The 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships get underway with a new venue this week - Austin, Texas' Zilker Park - but racers still sporting frostbite memories from previous editions in Boulder, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin, and especially Bend, Oregon should not expect a hot, dusty day for their title fight. Thanks to a weather phenomenon known as the "polar vortex", the icy cold temperatures from the Great White North are whooshing down the continent, bringing near-freezing conditions and rain to the Lone Star State's capital city.
Zilker Park, like a lot of Texas, is largely flat, but the race organisers have made the most of what little elevation they could find, carving out the course to include two sets of limestone steps and a run down the same embankment with a man-made ramp, the entire time crisscrossing the park's paved roads, making the bunny hop a required skill.
While the park might not see enough rain to turn the course into power-sapping mud, the rain will make turns slick and the unique soils of Texas may not wear in the same way other areas would. Rather than become fast and tacky, the course has the potential to become slipperier as the grass is worn down. Adding to the dangers, where cold and snow might be tolerable with the right clothing, the just above freezing wet conditions will feel colder as riders' clothes get soaked through. In other words, perfect cyclo-cross weather.
The conditions will suit the defending champions well, and one can expect in the elite men's race that the rest of the field will have a difficult time unseating Jeremy Powers. Powers has concentrated his entire year on 'cross, honing in on only the most important races and nearly going undefeated in the US races after coming third in CrossVegas to Sven Nys and Lars van der Haar. Powers was only beaten once since then, out-sprinted by Danny Summerhill in the Derby City Cup, and he's put in solid performances overseas, scoring a top 10 in the Valkenburg World Cup. On a flat, fast course in Austin, he will be beatable only if his luck turns.
With the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld top men Tim Johnson and Ryan Trebon suffering injuries this year, Stu Thorne might be regretting letting Jamie Driscoll slip away to the Raleigh-Clement team. Driscoll is the USA's second-best ranked rider in the UCI standings, thanks in part to his recent wins in the Waves for Water 'cross and the CXLA weekend. Driscoll won the overall Pro CX calendar after racing more consistently than second-placed Powers. There's something to be said for coming into a championship with more race days in one's legs, and if Driscoll has rested enough and has good luck, this year could be his best chance yet to win his first national title since his junior days.
Finally, one can never count out Jonathan Page, who will make his annual pilgrimage back to the USA from Belgium, coming out of his self-imposed exile where he endures regular punishment at the hands of the top cyclo-crossers and back in the world to the relatively cushy realm of straightforward courses, conveniently located team parking and posh hotels. Page had his heyday in the mid-2000s, when he won three consecutive titles, but can not be discounted even as he approaches age 40: his fourth elite championship victory was just two years ago.
For the elite women, the race will be on to see who, if anyone, can unseat 10-time national champion Katie Compton. The Colorado resident started out the year well: after suffering a surprising sprint defeat at CrossVegas to Meredith Miller and Katerina Nash, she rebounded to win eight straight races, sweeping the weekends in Boulder, Wisconsin's Trek CXC Cup, Providence and going on to win the Valkenburg World Cup. Since then, she's been beatable. Although she won the inaugural Pan American Championships and was second in the World Cup in Milton Keynes to Sanne Cant, she's suffered from asthma while overseas. Compton's third place in the Namur World Cup was followed by a DNF in the Zolder World Cup, and she slipped out of the lead in the rankings. However, that only means she will be even more motivated to retain her status as US national champion come Sunday.
While Compton has been defeated at the international level, there are few American riders who can top her: Meredith Miller managed it in CrossVegas, but since then she has struggled with her form.
However, the national championships favour the experienced riders, and the return of Rachel Lloyd to the top level of competition could put a wrench in the works for everyone, Compton included. Lloyd has been on the podium four times prior to her retirement, and since her return she has been on the way up. After double wins in December at the Waves for Water 'cross, she's earned herself a front-row start and status as legitimate title contender.
In the can't-be-counted-out category, Georgia Gould will once again put herself in the mix. The Olympic bronze medalist on the mountain bike has been in Compton's shadow for a decade and will be keen to regain her place on the podium, if not the top step.
Other riders to watch include Elle Anderson, who has been testing herself across the pond in Europe and has racked up some solid results, Pro CX series runner-up Courtenay McFadden, Ellen Noble, and Crystal Anthony, all of whom have scored wins recently.
Whereas the elite men's race might be a runaway win for Powers, the U23 and junior races will provide possibly the closest races of the weekend. Logan Owen will have to be on his best to hold off the challenges from Curtis White, Drew Dillman and Yannick Eckmann.
Last year's junior champion Peter Goguen aged up, leaving a new and ridiculously talented crop of young riders to battle it out. Gage Hecht, the Pan American champion will be the rider to beat, but Spencer Petrov, Gavin Haley and Lance Haidet all scored international victories this year and will make the race exciting.
Racing begins on Wednesday, January 7, with the non-championship amateur, master and industry races and singlespeed championship events. Medals will be awarded to the masters categories on Thursday and Friday, with non-UCI juniors and collegiate riders tackling the course on Saturday. The four UCI categories, and junior and U23 women race on Sunday.