Jeremy Powers doesn't win every race he starts in North American cyclo-cross, but he has been the dominant force in the sport here for several years. This past weekend in Louisville, the unthinkable happened: Powers was twice outsprinted by Stephen Hyde of Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld. Who is this upstart racer and how has he come so far up the pro racing ladder? Cyclingnews spoke to both riders to find out.
Hyde, 28, has always been into bikes, whether it was BMX in his younger years, mountain biking as he grew older, or road racing. He had his first eye-opening 'cross experience when in Portland, when he saw his first Cross Crusade event at the Alpenrose Velodrome, and ever since then he's been hooked.
In 2012, Hyde moved to New England and joined Powers' JAM Fund program, slowly working his way up the elite ranks. By 2013, he was winning some of the smaller UCI C2 races, and in 2014 he was consistently in the top 10. But this season he's been on or near the podium nearly every race, and in the Derby City Cup he bested his mentor twice in a row, winning his first C1 event and Sunday's C2 race.
"It's definitely a nice result," Hyde said to Cyclingnews. "I've won quite a few C2s now, but it feels pretty good to get the monkey off my back. It's hard to not focus on just beating Jeremy. That's what everybody brings it down to. I've tried to just focus on being there to win the race. It's a big deal for me. He's been a big part of my career, and it's a huge thing to be able to best America's best 'cross racer in his prime. I've always wanted to beat him when he's good."
While Powers wasn't thrilled to be beaten, he had only good things to say about seeing his prodigy win. "I don't want to lose to anyone. I'm not pumped about losing. But I am proud of how far he's come ... It's incredible because we [the JAM Fund] have changed a lot of people's lives and allowed them to chase their passion. When I'm in the grave, that's what it's going to be about."
The race has never been kind to Powers, he says. "It's always been a course where I've gone to the line and haven't been able to finish it off. It's the Louisville curse. I went to the line with [Ryan] Trebon in 2013, and he outsprinted me, I went last year to the line with [Danny] Summerhill, and he outsprinted me, and this year I went to the line with Stephen, and he outsprinted me. This particular day I felt great, but man I had a lot of bike problems and burned a lot of matches. I was definitely trying to win, but a couple flats and a crash at the start put me in the back. In the end, it came down to Stephen and me battling it out."
Hyde had his issues in Saturday's race, missing a pedal at the start and having a puncture, but he fought his way back to the front, as did Powers after several problems, and the pair went neck and neck in the final lap. Hyde got to the technical section before the finish first and held his lead onto the final stretch. "I came out with a couple bike lengths on the pavement and just pushed as hard as I could," Hyde said.
"It's been a long progression for me. I'm relatively new in the sport, but every day I know the work pays off. I have a really good coach and great people around me. They all assure me the small steps are all adding up to be something great. I have total faith in that. I'm looking at continuing that progression. We're not stopping here that's for sure. This is the start of a long period for me I believe."
A helping hand
Hyde has been a cycling nomad, moving from Pensacola, Florida, where he grew up, to New England, Oregon, and DC before finally settling on the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts where he could be close to Powers, his coach Alec Donahue, and the rest of the JAM Fund riders. He still lives down the block from Powers and the two talk often, but he graduated from the program, joining Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld this year - his first professional 'cross team.
Helping riders turn pro is one of the goals of the JAM Fund, and Powers hoped he could keep Hyde in his Aspire Racing team this year. "I tried to sign him to my program but didn't have the funds to make it possible. Stu [Thorne of Cyclocrossworld] had a great contract for him. I would have loved to bring him on and continue that progression, but in the end, we were pumped he could go on to have a career and show the other kids in JAM now that you can make a living through cyclo-cross racing."
Hyde continues to stay in touch with Powers, hoping that he can help fulfill the goal of raising the level of cyclo-cross both here and for the American riders heading to Europe. "I'm willing to put in the work. So far it's working," Hyde said.
It's one thing to win a C1 race in Louisville, but racing in Belgium is an entirely different game. The World Cup races have always been competitive, but now the UCI no longer limits how many riders a country can send, as long as they're in the top 50 of the rankings, Belgium stacks the fields making the racing even more difficult. After taking his bumps and bruises in the heart of cyclo-cross last season, Hyde is excited to go back this winter and revisit some of the courses and see if he can fare any better.
"I'll be doing Hoogerheide for the second time - and that will be the first time I've done a course over there more than once. That's big - last year seeing the race for the first time was intimidating, and it took a lot out of me. I don't put too much stress on myself about it. Going over there was a good idea, so I know what I'm getting myself into this time. I have confidence I can perform well and survive it."
That is often what it comes down to for the American riders - simple survival. Hyde says the US is getting some tougher courses, but they still do not compare with what the maniacal Europeans can dream up. "The courses are over your head, and the riders are pedaling way faster than you can, and you just do the best you can to make it through.
"We all go in with a different focus. Here, we're trying to outfox riders and win the race. Over there we might be racing for 40th or 20th. The expectations are different. It's interesting to be able to get your brain to function on that level again - it's like the first time you ever do an elite race. Guys you've never even heard of are blowing your doors off from the back row. It's interesting to going from being one of the best guys in the US to being barely able to crack the top 20. It's so humbling," he says, adding there is one benefit - getting nervous before the race is pointless because there's no way he can win. "If you get 20th you're going to be super stoked. You have to know your limit, lower your expectations and know that 35th place is a valiant result over there."
Traveling alongside Hyde will be his mentor, and Powers is looking forward to seeing what kind of progress he can make.
"He's taken advantage of the program more than any of the other riders who've come through," Powers said. "He's listened, and it's allowed him to grow quickly. We have a formula that works, and we've been able to replicate across a ton of riders at different levels. The fact he's been able to implement those things and put them into his training and grow, that's a reward for all of us. It means we have a formula that works. It makes it worth it in a number of ways, even if I'm losing.
"It's been cool," Powers continued. "Last year I set up the trip for him to go to Europe and stay close to a lot of my friends in Belgium so he'd have a support network. He did that and came back - from January on he was training and traveling with me. The system is much more than advice; it's a support network and logistics to help them get to that top level when the time is right."
Hyde says he will go to Belgium in December for the Zolder and Namur World Cups with his trade team, and then come back for the US national championships before heading back over to Europe. "Nationals is a huge focus for me," he said. I'll go over with Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld for Namur and Zolder, and then I have my sights set on the Worlds. I'll probably stay for the rest of February in Europe and finish out the Bpost and Superprestige races."
Having quit his Astellas road team, Hyde will focus entirely on cyclo-cross for the next year to see how far he can go. It's something he has thrown himself into head on, and is not looking back.
"Every day I get on a bike I'm happy. I don't know what else to do. It's an amazing part of my life, and I don't want that to change. I have amazing support on Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld, I had amazing support on JAM Fund. No one's ever turned me down for anything I've wanted to do in cycling. I feel confident in my decision to chase this as a profession, and I want to do it for as long as I possibly can. No regrets there."