstatic about the UnitedHealthcare rider’s victory.
Sharp also enjoyed her own effort while racing in the pro-1-2 field. Despite the fact that the hilly Morgul-Bismark course isn’t her favorite playground, midway through the race she decided to try to leave a cautious pack.
“Then I had this gap and was like, ‘OK, they’re not worried about me. I’m just going to go.’ So I went.”
Mickey bridged up to her and flew away on a hill. Sharp powered on and with one lap to go she still held a gap to the pack. But she’d run out of water and ended up in nineteenth place.
“That’s all right,” Sharp said. “This is definitely not my cup of tea, but to have that kind of redemption on a day when you don’t think you have it, it’s success.”
For full results from Superior Morgul visit the Without Limits Productions website.
Gallery (more to come)
This year’s Tour of the Gila starts next week. It’s going to be a humdinger.
Golden, Colorado – April 24, 2015 – A composite team wearing Amy D. Foundation kits will start the 2015 Tour of the Gila, allowing more women to participate in the event that activated Amy Dombroski’s road racing career. Four-time overall Gila winner Mara Abbott (Wiggle Honda) headlines the six-woman squad at the American stage race based in Silver City, New Mexico. The event runs from April 29th to May 3rd.
“This is an opportunity to open up new doors in terms of the impact the Amy D. Foundation can have on women’s cycling,” says Dan Dombroski.
Dan Dombroski launched the philanthropic organization with Nicole Novembre in memory of his sister, professional cyclist Amy Dombroski, after she died in an October, 2013 accident at age twenty-six. In its first year the foundation supported young women cyclocross riders.
With the Gila composite team, the foundation takes a giant step toward its vision of fostering the progression of developing female riders across multiple cycling disciplines.
“To put together this sort of program in our second year of existence is really exciting,” says Dan Dombroski. “That’s much sooner than we initially thought the organization would be able to get into road cycling in a comprehensive way.”
For Abbott, who recently won Redlands Bicycle Classic on a composite team, racing in an Amy D. Foundation kit is personally meaningful.
“Amy was a good friend of mine and inspired me in my cycling career with the attitude and determination she brought to her racing. I often wished to emulate Amy in my moments of struggle. Amy was a special person to me, and the work that Dan [Dombroski] and Nicole [Novembre] have done in the name of her legacy is also awe-inspiring,” Abbott notes.
“To be able to represent the spirit of such a wonderful person and ride for an organization that brings opportunity to others in a genuine way is an incredible honor.”
Abbott will lead a talented group of veteran and developing riders. The roster includes Americans Kathryn Donovan (Colavita/Bianchi), Amanda Miller (Pepper Palace p/b The Happy Tooth), Julie Emmerman (Rally Sport) and Annie Toth (Groove Subaru-Excel Sports) together with Norwegian Janicke Gunvaldsen (Hitec Products). Donovan raced alongside Amy Dombroski in the 2012 edition of the Gila.
Growing opportunities for women
With a composite team the Amy D. Foundation brings six women to the start line that might not otherwise race the Gila because they don’t belong to a team entering the race. This year’s team requirement is due to first-time UCI designation for the women’s competition. In previous years a rider could register individually.
“The Gila has always been sensitive to the fact that going UCI would leave some individual riders out,” says Michael Engleman, a women’s cycling advocate who builds composite teams through Mission Sports Group. “Many races make efforts to find athletes guest rides, but as far as I know the Gila may be the only UCI women’s race that has formed a composite team so women don’t get left out.” Engleman is managing the Amy D. Foundation team at the Gila.
“Until there’s more women’s teams and teams with budgets to hire more riders and attend more races,” notes Engleman, “the only way for many athletes to advance is composite teams, and guest riding.” Composite teams have launched the careers of many highly successful women in the sport, such as Abbott and Amy Dombroski.
Typically these squads exist for a single competition. The Amy D. Foundation intends to replicate the format developed for the Gila at future events to assist more women and add stability to the composite team model.
According to Engleman, the idea for the Amy D. Foundation composite team originated from the angel sponsor who rescued the race with financial support in March after a title sponsor withdrew funding. The Gila race organization also raised money with crowd funding; the Amy D. Foundation and another organization will each receive ten percent of the proceeds.
“An incredible community has helped the Gila continue and is also supporting the Amy D. Foundation and giving opportunities to new riders,” says Dan Dombroski. “That’s an amazing result and shows how the cycling community can help create a robust future for women in the sport.”
For the foundation, the Tour of the Gila is an ideal place to start its road racing initiative.
“A month or two after Amy first decided to start racing her bike, we went to the Tour of the Gila together,” Dan Dombroski recalls. At that time in 2006 Amy Dombroski was 18 years-old and a category 4 rider at her first of five outings at the Silver City challenge.
