Don't tell Jeremy Powers he's the best American cyclo-cross racer. If he succeeds in winning his fourth USA Cycling National Championship title in Asheville, North Carolina on Sunday, he has earned that bragging right for a day, but that all gets eclipsed when he steps onto the world stage and meets the giants of 'cross - the Europeans.
The point was hammered home after the Zolder World Cup in December, where Powers placed 16th and his compatriot and training partner Stephen Hyde was 23rd. One news outlet noted that Powers was the top American in the race, but was promptly scolded for it - in Powers' typically polite but firm way.
Speaking to Cyclingnews ahead of Sunday's title defence, Powers explained why he's so opposed to the designation. "In the past, the 'best American' thing has always gotten the better of whoever it is that was competing with each other overseas, whether it was Jonathan Page and I racing and having our mechanic call out 'you're ten seconds up on him'. I think that creates a bad environment for growth. We should maybe step away from that a little. It's about doing well, especially in Europe. People can deduce for themselves who is the first American. If we're both 30th and 32nd, there's not much to say there. If you're first American and you're fourth and he's seventh, everyone did great. Overall, it doesn't create a lot of camaraderie."
When the National Championships start at the Biltmore Estate on Sunday, however, Powers will absolutely be fighting to win the best American designation, and his main competition has to be his protege Stephen Hyde - the only rider to top Powers on home soil this year.
"We've been racing head to head since Providence, so I expect it. I've had a good run, and on the right course Stephen can definitely best me. It's not out of the question. But I feel pretty confident on what I've been able to bring and what I'm good at, and I've been able to focus on an event I've wanted to do well in. I try not to focus on who I'm racing. I'll certainly be paying attention to what Stephen is doing in the race, I won't let him go away, but I'm also focusing on my own stuff and will ride my own race. There's going to be a lot of pedalling and that's what will be key to doing well on this course.
"I think Logan [Owen] is someone who will have a chance. To not talk about Jonathan Page would be silly. He's always been able to show up at Nationals. Last year I duelled with him for the win. I wouldn't write him off. [Ryan] Trebon is always capable. No one's seen Ryan race for a month. I have no idea where he's coming in at or what he's been doing."
Other possible contenders include Danny Summerhill, Zach McDonald and Jamey Driscoll, the winner of the ProCX series. "You can never say with one day of racing who it will suit perfectly, but anyone outside those guys I would probably be surprised by. If I'm coming in where I've been at, I have a good chance to go for it. That's the best I can hope for - bringing my A-game to the event on Sunday and try to throw down."
Powers has yet to preview the course, but from some videos that have been posted online he says it looks like it will be a good course. Adam Myerson has compared the course with the Namur World Cup circuit in Belgium, saying it was similar to European courses. Powers isn't sure, but says "a challenging track like that would be welcome. From the preview it looked selective. I don't think it will come down to a sprint finish. Even if it does, there are plenty of places for error and plenty of places to put out power. It will allow someone to put out 100 per cent of their ability.
"If you look at races that have similar stuff - Iowa [Jingle Cross - ed] had a lot of climbing, even Providence had a fair bit of climbing, it looks like there will be plenty of energy expenditure out on the course, and that's what makes a good cyclo-cross race. You're going as hard as you can, then you have to navigate a technical section. If someone makes a mistake you're going to capitalize on that. From that angle, there will be plenty of opportunity to force a mistake and capitalize on that, and that's good for me."
Another factor that may play into Powers' strengths is the weather: there is rain predicted for the three days leading up to Sunday, but then warmer, dryer conditions on race day. If the course gets slick and rutted, Powers says there might be a lot more running.
"You could see three or four minutes of running per lap potentially. It's hard to know how it will all play out. I have no idea what to expect because we race so infrequently in the south. I've heard there is a lot of drainage at this venue. I think it will be plenty slick and plenty treacherous."
In other words, perfect cyclo-cross conditions.