Jeremy Powers: Fighting for the front after years of adversity

There was a time not so long ago when Jeremy Powers' name was synonymous with winning cyclo-cross races in America. The New England native won four national championships in five years, starting with his first in 2012, and he dominated the podium's top step in the nation's top races.

Powers put his string of titles together after Jonathan Page, Tim Johnson, Ryan Trebon and Todd Wells had passed the jersey around amongst themselves for a decade from 2000 through 2010. But when it was Powers' turn to rule the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross Nationals roost from 2012 through January of 2016, he only let one title slip away to Page. Powers was having his day, and he made the most of it.

The outgoing rider who liked to DJ in his spare time started the popular 'Behind the Barriers' video blog that follows his exploits around the US circuit while highlighting some of the discipline's iconic venues and history. He founded the JAM Fund to help develop up-and-coming riders, and he created his own 'Aspire' cyclo-cross team sponsored by Rapha and Focus.

But Powers' reign as the undisputed champion of US cyclo-cross literally came crashing down during a warm-up lap at the Trek CXC Cup in September of 2016, when he fell hard on his ribs and was able to complete just one lap before abandoning the race. X-rays later showed he several broken several ribs, and the injuries set his season back substantially after he had started with two wins at Rochester.

Since that crash, untimely illness, injury and emerging new talent have limited Powers' victory tally to just one win in a UCI race over the past two seasons; he took out the victory at the NBX GP of Cross last year. Stephen Hyde, Powers' former protégé at the JAM Fund, has won the past two US titles and is now the clear favourite in any North American race he enters, while Powers has been left fighting for lesser places and hoping his health and body come around again.

"If I go back and look, it's not 12 wins in a season, but there were a lot of second and third places there that I'm happy with my ride," Powers said by phone from New Mexico, where he was spending time training ahead of today's National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky.

"I know how much Stephen, in particular, was putting into his training and racing and the level that he was at, and so I look at those seasons as transitional but also against someone who was at the top of their game, and I was going for the sprints head-to-head with him and challenging him, and you know, that's racing," Powers said.

Powers in one of his four stars-and-stripes jerseys.

A season of trials

Powers rebounded at the end of last season and challenged Hyde for the title in Reno in January, but the former protégé captured his second consecutive stars-and-stripes jersey by 13 seconds. The loss motivated Powers, and he came into this season ready to challenge Hyde again, opening his calendar at Rochester with seventh and second over two days.

Then disaster struck. Powers developed a lump in his throat and went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with retropahyngeal cellulitis, a rare-but-serious infection deep in the neck behind the throat. The infection comes on quickly and can lead to serious complications, including death in severe cases.

"Google that one sometime," Powers said dryly on a recent episode of the Behind the Barriers. "It's not cool."

Powers overcame the infection without complications, but the treatment cost him two weeks of training and he lost a lot of fitness. His problems were just getting started, however. Next up was a sinus infection he developed while training, and then he picked up foot and mouth disease from his young son.

"Another really special virus," Powers deadpanned.

Medical care and rest helped Powers overcome the protracted bout of illnesses, but his next issue plagued his entire season. Again during warm-ups, this time on the opening day of the Cincinnati UCI Cyclocross Weekend, Powers tweaked his back hopping off his bike. He started the race but finished 29th. He didn't start the second day.

Powers tried his luck a week later on November 4 at the Pan American championships in Canada, thinking his back had righted itself, but he tweaked it again in warm ups and eventually had to abandon the race. Powers now admits he wasn't patient enough with his recovery.

"I felt this need to stay relevant for my sponsors," he said. "If I'm not at the events, then what am I doing? There's a short window here to be out there to do things. And so I just I kind of thought I could jump into the races while I was training. So I did do that successfully with some other races, but at that time I just didn't have enough conditioning, and it ended up being a very, very hard track with thick mud and really steep climbs. And so that just kind of set my back off."

Powers said his illness had kept him from doing proper maintenance for his core, instead he had been focusing on volume. It worked at some races, but it eventually caught up with him.

"So that's just that gentle reminder," he said. "Like 'Hey, dude, you're not 28 anymore. Now your back is screwed.' And so that period, yeah, you wouldn't want to read the journal, you know, it's not good."

Powers leads the best of US cyclo-cross at a race earlier this year.

Time waits for no man

When Powers came onto the 'cross scene in his early 20s, there was a small group of top riders that had dominated the sport for years. Page had won three titles in a row through 2004, while Wells had collected three, Trebon had two and Johnson had taken three, the first in 2000 and the final one in 2009.

Powers slowly fought his way to the front as the older, more experienced riders stacked up their championships. Eventually joining Johnson on, Powers got to see first-hand what it took to win week in and week out. Then he watched as Johnson had to deal with his own protégé moving into the master role. It's a scenario that is replaying itself, but this time Powers, now 35, is the rider getting used to a new role as Hyde establishes dominance.

"History replays itself often, and it's so true," Powers said. "In my own experience, I'm down here doing like the, is this like...?"

