With a stars-and-stripes jersey in the bag and six weeks of training for one race, American Eric Brunner (Blue Competition Cycles) heads 800 miles from Colorado to Arkansas today for his first appearance in the elite men’s contest at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships and thinks the fast, dry course will be good for him and his teammates.
While Brunner has won four UCI cyclo-cross races as an elite rider this year, including the Pan American Championships, all were on US soil with a reduced European-based field. His performance in Fayetteville, 21st, was his best finish in the three World Cups held in the Midwest in October. The last time he raced in Europe was two seasons ago at the World Championships in Switzerland, where he went in as the top U23 rider for American men and finished 13th.
He may not be listed on paper among the main contenders for a rainbow jersey, but he’ll be one to watch from start to finish as he feels the home-field advantage could tip the scales, especially on a dry day and in a field that does not include the two most-dominant racers - Wout van Aert (Belgium) and Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), who have accounted for the last seven world titles for elite men.
“Theoretically it’s a much less deep field, but I feel like I’m at a better place now. Tom Pidcock [Great Britain], I think everybody’s looking at him. Pidcock is probably my pick and then I see the two Dutch guys, [Corne] Van Kessel and [Lars] Van der Haar, and all the Belgians in the top 10 probably. The Belgians have by far the deepest team in the elite men.
“For myself, I think top 20 is pretty realistic, top 15 I would love. And on a really, really good day I think top 10 is possible. Realistically that’s what I see,” Brunner told Cyclingnews before he travelled to Fayetteville.
“I’m looking forward to racing elite Worlds for the first time. It’s nice to feel more confident going into this race than I have going into Worlds before, which is kind of a weird feeling this being my first year in elites, in the past it’s been in the junior or U23s. It’s my first go-round, and I know I’ll have plenty of chances at the World Championships, so it’s not really a make or break thing for me.”
Don’t misunderstand Brunner: he wants to win. He has won five of his last six races, including titles in the elite category for the first time at the Continental and US championships.
“It’s just now starting to sink in the last few weeks. I think at first it was really exciting, I was really happy to accomplish those goals. It was something coming into the season that I knew I could do. I definitely doubted at times, I felt I was doing worse than expected at times, but to have such a good back-half of the season is really kind of a dream ending to the season,” the 23-year-old told Cyclingnews.
“At Nationals, I was pretty confident because I had just won a race the week before with the same riders. It’s much different than that for Worlds.”
Dry course an advantage
While the majority of his competitors have to make the long trek from abroad to Fayetteville, Arkansas and pass their COVID-19 tests, Brunner was eager to hit the groomed trails at Centennial Park for a second time this season.
“Had Worlds been in Europe I think I would have been more likely to spend a long period over there before the race. But if there’s going to be a year to have Worlds close by, this is the one. It is nice to not have to worry about travelling with COVID being out of control again. And not to mention just all the other pains that come with travelling across six to eight time zones.
“I’m a big fan of that course. I would really like to race in the dry [conditions], that would suit me really well. I try not to think about it too much,” he added.
“I think it’s one of the faster courses that I have ever ridden. It just has a really high average speed. Obviously, we raced there in the mud in October, but the day before, before it rained, it was just dry grass, like riding on packed dirt but with more grip. They did a lot of landscaping on the course, so it’s extremely smooth.”
Brunner expected that more twists, turns and off-camber sections will be added to the course for Worlds acclaim, but was not sure of the organisers' exact plans. What he was sure about was his conditioning. With limited races on the calendar due to cancellations related to the coronavirus, he traded racing fitness in the past two years for consistent riding.
“I just put in more hours, and spent the year with the mindset that ‘OK, this is just going to be my year to train, I want to come back next year super strong, ready to go.’ It was almost a better opportunity than a racing year in some ways because I didn’t have the distraction of travelling,” the Colorado native said.
“I think that helped me a lot this year getting in that mindset to be ready to go hard for the whole race, and not worry what other people are doing. That’s the style that I like to approach, even at the major UCI races. In those races that I won this year, I really haven’t attacked for the most part, it’s really just trying to ride fast, ride hard, try to be smooth and not make mistakes. And capitalise when other people make a small mistake, or just don’t make it through a section as quickly.”
At US Nationals in Wheaton, Illinois on a dry, sunny day, Brunner was flawless. When defending elite champion Gage Hecht experienced equipment troubles, Brunner didn't let up but kept driving to extend his lead for the win. Hecht would settle for third, behind runner-up Curtis White.
“Gage is a good friend. He lives about an hour away from me, so I don’t see him much unless we do local races together. Gage was always faster than me when we were young. Rarely, rarely did I ever beat him. It was like, ‘man, I keep getting better but I can’t beat this guy.’ It’s kind of funny that I just chased him all the way to the top [elites]," Brunner laughed.
"It wasn’t in vain that he kept beating me when I was 12 years old! I finally got one up on him this year. It’s been cool to push each other and know each other for so long.”
White and Hecht are part of the seven-rider US men’s team at Worlds alongside Brunner, as well as Lance Haidet, Scott McGill, Caleb Swartz and Kerry Werner. Brunner will join his Blue Competition Cycles teammate Scott Funston, who will ride in the men’s U23 race, for the Team Relay on Friday, also riding alongside US women’s elite champion Clara Honsinger, US women’s U23 champion Katie Clouse and two junior riders.
During the ‘cross calendar the Blue Competition Cycles team, owned by Brunner and directed by his coach, Grant Holicky, also fields Sunny Gilbert, who is a substitute for the US women’s elite squad.
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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp for several minor league teams. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road and gravel rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).