“We went there with one other friend, packed in a small car, and slept in tents. It was the first big race she ever did and her first stage race. So it’s very meaningful that we should start with the Gila.”
[updated April 17, 2015]
Cesar Grajales, now racing for the bike manufacturer Team Stradalli Cycles, won the men’s pro-1-2 Boulder-Roubaix 2015 edition by escaping from a small break-away that formed during the third of four laps. A break-away proved decisive in the women’s pro-1-2 race as well. That victory went to Lucy Conklin (Rally Sport) who sprinted away from the lead group of four near the end of the final lap around the 18.7 mile circuit with alternating pavement and dirt surfaces.
Boulder-Roubaix lacked the cobbles that personify its namesake, the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic, but it dished out its own modicum of suffering.
Over fifty percent of the loop consisted of hard-pack dirt roads. Transitions from pavement to dirt and corners peppered with loose gravel unseated riders. By the end of the afternoon, multiple sets of knees and elbows had etched blood into the course’s northeast Boulder rural byways, and uneven surfaces left riders testing their flat-fixing skills or bumping along on deflated tubular tires.
Additionally, some fields clocked more miles than they had bargained for at their blue-sky starts.
Cool heads and tactics after a neutralized women’s race
The pro-1-2 women completed about 62 instead of 56 miles due to a mid-race diversion from the original route.
Officials reportedly made the change for one lap due to a brush fire in irrigation ditches along the course.
“The first lap we definitely rode [past] the fire but we thought it was a controlled burn so we weren’t really concerned about it,” Kristen Legan (Evol Racing) explained after the race. “And then the second lap they came up on the moto and said we would probably be diverted.”
As part of the diversion officials neutralized the race not long after a chase group had reigned in a solo rider off the front and a subsequent attack resulted in a four-woman break containing Conklin, Legan and her teammate Kate Powlison, and Gwen Inglis (Stages Racing). At the officials’ direction, the foursome stopped to await the field behind them.
When asked about the diversion experience, Conklin said, “It was a little bit frustrating…A part of me was a little worried because my heart rate was coming down, the adrenaline was wearing off. And then I just realized that that was happening to all of us. So I thought, ‘Don’t sweat it.’”
The field’s offer to send the break up the road after neutralization sorted out the situation as well. “Then we [break riders] could just say ‘OK, all that work wasn’t for nothing and all four of us are going through the same thing right now, so just don’t stress yourself out’ – because that will just fatigue you more than anything,” Conklin later said.
And so the four break members sped away after a period of neutralized riding and re-established the gap they previously held.
The Evol Racing riders later indicated they took the delay in stride as well. “The officials did a good job of keeping everyone as informed as they could…It didn’t hurt our race, I don’t think,” Powlison said. “But we had to ride a little bit extra. The legs will feel that.”
Only several of the ten categories on course were required to follow the detour, and the re-distributed fields resulted in confusion at the finish.
However, when another rider crossed the finish line ahead of her, Conklin knew the woman had somehow not taken the diversion and couldn’t lay claim to the victory. The Rally Sport rider celebrated with a fist-pump under the finishing truss. Powlison came in second with Legan next in third.
Conklin had looked forward to the event more than any race thus far in the road season; she enjoys racing on the dirt and called Boulder-Roubaix her kind of course. She also felt especially good about her result because she raced without teammates in a pack that included some handy sprinters among well-represented teams like Evol and Stages.
“For me,” she said, “it was a really tough race.” While trying to stay away with the break, she imagined the possible scenarios that could play out in the race, including how she could best respond to maximize her chances for success.
“And so I really tried to race conservatively and then when I put in efforts tried to make them more attacks than just pulling people,” Conklin later said. “And it worked out for me today so I was happy about that. They were great girls to race against so it was exciting.
“But it hurt. It hurt a lot.”
Grajales pulls himself into winning break
In the men’s race Grajales set himself up for a shot at the win by bridging across alone to a small break with two laps of the dry circuit remaining.
“From the beginning I was feeling good. Then the right break-away was gone and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there is the race,’” the Colombian said before the podium ceremonies. “So I had to go across solo. I went for it. It was like a hard TT, but I made it.”
Like Conklin, Grajales believed the race suited him. “I like this kind of race because it is like pure power. There’s not really a rest.
“It feels really good to win again, to be on the podium again. It’s motivation for the rest of the year,” he said. “It’s not an easy race. We had a lot of good guys, a big field. So it feels good.”
Taylor Warren (Colorado Collective) beat Camilo Zambrano (Sonic Boom Racing p/b Lucky Pie) in a sprint for second.
For full results from every category at Boulder-Roubaix, including collegiate races, see RaceRite.com.
Gallery (more to come)
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.