The Powers That Be

Jeremy Powers, known universally as JPow, has won pretty much everything there is to win in American cyclocross. At 31, he’s the boy-faced, high-energy stalwart of the New England scene, the reigning US national cyclocross champion as famous for bouncing off the walls as bunny-hopping the barriers.

This season, for the first time, he is shifting his focus to the European circuit. He has skipped the road season entirely, changed his training techniques and altered his racing schedule, all in the hope that he will be able to translate his domestic success to the fields of cyclocross’s homeland. On the eve of his fourth season with Rapha, Powers spoke to us about what it’s like to put your life on hold for months at a time to go race bikes in Belgian mud.

Aside from racing you have your own development team, the J.A.M. Fund. How did it start?
‘JAM’ stands for Jeremy, Alec [Donahue] and Mukunda [Feldman] – they’re my partners on the project and my best friends. When I first moved to Northampton, they taught me how to cook and look after myself. As we got older and life started getting in the way of having a good time, we asked ourselves how we could hang out and do cool stuff. So, we started a development team.

I got a lot from the cyclocross community and I owed a lot back. There can be a lot of minor hardships when you’re trying to make it – not having knee warmers, bib shorts, or even bike frames – so we set about trying to change that for a few local riders. We called it the ‘Fund’ because we were broke and didn’t have enough money to be classified as a foundation. We couldn’t even register as a non-profit organisation, which is what we are now.

We don’t have corporate sponsorship but we partner with some brands from the industry, and with Northampton Cycling Club. We fund riders living within a one- or two-hour drive and we’ve seen some guys turn pro. We can’t conquer the world, so we do what we can.

There is a trend in British cyclocross for young riders to have a couple of strong years and then retire. Is this possibly because cross doesn’t get the support and recognition that road racing does?
We see that in the US, too, riders getting burned out really fast. If you don’t have a measure of fun, there’s no reason to continue. When these guys get burned out, it’s because it stopped being fun way too soon. How do you even teach young riders about being professional? Even if I told the J.A.M. riders everything I knew, it would still be incredibly hard for them. If I told them this is where I ride, this is what I eat, this is my coach, it wouldn’t work. These things take years to develop and we’re trying to create an environment where that can happen.

You won your second national championship last year, which was clearly a milestone. How do you think last season went?
Strong, but I would have liked to be better in the middle of it. I managed to find form for nationals. I guess when I say the middle part of the season didn’t go well, I’m talking about just two weekends that, in some ways, weren’t so bad but they were races I really wanted to win.

When you’re on top of your game there are very few guys in the States who can beat you. Does it feel different when you race in Europe?
So different. With the other US guys, we’re on the same page. We travel the same distances, the venues are the same etc. Europe is a world away for me yet home for everyone else. The Belgian guys are only ever a couple miles from their homes and have all their infrastructure around them. The races are in the papers every day. I’m not part of their crew, I don’t go to the end-of-year gala that’s live on TV.

What’s the gala?
They get all the riders together and make funny videos and give little awards – imagine a lighthearted cyclocross Oscars. For me, racing in Europe is like Major League Baseball. I get to go to the Majors and play with these guys but then I come back to the Minors. I’m not in the Majors yet but the changes I’m making will hopefully get me there. I don’t see a lot more that I can do in the States – my personal ambitions are in the World Cups and seeing what I can do there.

So what have you changed this year?
Everything. I’m not racing on the road and I used to be away 50 or 60 days a year, which was hard. Now I have the time to focus on my running, my core, being really specific about my training. Having more time has been really beneficial. I wake up and I have energy. I used to come home from road races after 10, 12, sometimes 20 days of travelling, and I’d wake up and realise how totally brutal it was for my body. Road racing doesn’t give you time to recover, you just get in a hole that gets deeper. And I wasn’t getting anything from the efforts. Everything is different now, I’ve had the chance to race mountain bikes and to ride my cross bike every day.

