The USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships return to Colorado for the first time in 17 years with the cycling Mecca of Boulder playing host to all the action at its dedicated, 42-acre cycling venue of Valmont Bike Park. Thirty-six national championships will be up for grabs in Boulder from January 8-12, culminating with the Elite/U23 women's and Elite men's championship races on Sunday afternoon.
The Valmont Bike Park circuit is a familiar venue to many of this weekend's contenders as the UCI C2-rated Boulder Cup has utilised the course in October of both 2012 and 2013. In the most recent edition Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) and Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) won their respective elite women's and men's races at Valmont Bike Park nearly three months ago, but the balmy, bone-dry conditions experienced on October 13th have been replaced by much more wintry conditions this go round.
The venue received a coating of snow and a blast of Arctic air this past weekend, but the temperatures are warming with highs in the 40s Fahrenheit expected each day through Sunday's finale. The conditions may be sloppy for the opening days as the snow melts, but with no further precipitation expected the course appears likely to dry out for the weekend's four marquee UCI events: U23 men on Saturday followed by the Junior men 17-18, Elite & U23 women and Elite men's trifecta on Sunday.
Elite men: The "usual suspects"
Any one of the riders with a coveted front row call-up for Sunday's elite men's championship has the potential to earn a stars-and-strips jersey, but it's likely that the top step of the podium will be filled by one the four riders who have already won elite men's titles, three of whom have multiple Nationals victories in their palmares.
Defending champion Jonathan Page (Fuji-Spy-Competitive Cyclist) returns to 'cross Nationals from his home-away-from-home in Belgium in search of his fifth elite men's championship. While hardly a prolific winner (his victory at Charm City Cross in September is his only win this season thus far) nobody on the start line brings as much European 'cross experience to the plate as the 37-year-old Page. He's had a tough European campaign this season, having had to battle through illness and injury, but he's shown a glimmer of form recently with a top-10 result in Belgium at the end of December. He certainly knows how to rise to the occasion at Nationals as he's placed in the top three 10 of the previous 11 years and if the conditions are at all technical on Sunday then don't be surprised to see another Page victory.
Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) got the Nationals monkey off his back with his first and only national championship in 2012, and the 30-year-old has designed his current season with the mission of adding a second championship to his palmares. Unlike previous 'cross seasons, Powers has maintained a solely domestic racing campaign prior to Nationals and has shown good form throughout the year. Nobody won more men's UCI races on US soil this season (12) and Powers recently won the overall Pro CX title as a mark of his consistency throughout the season. Powers has already won at Valmont Bike Park once this season, and having been in Boulder for a couple of weeks to fine tune his form a second victory there this season may well be in the cards.
Like Powers, Tim Johnson (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld) also remained on US soil through Nationals this 'cross season and he battled to the end with Powers for supremacy in the Pro CX series. Ultimately Johnson would fall short of the overall title, but nonetheless he won seven races this 'cross season, including three to Powers's one in UCI C1 events. Johnson enters this weekend the highest-ranked American rider on the UCI standings (21st, with Powers just 17 points back in 22nd). While Johnson probably wishes the US Nationals were the prior weekend when Boulder was a frigid, snowy, winter wonderland - similar to the conditions of his most recent victory in early December in Bend, Oregon's Deschutes Brewery Cup - the three-time men's elite champion can win on any terrain in any conditions and he's a strong favourite for a fourth title on Sunday.
The only other rider taking the start on Sunday who's won an elite 'cross title is Ryan Trebon (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld) and the two-time winner can't be ruled out in Boulder on Sunday. The 32-year-old Trebon won four UCI 'cross races this season, including a C1-ranked event in November in Louisville, Kentucky, and has been fine-tuning his form in sunny, warm California in advance of Sunday's championship.
Todd Wells is the only other member of the elite men's 'cross peloton to win a national title (he's won three), but the Colorado resident is sidelined by injury and will be absent in Boulder.
Other riders to watch on Sunday include Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus) - a two-time U23 national champion, a campaigner in both Europe and Japan this season and the winner of the final UCI 'cross race in the US this season in Kingsport, Tennessee, just this past Sunday. McDonald finished second to Page in last year's elite championship.
Jamey Driscoll (Raleigh-Clement), bronze medalist behind Page in 2013, Danny Summerhill (K-Edge/Felt Bicycles), fourth in 2013 and a multi-time U23 and junior champion, as well as Jeremy Durrin (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies), fresh off a block of European 'cross racing including three World Cups, should also be in the mix at the head of the race.
Elite women: Who can challenge Compton?
Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) has won the US elite women's national title for the previous nine years and barring cataclysmic disaster on Sunday a 10th consecutive stars-and-stripes jersey should be hers. Compton, the most accomplished 'cross racer in US history, has just won her second straight World Cup title with her fifth straight World Cup win of the season this past Sunday in Rome, Italy (and the 21st of her illustrious career). In Rome, Compton dispatched of none other than world champion Marianne Vos (Rabo Liv) for the third straight time in World Cup rounds. Compton has won 14 UCI 'cross races thus far this season on both US and European soil and it's a near certainty that total will increase to 15 on Sunday.
On the few occasions Compton hasn't won this season, only three women have finished ahead of her: Vos, Katerina Nash (Luna) and this season's breakthrough performer Elle Anderson (Cal Giant Berry Farms-Specialized). Of those three, only Anderson is American and the 25-year-old is likely to provide Compton with the toughest fight on Sunday. Anderson finished ahead of Compton in one race this season, in early October at the UCI C1-ranked Providence Cyclo-cross Festival where she edged Compton out for second place by two seconds, and Anderson has six UCI wins in her palmares. She recently did a block in Europe with several strong results, including a podium finish behind Belgian champion Sanne Cant and Italian champion Eva Lechner at her final European race in Diegem, Belgium on December 29. Anderson also claimed the women's title in the recently concluded Pro CX series.
Other riders to figure in the mix for the elite women's podium on Sunday include several with strong results both in the US and Europe this season, and along with Compton and Anderson are responsible for the USA's third place on the UCI nations ranking behind Great Britain and the Netherlands.
Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld), 22, is a multi-time US U23 and collegiate national champion and in addition to solid results in the US she's had a strong showing at the four World Cups she contested with 7th (Namur), 9th (Tabor), 13th (Valkenburg) and 14th (Heusden-Zolder) her results. Anderson's teammate Meredith Miller had multiple podium finishes throughout her domestic campaign and after Compton had the best result at a World Cup with a 6th place finish at round two in Tabor, Czech Republic. Another rider to watch is Crystal Anthony (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) who notched two UCI wins this season in the US and earned three top-20 World Cup results on the European circuit.
One more rider who may prove to be a wildcard performer on Sunday is Georgia Gould (Luna), who despite racing a very light 'cross schedule this season nonetheless has considerable off-road palmares both on a mountain bike and a 'cross bike. The Olympic mountain bike bronze medalist, multi-time US mountain bike champion, multi-time podium finisher at US 'cross nationals and 'cross World Cup podium finisher can draw on her considerable experience to be in the mix on Sunday. And if not, she's not at all adverse to being heckled.