There may not be any top favourites for the elite men's cyclo-cross world title on Team USA's roster in Bieles, Luxembourg, but newly crowned national champion Stephen Hyde is looking forward to proving what the American squad can accomplish on Sunday. Though realistic about the team's chances against the Belgian and Dutch heavyweights, Hyde certainly feels stronger headed into this year's Worlds than ever before.
"I'm going in as the national champion. I'm going in as the continental champion. I definitely have a lot more experience under my belt," Hyde told Cyclingnews this week ahead of his third career Worlds start. "I might not necessarily be that much better but I'm more confident in what I'm doing. You just kind of learn the game a bit more.
"For me personally it's a lot less anxiety. Yeah it's a big race, yeah we want to do well, but there's a rhythm to it and I think I've been in it pretty well. Especially from the past year and especially from the year before that. I'm a little more confident in the travel. I'm a little more confident just being on a different kind of course."
"It's a pretty punchy, mountain-bike-type course in a lot of ways. There are some rockier sections. The ground is a little rockier here. Right now it's frozen, and I can't say for sure but I think if that perma-frost goes down a little bit we could see some rocks. Some of the US riders do pretty good in that," Hyde said.
"I think we have a good history of mountain bike riders in the program. Kerry [Werner], Tobin [Ortenblad], they can ride pretty good on those courses. The punchy stuff, big downhills, short uphills, not a ton of running right now but that could change. I think it should suit some of the riders pretty well."
Nevertheless, Hyde knows that the likes of Belgium's Wout Van Aert and Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel will make even a top five performance awfully difficult. Without any pre-race favourites, it's likely to be every man for himself on the American squad.
"We're not Belgium. We don't have enough guys in there that we have podium contenders across the board," Hyde said. "We can't say, 'Okay, well we're going to sacrifice one or two for the good of the country.'"
Hyde feels as prepared as could be expected for the challenge. However, even with his strong 'cross campaign this year, training for the Worlds during a busy season was not easy.
"Yeah, I've had a good string of races and I think I've handled travel pretty well, but [my season] was pretty front-heavy," Hyde said. "I think with the travel during the year, it didn't really allow for me personally – and I think for a lot of the US riders – to do the training. But especially me, I was in Europe until I came back for Nationals and it was snowing back at home and then we did Nationals and then I came straight back over.
"So with the mix of traveling, resting, recovering, you don't really get a chance to do that much training. So it's been kind of race, recover, race, recover. It hasn't necessarily been that great for Worlds but I think I'm still in good form."
Question marks about the form of the rest of the field add to the difficulty of riding the Worlds after a largely American cyclo-cross campaign.
"Worlds is a very special thing in terms of fitness from other riders. Some of these guys you haven't seen all year," Hyde said. "Most of the time, it's usually Hoogerheide you first see some of the guys you're going to race. It's like 10% of the field, and they're good, they're not there because they suck. It's always interesting to pop in there and be like, 'Okay, well there is a possibility that I could go back five or 10 spots just because somebody showed up.'"
With that in mind, Hyde is looking to improve on his previous two Worlds results – he was a DNF in Tabor in 2015 and finished 23rd in Heusden-Zolder last year – but staying practical about this year's race.
"I'm shooting for a top 10 to top 15. I think it's realistic and I think not out of my grasp," he said. "I think all things have to go well in order for that to happen."
However things play out, the 29-year-old has already delivered the best season of his career, riding into Nationals in Hartford as the race favourite and confirming his status with the win there. After several years as a promising up-and-comer, he's more than arrived by now.
"I think over the last couple of weeks it's kind of sinking in," he said. "I was talking to the USAC coach Chris McGovern, he reached out to me and said, 'Hey do you want to talk to some of the under-23 guys? We're kind of struggling in this area, I'd love to get your input on this.' And I was like, 'Wait, why are you asking me?' And he was like, 'Oh, these guys look up to you,' and I was like, 'Oh yeah. Of course! Totally. I knew that.'
"I don't always think about myself like that! So it's pretty interesting, it's a neat scenario to be in, and I hope to do the best I possibly can with it."