Heading into the weekend as the top-ranked American in cyclo-cross, Stephen Hyde looks to be the favorite based on this season's results alone to win a national championship in Hartford, Connecticut. Of course, he's never actually done it before. The runner-up in 2016, Hyde will need to overcome four-time champ Jeremy Powers and a host of other talented riders on a challenging course that can't be underestimated.
What's more, being a race favorite, even a prohibitive one, is a relatively new experience for the 29-year-old Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider.
"Last year was interesting. For the first time I was a podium contender, in a realistic sense," Hyde told Cyclingnews this week. "I was probably second more than anyone last year. It definitely showed in the results of nationals, I was second again. Jeremy's an incredible athlete, an incredible contender, he's won nationals four times, three times in a row. Last year, I was still the underdog.
"This year, I'm coming into it the opposite. I'm not the underdog anymore. I think by all accounts, with people that I've spoken to, everybody thinks it's up to me, my race to lose. I've never been in that position before, at least in national championships. So I'm just treating at as another race — I have been in this situation before in every other race. If I let it be a national championship but not another race, then I'm in a situation I haven't dealt with. So I just treat it like another race and then I know what to do."
Based on what he's achieved thus far this season, the Pan American champion has every reason to feel optimistic about his chances, even against the competition. Powers (Aspire Racing) has battled injury and illness during a frustrating season, and has been training in New Mexico hoping to reclaim his form. Hyde, meanwhile, has consistently racked up strong results all across the calendar. He has taken several big wins on the US professional calendar to go with his Pan Am title, and has recently returned to the States after encouraging showings against top competition in Europe.
"I've had a real smooth year this year," Hyde said. "Knock on wood, no setbacks. Since it's my second year on the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld program, it's been almost more about dialing in our program, dialing in our overall relationships within the program, like how well the mechanics and the staff work together. How the riders interact and how i fit into that. I've worked really hard over the last two seasons on integrating and making the best out of the program. So I feel really confident in that. My confidence in the program leads to my confidence in the training and vice versa, and the results follow.
"I feel like I've done everything I can do up to this point. I've got great support. I've got great support with my coach, having nationals really close to here, my coach is five minutes from my house and the course is 40 minutes, so everything kind of lined up really well."
The challenging parcours suits his strengths, too: "I like difficult courses, I like running courses. I should say I do well on running courses versus a lot of other Americans, hence my kind of consistent results in Europe," he said. "There's not a ton of power sections here. It's real punchy."
Still, Hyde won't be underestimating the competition. Having risen through the ranks with Powers' Jam Fund development team, he knows the reigning champ all too well to count him out, regardless of the tough season Powers has had.
"He's no stranger to adversity and coming back from things," Hyde said. "He has had a rough year, but he stuck with it and he's been pretty persistent. He took a break and went out to the desert, did what he needed to do to get back in his head space and his form, so I am personally expecting the Jeremy that I raced last year at nationals. He knows how to win a national championship, he knows what he needs to do to get to be flying for it, and I definitely don't discount his ability in any sense. I am preparing as if the best Jeremy Powers we've ever seen is going to show up."
Powers isn't the only rival Hyde will face either. He named Tobin Ortenblad, Kerry Werner and Danny Summerhill as others who have his attention heading into the weekend. Among the contenders, Hyde may have had the most impressive season so far, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be the strongest man on the course for one hour of racing on Sunday.
However the national championships play out, expect a compelling showdown. Should Hyde – or Ortenblad or Werner or Summerhill for that matter – take the victory, it will mark the first time since 2013 that Jeremy Powers was not standing atop the nationals podium. Should Powers indeed claim the win, it will mark a truly impressive bounce-back performance after a rough few months.
The racing commences Sunday afternoon in what will likely be frigid New England temperatures, with the possibility of frozen climbs and off-cambers sure to deliver spills and thrills alike.
You can watch the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships live streaming on Cyclingnews on Sunday, January 8, 2017. The elite men race at 3pm EST.