Both sides of the coin
Aspire Racing at the US Cyclocross Nationals
One is doing everything for the first time, elated to finish second. The future is a wide boulevard. The other has done all this before, been a multiple national champion and is, by all accounts, a generational racer in the United States.
For both, the same result – second place in the elite race at the U.S. Cyclocross Nationals – means profoundly different things. For Ellen Noble, it’s a sure promise of what else is to come. For Jeremy Powers, it’s an echo of what’s already happened.
“All of these are firsts. It’s all a dream for her. She surprises herself. Ellen, at 22, shows enough flashes of great talent that it’s a beautiful story, even though she didn’t win,” Powers said of teammate Noble. In terms of his race, which saw him return to form after a season in which he’s struggled with a heart issue among other things, he was reflective. “The level has gotten higher, and I’ve had to be OK with not winning everything. I’m OK with the outcome because I put together a good process and raced the race I wanted to race,” he said. “I’ll think about what could have gone differently. But it was a race. There are races I’ve won in similar fashion and races I’ve lost.”
On a mild day in the high desert, the Aspire Racing team earned those two seconds and a fifth, on the legs of Spencer Petrov in the U23 race. A strong performance for a young team that runs largely on Powers’ entrepreneurship and a small, dedicated staff.
The team put itself in an ideal position. They trained in New Mexico leading up to the race in order to prepare for altitude and arrived late in the week to mute the white noise of pre-race chatter. Powers, notoriously busy and always hustling to make ends meet in this sport, put an automatic reply on his e-mail and put his phone down. He stopped reading pre-race interviews. When the team arrived, all that was left to do was ride the course for a few days and then pin the numbers on.
The Reno, Nevada course wasn’t perfect for any one racer – riders had to pick spots carefully. The first half demanded heavy power while the second put a premium on technical finesse. Typically, courses get better as the age-group racers beat them in through the week, but in this case, the volume of riders on the already-dry course led to tougher conditions. Technical corners were loose, and flats due to exposed rocks ruined days.
For Noble, it’s still a bit of a dream come true. She won the under-23 title last season and Reno marked her first crack at the elite race. She fought Katie Compton, American cross royalty, throughout and used technical skill to keep pressure on. She led on and off through the first lap as the two immediately gapped the field.
“I was ready for anything. I was ready to fight and duke it out for the win, but I also knew there was a possibility I wouldn’t even be in contention. I was ready to roll with the punches,” Noble said. “When it came down to it and I was four seconds down with half a lap to go, that was more than I expected.”
Of course, it would have been easier to sit up and cede the race to Compton on reputation alone, but she battled on and finished seven seconds down on the 14-years-running champ.
“I think a lot of people expect second place to be disappointed,” Noble said. “For me, it was one of the best races I’ve had. Not even in this season – in my career. To be so close to Katie Compton in the last lap is a good feeling for me, and it’s motivating going forward.”
A few days later, she found herself cooking pancakes in a pot on a camp stove outside of a rental house in Santa Cruz, California, fitting in warm-weather miles before a return to Europe for Hoogerheide and Worlds. “I’m actually just starting to really have fun. This season taught me you have to make it fun if you want to keep doing this. You can’t always rely on the results.”
In the men’s elite race, Powers rode a clean race and executed a pre-determined plan from the start to midway through the final lap. He controlled the front for nearly the entire race and removed the sting from the field. Eventually, only he and defending champion Steven Hyde remained. It was beautiful to watch, Powers clearly back from a season that hadn’t lived up to expectations and Hyde, a Powers protégé, biding his time.
Given the season’s progression, it was always going to be a tall order to show up and take back the national title, but racers remember where they once were and strive to return, regardless of circumstance.
“Stephen and I have raced in training and real life like that a bunch of times. This just happened to be the championships and happened to be on television. I was happy with the performance since it’s been a while since I put it all together,” Powers said. “I went out there and did what I wanted to do. I didn’t come out with a win but it was still a great day of racing.”