National Champions

Expectations can make your bicycle very, very heavy.

The expectations for cyclocross’s US National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin were that the weather would be a wintry mess, that Katie Compton and Zach McDonald would stand apart from their respective fields and that Jeremy Powers would again find a way to podium, but not win. Fortunately they were only half right.

When it was announced that Nationals would be pushed back to January and held in Madison, everyone imagined sub-zero temperatures, Arctic conditions and sideways snow. Instead, amid record highs all over the US – in the first seven days of the year, 1,000 seasonal records were set around the States – Madison enjoyed clear blue skies and temperatures in the mid-30s.

Rabobank’s Katie Compton reminded us all that her nickname of KF’C (Katie F’n Compton) is well deserved as she annexed the Stars and Stripes jersey from the first lap, riding away from the field at the first climb.

Last year in Bend, Oregon, Zach McDonald and Danny Summerhill were locked in the battle of the weekend until Zach was taken off his bike by a meandering spectator, eventually finishing second in the U23 event. Coming into Madison, Zach was the 2011 USGP U23 Champion and the clear favorite. He lived up to the billing, riding away from Cody Kaiser and the rest of the field to win by two minutes. Having posted the fastest lap times of the entire event to that point, Zach’s downhill mountain bike background showed through as he flowed and floated over the slick and rutted course. Knowing the gap to second place, Zach was able to go just hard enough on the last couple of laps to keep the margin and enough energy for the Elite race on Sunday.

With no rule prohibiting U23s competing in the Elite Race, Zach was looking at playing the role of wildcard but nobody really gave it much thought. Instead, everyone was talking about how the course was perfect for two-time National Champ Ryan Trebon and how the ‘Ameri-Belgian’ Jonathan Page was finally on good form. The only mentions of Jeremy Powers leading into the big event were accompanied by headlines along the lines of: “Can he get the monkey off his back?” Although Jeremy has been the dominant US cross racer this year, the debate centred on his being able to handle the pressure of the big race. Jeremy would be lying if he said it wasn’t on his mind, too.

“Will you still love me if I don’t win this one?”*

With the Stars and Stripes jersey firmly on his back, that’s a question that never has to be asked again.

In a race as good as anyone can remember in the past decade, the fast and open course bore witness as Powers fought Trebon, Page, Tim Johnson, Zach McDonald (who got the hole-shot and crashed over the barriers on the starting stretch), Chris Jones and Jamey Driscoll. Fans watched as the group attacked one another early and often. Trebon attacked, followed by Page, Powers and Johnson. At one point, McDonald appeared out of nowhere to hit the front, while Driscoll took Jones down on a slick corner, ending both their chances for the win. Finally, on lap 8, Powers put in the fastest lap of the entire weekend to pull away from the group. And as Trebon slid to 10-12 seconds back, the pressure and weight expectations lifted from Powers. As he passed the pits for the final time he could see, through his oversized Oakley shields, what was about to happen – his dream of becoming US National Champion was only a few turns and one final stretch away. The one-armed salute that we’ve seen a number of times this season would be slightly altered as hand went to his head in a mixture of disbelief, relief and the realization of a dream.

Congratulations to our new National Champions, Jeremy Powers and Zach McDonald, for their fantastic performances and finishes this weekend.

Congrats and our thanks to Chris Jones on his best ever 6th-place finish at the Nationals.

Follow the Rapha-FOCUS team during the rest of January through the remaining World Cups and the World Championships on the 29th in Koksijde, Belgium. With any luck, Jeremy, Zach and Chris will all be representing the USA at the Worlds.

See the race footage, including the blistering start at CyclingDirt and enjoy a great video from BrakeThrough Media.

Go to VeloNews.com to see Wil Matthews beautiful collection of photos from Madison.