At this point Powers calls over to Spencer Petrov, a top U23 rider who is accompanying him at the training camp in New Mexico.

"Is it 'cat call' when you twist your back and you do these back exercises?" he asks and gets a minor correction. "It's cat-cow? Okay, yeah, 'cat cow'.

"Yeah, and I remember making fun of Tim Johnson for doing it, and now I'm here and I'm doing it. I'm doing it in front of Spencer Petrov, and he's making fun of me. But in 15 years, he may be also getting made fun of by a 20-year-old. History truly does repeat itself."

Powers has also had to adjust to abruptly losing his spot at the top of the US 'cross food chain. Although the JAM Fund and Behind the Barriers are going strong, Aspire Racing dissolved when Rapha and Focus pulled out as sponsors. Powers, who is personally sponsored this year by Pactimo, Fuji bikes and SRAM, said not having to worry about so many other people on the bigger team has allowed him to refocus on his own ambitions this year.

The trip to New Mexico was about recharging his batteries and resetting his attitude leading up to an all-out effort at nationals.

"The Pan American championships didn't go, but I think national championships will go and I'll have an opportunity to fight for that win," he said.

Jerremy Powers on the sand climb at Ruts 'n' Guts

Forging ahead

The frustration for Powers in the latter half of the season is that his form has been there, it's just that his body hasn't been cooperating. He'd like to use that form to fight for at least one more stars-and stripes jersey.

"I mean the power numbers and the weight are right, and the motivation is there when things are moving in a good way, but my body is talking to me and telling me like, 'Hey, you know, it's going to take longer for this, or if you do that, this is the outcome," he said.

"And so I think about a rider whose career I followed really well, Sven Nys, I always looked at him and took notes, and when he was in his late 30s he had to race differently. But it also looked like he had to live for it in a different way," Powers said. "When you're in your late-20s and you're at your full strength, you can you can kind of get by with doing some things a little bit more, uh, laissez-faire," Powers says with a knowing chuckle.

And that's one of the biggest differences for Powers, aside from the changes that naturally come with getting married and starting a family - getting into top race form and maintaining it requires a lot more work than it used to, and, he says, it's not as much fun.

"In my head I tell myself that's what people appreciate about a professional athlete, is that ability to dedicate themselves to something so much. But it is a little less fun to have to take so much time to recover, or for your body," he said.

"I can still get there. I just did intervals yesterday that really gave me a lot of confidence in where I'm at and where I'm heading to. I feel like I've closed the gap from where I was, just training through these last races to get to a place where I could actually get some fitness. Then I brought myself down to Albuquerque and I'm away from my family, and I'm just doing a really good 10-12 day training block here.

"I feel like I've closed the gap," Powers said. "So now it's about seeing where I'm at against these other riders. I believe that I'm going to be at least a factor. I feel like from where I'm coming from, which felt like to me was death's doorstep, that's a victory in itself."

Powers rode his way back onto the podium during the opening day of Ruts 'n' Guts

Going gravel after nationals, but what about next year?

Powers said he doesn't plan on any racing after nationals unless a top result earns an invitation to represent USA Cycling at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in February. He does, however, plan to take on a series of gravel races through the summer.

"That's what I've promised my sponsors and that's what I want to do," Powers said. "I really enjoy it. I liked it last year. I did some of the events in the gravel world, and they're a different beast. They're in that two-and-a-half-hour range off-road. It's good racing for me, so I signed on to do that. I'm definitely doing that throughout the spring and summer."

Whether Powers returns for another season of cyclo-cross is still up in the air, however. He told Cyclingnews that he came back this year for several reasons, including not wanting to go out after a series of injuries. The JAM Fund is also going well, and he still has a lot of fun with Behind the Barriers.

But Powers also admitted another reason he came back this year is that he didn't have any plans for what he would do without racing.

"I know that that sounds very vulnerable, but it's true," he said. "I felt like I was riding my bike 20-plus hours a week still, and I was living that lifestyle and training really hard, things were going in a good direction and I had a lot of motivation.

"I was enjoying myself on the bike, and I had sponsors that were willing to continue with me and wanted to support me. So the stars aligned and I decided that I would do another season. It also still felt like I, well, in particular, I really wanted to fight for the titles, for the Pan American championships and for the national championships."

As for next year, Powers said it's hard to say if he'll race another cycle-cross season, but it will come down to whether he can still fight for wins.

"I'm not going to continue on if it's just muddling. If I can't compete at the front and I can't do the work, and my body's talking like that, then I would consider not moving forward with another season," he said.

"It's just hard. I just don't know. I want to see how things go. I'm just getting back to full strength. I weigh heavily on how things are going and where my body's at, and I don't want to just be pack fodder.

"I don't want to just ride around in 10th or 12th place, even though I know that the community would support me no matter what I do. There are other things that I would really like to do with my time, and if I can't race at the front and be competitive and add to the entertainment, then for me I wouldn't want to continue."

Sunday's elite men's race in Louisville should help clear up that picture for Powers. Don't count him out.

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