It's an exceptionally rare occasion for U23 riders to also finish on the podium in the US elite title race during the same championship. For U23 men, it was a feat last accomplished by Tim Johnson at the 1999 national 'cross championships in San Francisco's Presidio where he finished third in the elite men's championship and claimed the U23 title in races that were run concurrently.
Likewise, Zach McDonald (Rapha Focus) etched his name into the record books this past weekend at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships in Wisconsin where he was crowned U23 national champion on Saturday and finished fourth in the elite race on Sunday. The occurrence was even sweeter with who stood atop the elite men's podium: the 20-year-old McDonald joined teammate and first-time national champion Jeremy Powers.
While UCI rules specify that U23 riders can only compete within their category at world championships and in World Cups where a separate U23 category is offered, for national championships there is some leeway and U23 riders can also compete in the elite category at the discretion of the national federation, an option which McDonald as well as fellow U23 rider Cody Kaiser exercised this past weekend.
Entering Sunday's elite men's championship in Verona, Wisconsin's Badger Prairie Park, near the state capital of Madison, McDonald wasn't sure how much he had left in the tank after a runaway victory the previous afternoon in the U23 title race, McDonald's first in the event. At the previous national championships, at Bend, Oregon in December, 2010, McDonald also was well ahead of this competitors in the race lead when he struck a spectator, ultimately resulting in a second place finish to Danny Summerhill. This time around the incident was still very much on McDonald's mind and he kept the throttle wide open for virtually the entire race, winning by 2:21 over Cody Kaiser (California Giant-Specialized), and ensuring he had plenty of buffer time in case disaster struck once again.
McDonald, however, showed no ill effects from the previous afternoon's effort as he rocketed off the start line and took the hole shot from pavement onto the grass approximately 300m later...but carried so much speed that he careened off course and crashed into on-looking spectators. The Rapha Focus rider's disastrous start was soon compounded with what happened moments later after he exited the first pit on a new bike - he dropped his chain on the 2.1-mile circuit's opening and most difficult climb forcing him to dismount twice to remedy the situation. When all was said and done after his opening lap, McDonald found himself in approximately 30th place, well off the pace being set by the lead group containing his two teammates Powers and Chris Jones.
McDonald, however, remained calm and began what can perhaps be described as the ride of the day in the elite event. The young Rapha Focus rider rode lap after flawless lap, floating over the slick, rutted parcours on the demanding circuit, and amazingly rode back into contact with the four leaders, Powers, Ryan Trebon (LTS-Felt), Jonathan Page (Planet Bike-Blue) and Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), on the fifth of eight laps.
"I was surprised that I caught them...if only I didn't rookie it at the start," said McDonald. "I guess I didn't burn quite as many matches as I thought yesterday. I felt good and it sucks that it happens, but at the same time what are you going to do? I just held the same pace and it was just a question of how long could I hold it, and they kept getting closer and closer."
After pausing momentarily to recover, McDonald found the strength to step on the gas and lead the quintet up the parcours' second climb.
McDonald's teammate Jeremy Powers would eventually launch the race-winning move early on the penultimate lap, but McDonald hung tough to finish fourth, 38 seconds behind Powers, and just 12 seconds behind bronze medalist Jonathan Page.
"I just didn't have the snap once I got back up there and I couldn't quite get Page [at the finish]," said McDonald.
Teammate and newly crowned elite national champion Powers was quick to praise McDonald while awaiting to step onto the podium to receive the stars-and-stripes jersey. "It was a pleasant surprise [to see him bridge to the lead group] but he's a great rider," Powers told Cyclingnews. "When you're doing third at the World Cup level you're able to be at the front of domestic cyclo-cross.
"It's very clear he's on good form and it's clear that he's going to be a guy for the future. I'm happy that we have him on the team. He's the next person that I have said is going to be a good racer. I don't think there are a lot of guys that have the technical ability and the motor that he does out there."
Onward to Koksijde, Belgium
McDonald had a rough patch of form in December, but he turned it around for nationals and hopes to parlay his stellar fitness into success as he returns to Europe. On tap are two World Cups on January 15 in Lievin, France and January 22 in Hoogerheide, Netherlands followed by the season's biggest prize, the world championships on January 28 in Koksijde, Belgium.
"I had a bad December, but I really have to thank my coach for getting my endurance back up. When I was in Europe everything switched to just training because I couldn't even finish 50 minutes strong in Europe. We worked hard on that, and I didn't get sick in Europe, which was a goal, too."
McDonald has had a love-hate relationship with the Worlds venue in Koksijde, with its characteristic sandy parcours, but looks forward to redemption at Worlds.
"I originally hated that course, because I did what Powers did and Johnson did, I went over the first time, and just got reamed. But it's actually a course that's really fun to ride because I don't think you can ever master it, the lines change every lap. It's one of those courses that keeps your attention the whole lap. It's one of those courses where you're riding a seven to eight-minute lap, but it feels like a three-minute lap.
"It's also a weird course to get used to because you recover on the straightaways and go hard through the sand. As an American, the first time you go over there you cruise through the sand and then gun it on the straightaway and after three laps go by you think 'Ok, can I quit now?'.
"I really like the course, although I'm not saying I'll do well on it. It's a fun course to ride and hurts a lot to race. I'm not that good of a runner, and I'm a terrible runner when compared to the Euros, at least the top 20 guys, but I'm a little bit better in the sand, so it depends on who's in front of me.
"I'll set goals the day of the race and change them during it depending on how I feel. I always set high goals, and I'd like to get a top-10, but if I'm cooked from the previous two World Cups then that will change."