"Baal, Austin nats. Surely these aren't the same sport", was the remark on Twitter on New Year's Day during the GP Sven Nys. While the level of racing in the United States might not approach that in Belgium, defending national champion Jeremy Powers is taking Sunday's elite men's race at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships seriously, knowing he will have to get everything just right in order to win on an unpredictable course on Sunday in Austin, Texas' Zilker Park.
There is no denying the fact that Powers is the hands down favourite for the victory. Last year, he rode away from the pack from the gun in Boulder, holding his solo lead for a full hour with Wout Van Aert-like domination to claim his second career title. And that was before he spent a significant amount of time improving his skills over in Belgium. After previewing the course on Tuesday, Powers told Cyclingnews he might need those skills on race day if the predicted foul weather soaks the course.
"Not being from this area, I don't know what the ground does here when it rains, and I don't think a lot of people do," Powers said. "What is a fast course now could turn into something quite a bit slower with lot of running just because of the off-camber stuff. That could play well into my strengths because I've been doing so much racing in Europe and so much running. If it's a fast course, I'm excited, and if it's a running course I think I can do something with that as well."
Last season, Powers confirmed himself as the dominant force in US 'cross - winning a dozen UCI races in North America and USA Cycling's ProCX calendar before taking his second career elite national championship. But Powers decided he wanted more, and after giving up his road aspirations in order to focus more on 'cross in 2014, he committed to racing more in Europe this season, even if it meant leaving the comfort of being the big fish in a small pond.
"This won't sound right, but I wouldn't want to just keep winning races here," Powers said. "That doesn't serve my purpose. If I'm not improving, I'll probably retire. This year I saw a ton of self improvement, and there's a chance to improve more, but that was not here, that was over in Europe."
Sunday's race in Austin marks the beginning of the final peak of Powers' season - with just this race, the final World Cup in Hoogerheide and the World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic left, he's looking to end with strong results, including a repeat US title.
"I feel like I've done the studying for the test, I've done a lot of work, and now it's about putting on the final touches and finishing the season on a high note. It's been a long season, starting even before Vegas, but I feel good. I'm exactly where I wanted to be with regard to my training. I'm hitting the numbers I want to hit.
"There are some dark horses for Sunday, so if someone I haven't seen in months comes in super fresh, I can't control it. It's somewhat different from the Belgian championships, where all the guys know where the others stand. But I'm confident in what I can do, what I've been doing and who I'm going up against. We'll have to see on the day, but I think I'm in a good position to defend."
Powers pointed to Jonathan Page, Jamey Driscoll, Danny Summerhill and Ryan Trebon as the riders he expects to be in the mix. "I'm not sure where Page will stack up, but he's kind of timeless. I'd never discount him, especially if there's precipitation.
"Ryan had a good race last weekend, and it looks like he's coming back. He'll definitely be a factor, but he's coming back from a pretty major injury ... James is a diesel, the guy that can motor at a steady pace for an hour in bad conditions. I expect him to be there. The other dark horses are Zach McDonald, he's good in slimy conditions. Stephen Hyde went to Europe and had some good results for his level, he could possibly podium, and of course Summerhill. I'm not sure what his preparation has been, if he's getting ready for Paris-Roubaix, he's been doing some long rides. But you've seen with a guy like Stybar, who can just pop in and win, Summerhill will be able to match the level of the riders here, and he has the pedigree to do it."
The course in Austin might lack the elevation seen in Boulder or Madison, but Powers doesn't see the finish turning into a drag race sprint. "It's a really fast finish - you get on the pavement and it's over. I don't think you're going to see a lot of races won by a sprint because of how quick it is. You have a downhill sweeper, it's really fast and then you're basically at the finish, so there's no time to overtake someone."
With a fast start to the course, even if the predicted wintry mix should churn up the course, Powers said the main thing to watch out for will be mistakes from other riders.
"If someone else makes a mistake in the group, that can really hurt your chances, like in any fast race. Staying out of trouble in the first lap will be important, and making sure there isn't anyone in front of you that can make a mistake and open up a large gap that can be hard to close on a fast circuit like that. A good first two laps is important. If it is a fast race, it's going to be about capitalizing on someone else's mistakes."
After Sunday, Powers will prepare to head back to Europe and see how all of this season's work has paid off, how high he can finish in the World Cup and Worlds, and he is already beginning to look down the road to next season, where he will try to balance his obligations in the US with his ambitions overseas.
Powers limited his racing in the States to only the C1 events this year in order to save some energy for his trips to Belgium, and won all but one race after CrossVegas. The strategy paid off with a ninth-place finish in the Valkenburg World Cup and more consistent results in Europe than he's had before. But what doesn't show up on the results sheet are the small improvements that lay the foundation for future success.
"I'm currently 11th in the World Cup, and it's been huge for me. It's a big deal to be that consistent. I made a lot of strides in my European racing. Anyone who's gone to Beglium knows how much goes into putting in solid rides - I wouldn't even consider those my best rides. It's not like here where everything is comfortable. You're living in a hotel, cooking on a hot plate, spending Christmas in a hotel. A lot goes into it. My results have been strong considering, and I've been really proud of what I put into it.
"I've always had a hard time in Europe, it's been my kryptonite, with all the running and the hard, technical courses. Valkenburg was a good race, I was happy with my race in Koksijde, but I was really happy with Namur," he said of the highly technical, muddy World Cup in Wallonia. "I dropped about five minutes off my times from last year, and that's a considerable amount in 'cross. Personally, I feel like I did something I was satisfied with. Here, it's almost expected I'll be on the podium, in Europe I need luck just to be able to feature. It's definitely more rewarding to be humbled like that."
Whether or not he can relocate for a full season of racing 'cross next year remains to be seen. "It's a huge undertaking and a big expense, and it's still cyclo-cross, it's not the WorldTour, I'm not making a million dollars. It's expensive, and you have to consider the quality of life, relocating my family to Belgium. Historically it's cracked a lot of riders who have tried to make that transition."
Powers will sit down in February and figure out the plan for next season, and decide how much time he can spend in Belgium next year, but he's already looking back at this one with satisfaction.
"It's been a huge season, so win lose or draw on Sunday, I'm happy with my season. I've pushed myself to the maximum physically and mentally. I'm psyched with what's happened so far."