It's a historic season for cyclo-cross with the United States hosting the world championships in Louisville, Kentucky February 2-3, 2013, the first time they've ever been contested outside of Europe. American 'crossers have certainly upped the ante on the international level with a solid all-around performance at last Sunday's opening World Cup round in Tabor, Czech Republic.
All of the U.S. national champions in the four categories contested - elite men (Jeremy Powers), elite women (Katie Compton), U23 men (Zach McDonald) and junior men (Logan Owen) - figured prominently in the results, highlighted by Compton's runner-up finish to Sanne van Paassen in a two-rider sprint finale.
Powers made history with a 7th place finish in the elite men's category, the best performance ever by an American in an elite men's World Cup, while his Rapha-Focus trade teammate McDonald came agonizingly close to a podium finish in the U23 event, finishing 4th on the day in a seven-strong group sprinting for second place. Seven-time U.S. junior champion Logan Owen kicked off the day's results with a fifth place finish, one second off of the final spot on the podium.
US national junior/U23 coach, Geoff Proctor, was the team manager for the US squad in Tabor and he told Cyclingnews that not only was he was proud of the results garnered in Tabor but he noted there's improvements to be made. In a quick turn around, the US team will once again contest a World Cup round in the Czech Republic on Sunday, this time on a particularly muddy parcours in Plzen, and there's much anticipation about upping the ante further.
"The race Sunday everything just came together. I was really pleased with how supportive everybody was," Proctor told Cyclingnews. "Everyone's helping one another out - Zach, a final year U23 rider, talking to Logan about where to ride hard and what to do on the course. That's invaluable to get that kind of symbiosis. The whole vibe was really good, the collective spirit and the energy."
While the ultimate benchmark for the US at the world level is the 2007 'cross Worlds where the squad earned three silver medals - Jonathan Page (elite men), Katie Compton (elite women) and Danny Summerhill (junior men), the Europeans took notice of the Tabor results.
"There a lot of talk, such as Sporza talking about Jeremy's result legitimizes American racing," said Proctor. "Hopefully the momentum can keep building, we can keep learning and improving. The team of US riders really understand how big a year it is and I think we all wanted to show that.
"I definitely think we can do better. I saw room for positive improvement. I think everybody took a lot out of it."
In addition to his national team coaching responsibilities, Proctor wears many hats, including director of the Euro 'Cross Camp for the previous 10 years as well as his position on the UCI Cyclo-cross Commission, providing invaluable perspective and a push for true globalization of a sport dominated of late by the Benelux countries.
It's a point of pride to see Euro 'Cross Camp alums perform at the sport's highest level, such as Jeremy Powers who attended its first incarnation in 2003.
"It's tremendously rewarding. The development part has been my focus for the last 10 years and working with these riders, getting to know them - especially over there you become very close - I'm really proud of how all these guys have come up through and all are moving up in the ranks.
"I certainly by no stretch take credit, maybe a little bit but not much - there's their clubs, their teams, their sponsors, their parents, everybody that contributed to where they are - as somebody who's played a role in providing them with some of their first European experience, some of their continued European experience.
"Somebody like Danny Summerhill, Zach McDonald, Bjorn Selander, Jeremy [Powers], Jamey Driscoll, those guys came to multiple camps and it's all been part of the process."
The UCI has made a push to globalize the sport of cycling, and 'cross is no exception to that initiative. Proctor provides a voice on the UCI Cyclo-cross Commission from outside Europe and once the Louisville 'cross Worlds take place he believes a World Cup on U.S. soil is worthy of consideration.
"I believe in the World Cup because that's the poster of internationalization and globalization - you need an overall global series," said Proctor. "I hope we can get a World Cup in the US, that seems like a logical step after having the world championships here.
"It's still a very European, if not Belgian-centric sport, and that's all fine and good. The Belgian product is just amazing. Their two series, the level is just incredible. And the World Cup, too, is successful but we just need to grow outside of those borders so we can really create that international pool of riders."
One step that the UCI has taken is to create a summer cyclo-cross development camp, which take place for the first time this year.
"I was part of the first ever development camp for developing nations this summer, held at the UCI headquarters in Switzerland. We had a lot of developing cyclo-cross nations there and that's another prong in the vision is to share the knowledge and get those countries motivated to put on UCI races and grow the sport in those countries.
"It was just great to show the UCI staff that works there every day and various other people going in and out every day. We were on the World Cup cyclo-cross circuit, we were using the run-up and we were using the grounds right there and it was cool to present cyclo-cross and make it part of people's purview."