What’s the difference between the Jeremy Powers of a year ago and the JPow of today?
It’s hard to measure, but last year I’d just got married and Behind the Barriers, our online TV channel, was just getting going. Now, things feel more serious, more ready for the year ahead. I look at it with a different lens.

When you want to do well in Europe, you begin to sacrifice more. I used to go have a beer with my buddies after Wednesday night intervals but now those things have gone. You’re looking for that one or two per cent extra that will make a difference in the World Cups. One problem is resting and recovering. If I’m not busy, it’s hard for me to rest – lying down all day is good for being a bike racer, but it doesn’t come easily to me. I sacrifice running around like a Looney Tune to be better at racing.

Is that one per cent the difference between you and the top guys in Europe?
It’s a lot of things. Some of it comes down to technique, and that’s where I think I can make the biggest difference. It’s not a question of improving my power on a climb, it’s looking at my pedal stroke, or how I’m going round a corner, how I’m picking lines, because the courses are so different there.

photo © Andy Bokanev

It must be strange to be a national champion and yet tell yourself that you need to improve your technique. How do you change it?
In the States the tracks are faster, you can ride pin to pin, nailing the corners. I’m really good at that. In Europe you can’t do that, you have these long sweepers and you need to find the apex. Leg speed is another thing. I used to do a lot of motor-pacing and speed work, which would help me out in the Amercan races. In Europe it’s much more ‘diesel’, it’s about doing 10- to 15-minute efforts, putting out big power at low cadences. A lot of the races require low cadence, but my best power outputs are naturally in the 90-110 rpm range. When the European courses are muddy and guys are rolling around at 60-65 rpm it doesn’t suit how am I am – so I practice, and it’ll change.

Then there’s the technical nature of the European tracks. Last year I’d managed about three days on my mountain bike by this point in the season. This year I’ve done 40. It helps me improve for that ‘“Oh shit”-moment’ – will I jump this, will I make this turn, how will I not crash? It’s something that you get all the time in European cyclocross, so I had to go over to mountain bikes to get those risk-and-reward-type skills. If you go down a muddy chute in Namur at 25 miles an hour, and do it clean, you’ll get a reward for that. But if you’re braking, you’ll be at the back of the race.

At the big European races, the top racers get their own branded caravans with legions of support staff. What are you plans for support this year?
US cycling will help take care of the accommodation – they send a squad of riders out, and we may share housing. If not, I’ll be staying with people we know in West Flanders, and also staying in Girona, in Spain, for training.

Is it tough getting this stuff sorted?
Yeah, you could get mad. It’s not a ‘life experience’ for me anymore – it’s my job. I’ll be there to get my work done and get results. We’ll give ourselves everything we need to do well and see what comes of it. I won’t get to have my wife and my dog and my friends with me all the time but it will be as close to normal as possible.

What are your favourite races in Europe?
Diegem. It’s held at night, it’s near Christmas, and I’ve done well there. I like Roubaix, too. I did well there two years ago. Tabor is great when it’s dry. I like corners that require punchiness. Namur is the opposite – there’s a very steep climb, which is not my strongest suit. I’m not the leanest, lightest guy, so I struggle to hold position up there. Then there’s the crazy, technical off-camber descent, with a two-minute run. It’s a very challenging track for me but it’s the sort of place where I’ll see the most improvements this year. I haven’t yet raced in Rome but people always say I could do well there. It’s a fast track, less technical and with open corners.

You seem to have a great life here in Massachusetts. Will it be hard to leave?
When you spend weeks away from home it takes its toll. One of the things I have learned is that I am OK being away from home, so long as my wife, Emily, can be with me. This year we’re making arrangements for her to be with me as much as possible. It’s still hard to leave my friends and my training routes and my dog – all the things I build my life around. I’ve always been a nomad, that’s the pro cyclist lifestyle, especially in a big country like the US. Still, going to a stage race in California doesn’t feel weird to me but going to Europe feels significantly different. It’s far away and it feels far away.