Stephen Hyde has emerged this season as one of the best cyclo-cross racers in the US. He knows he's up against a strong challenge from his friend, mentor, and defending champion Jeremy Powers, but he's excited to test himself against the competition and a tricky course at the US cyclo-cross championships in Asheville.
Hyde previewed the course on Thursday and told Cyclingnews he came away impressed with the level of difficulty in the circuit designed by promoter Tim Hopkins. "It's pretty awesome. There's a lot of diversity in the course - last year in Austin, the real diversity came from the rain, that was it. If it hadn't rained, it would have been a really boring course. But this - there are power sections, some really technical climbs, and, weather permitting, there could be runs. There are lots of off-camber, sweeping turns, and technical mountain-bike-style descents. It's going to be interesting for sure."
The route compares somewhat to Jingle Cross in Iowa City or the one used for the Pan American Championships in Kentucky, but when wet it could be as hard as the World Cup in Namur. "It's not a course to be underestimated. Everyone is going to have to be on their best behaviour on this course. It begs for someone to make a mistake. There are a lot of difficult sections, more than we usually see in the US. I think the winner will make the fewest mistakes and clean each section."
With three national championships under his belt, Hyde is looking forward to finally coming into the race without health issues. "My first one was the last year in Madison (in 2013), which was like my fourth UCI race ever. Those are hard conditions. Then Boulder, where I had a knee injury, and Austin where I had a blown out back and a torn ligament in my foot. So this year I'm going into nationals with the best condition I've ever had coming in. The form is definitely there."
Hyde has been butting up against the dominance of Powers all season and is the only one to get the better of him - twice, at the Derby City Cup in Louisville. It has put him in the unique position of coming into the race as one of the favourites, but he's all right with that.
"I always feel pressure, even if my goal is top 10 in the race," Hyde said. "Obviously winning a national championship is a lot different. There is a lot of pressure from me, and from other people. There are a lot of people encouraging me. But that's how you make it, you're able to deal with the pressure. I have some good people on my side and a good support network, so it's good - I'm ready."
And, like Powers said, the two can't let themselves get locked into thinking of this as a two-way battle. "I would not count Logan [Owen] out, or Jamey [Driscoll] or Danny [Summerhill]," Hyde said. "There are a lot of people who can bring a lot of horsepower. It's easy to have your eyes on one person, especially if he's the reigning champion, but both of us have the rest of the field to deal with. It will be whoever races the smartest that will come away with it."
With unpredictable weather in the forecast, and the potential for heavy rain leading up to the elite races on Sunday, the course will favour a rider who can take on a variety of conditions, and Hyde thinks this plays to his strengths. "I'm OK with any conditions. If it's fast, great. If it's soggy, fine. If there's running - awesome. If there's not - still good. You race the course, and I think that's something I've prepared for all year. I don't want to pigeonhole myself into being better on one kind of course or another. Every course has its hard parts, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I'm hoping to capitalize on my strengths and others' weaknesses on any course."
The national championships in the US have tended to use relatively easy courses because the elites aren't the only ones racing. There are 40 amateur categories leading up to the five UCI classes, with age groups ranging from nine to 80+. But this year, all of the categories have to face the same obstacles that even the professionals find challenging.
"As a pro, that's what we want. We want to be pushed," Hyde said. "I think the elite field as a whole believes we need harder courses. It's great to have courses that everyone can ride, that's good for the sport. I think it's necessary we get on courses like this, that we're all pushed a little harder. It's one of the things we're going to need to do to progress as a US sport, and as an international sport. If you haven't done a course like this or haven't done a lot of mountain biking, you could be in some difficulty here.
"I'm looking forward to being pushed. I'm here to win. If I don't win but have my best race, then someone else had a better race. I'm looking forward to the competition. The venue is absolutely amazing."