The United States cyclo-cross championships have traditionally been held in mid-December, but for the first time 'cross Nationals will be contested in January to better align with the international calendar. Thirty-six national titles are on the line in Madison, Wisconsin from January 4-8, culminating with the elite/U23 women's and elite men's championship races on Sunday afternoon.
The Badger Prairie Park venue in Verona, Wisconsin is actually a few miles southwest of Madison-proper and weather may be the biggest x-factor on the 2.1-mile parcours. While the circuit doesn't appear to be overwhelmingly technical, seeming to favour riders who can put down extended spurts of power, frigid temperatures may create extensive sectors of ice, as riders previewing the course experienced on Tuesday.
The daily highs are forecast in the upper 30s Fahrenheit for the first four days of racing, while on Sunday's elite finale the mercury may not crack the freezing mark. Snow doesn't appear to be on the agenda, however, just below-freezing temperatures and the specter of treacherously slick competition. It will be an intriguing five days of racing as those able to generate massive amounts of wattage may have their raw horsepower held in check by ice.
Will this be Powers' year?
Four riders have had a stranglehold on the elite men's cyclo-cross championship since 2000 - Tim Johnson (2000, 2007, 2009), Todd Wells (2001, 2005, 2010), Jonathan Page (2002, 2003, 2004) and Ryan Trebon (2006, 2008) - but 2012 may be the year Jeremy Powers (Rapha Focus) dons a stars-and-stripes jersey for the first time in his career.
The 2011-2012 season has been Powers' best campaign on a 'cross bike as he won 10 races, including the last five rounds of the Exergy US Gran Prix of Cyclocross which earned the Rapha Focus rider the overall series title for the second year in a row. Powers also ventured across the pond to contest UCI World Cup races, highlighted by a 10th place finish in the opening round in Plzen, Czech Republic followed by a 15th place result one week later in Tabor, Czech Republic. Powers is also the highest ranked North American rider on the UCI 'cross standings, at 11th place.
The one missing piece in the 28-year-old's palmares, however, is a national championship. At the last US 'cross championships, held in December, 2010 in Bend, Oregon, Powers was in the lead with Todd Wells when he crashed and had to ultimately settle for third. This time, at the 2012 Nationals, Powers hopes to parlay his season's momentum and sterling results into a perfect 60 minutes of racing and a gold medal.
The one rider who was consistently going toe-to-toe with Powers this season was Ryan Trebon (LTS-Felt), whose season was unfortunately interrupted by a knee injury sustained while warming up for the second day of racing at the Exergy US Gran Prix of Cyclocross Derby City Cup in Louisville, Kentucky on November 13. Up to that point Trebon had already won six races, including two rounds of the USGP, and he held a comfortable lead in the series over Powers, his closest contender. Trebon, however, surrendered the jersey to Powers after struggling to a 10th place finish that day and his knee injury kept him sidelined from competition for nearly seven weeks, during which Powers sealed the USGP series title with a pair of victories in Trebon's home town of Bend, Oregon.
Nonetheless, Trebon returned to competition this past weekend in fine fashion, winning bothdays of racing at the Chicago Cyclocross Cup New Year's Resolution. It was a critical boost of morale for Trebon as he beat Powers on both days in Chicago one week prior to Nationals - the first in a display of sheer power as he soloed to victory by more than one and a half minutes and the second in a head-to-head showdown in which Trebon outsprinted Powers for the win. Trebon is coming off of a solid block of training in southern California and the LTS-Felt rider is fresh, hungry and motivated to claim a third national championship.
Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) is another contender for the men's championship in Madison, particularly if bike-handling skills become a premium on a potentially slick Nationals parcours. While this season may be considered sub-par by previous year's standards, with twovictories in his palmares, he did notch a pair of top-20 finishes in the first two rounds of the UCI World Cup, tallied nine podium finishes in US competition and brings considerable experience to Madison as he seeks his fourth elite title.
While Jonathan Page (Planet Bike-Blue) last won an elite national title in 2004, the veteran European campaigner can never be ruled out of a championship race. Page started his season in the US with good form, earning four podium appearances, before heading to his regular European base in Oudenaarde, Belgium where he rides a full European schedule. Page struggled for much of the season in Europe, but his form is coming around at just the right time as he recently rode to a pair of top-10 finishes: 7th at Fidea Cyclo-cross Leuven on December 30 and 10th at the GVA Trofee - G.P. Sven Nys on January 1.
Other riders who should figure in the mix for the elite men's title are Powers' Rapha Focus teammates Chris Jones and Zach McDonald (also a contender for the U23 men's championship), Johnson's Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com teammate Jamey Driscoll, Justin Lindine (BikeReg.com-Joe's Garage) and Brian Matter (Gear Grinder).
Defending champion Todd Wells has opted to skip this edition of 'cross Nationals, as he didn't want to extend his 'cross season this late into the winter as preparation for a position on this year's Olympic team for mountain biking takes precedence this go round.
Compton seeks eighth straight national championship
On Sunday, January 8 Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant Off-road Team) hopes to win her eighth consecutive women's national championship. Compton has won 12 races this season, including the opening round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Plzen, Czech Republic, and was the number one-ranked women's 'cross rider in the world until Dutchwoman Marianne Vos only recently bumped her down one spot to second.
Of the races Compton hasn't won this season, and there weren't many, she's always finished on the podium with third place finishes at the Koksijde and Namur World Cup rounds in Europe and a second place finish to Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) at the Exergy US Gran Prix of Cyclocross New Belgium Cup on October 8th, her only loss on home soil.
No American rider has beaten her this season, and it will take an extraordinary performance to unseat Compton, but there's still 40 minutes of racing to contest at Badger Prairie Park to decide who'll claim the stars-and-stripes jersey.
After opening her season in the US, where she won at the Green Mountain Cyclocross Weekend and finished second in CrossVegas, Amy Dombroski (Crank Brothers) spent the bulk of her 2011 campaign based in Belgium where she was a consistent top-10 finisher on the demanding European circuit. The 24-year-old Dombroski, a three-time U23 'cross champion as well as cross country mountain bike and road champion in the U23 ranks, too, returns to the US full of confidence and should be a solid bet for a podium finish in Madison.
After Compton, Meredith Miller (California Giant-Specialized) is the highest ranked US woman on the UCI 'cross standings, currently at 16th place, and the 2010 'cross championship bronze medalist looks to return to the podium once again. Miller won four UCI-ranked 'cross races this season and has been a regular podium finisher throughout the season.
Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), the defending U23 'cross champion, should also be a factor for an elite women's podium finish as well as the races run concurrently. Antonneau, who recently turned 20, is coached by Compton and has had a breakthrough season in the elite ranks, highlighted by a second and third place finish at the Exergy USGP Derby City rounds, both won by Compton, as well as three top-20 UCI World Cup finishes, with her best result a 10th place in Namur.
Other riders in contention for high finishes in the women's championship are Nicole Duke (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), Maureen Bruno Roy (Bob's Red Mill p/b Seven Cycles), Laura Van Gilder (C3 p/b Mellow Mushroom), Susan Butler (River City Bicyles-Ridley) and Andrea Smith (LadiesFirst Racing).