Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Under the gaze of the smoky Appalachian mountains, on the scenic Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the U.S National Cyclocross Championships played out their final, thrilling races. This was a day of building tension and drama, an opera in four acts, and the atmosphere intensified as the racers battled the tough new course, and each other.
Words: Paul Maunder
Images: Marshall Kappel
Cyclocross in America is growing fast and it’s easy to see why. By the elite races in the middle of the afternoon a big and vociferous crowd were dashing between vantage points, yelling for their heroes, drinking Sierra Nevada pale ale, shaking their cowbells and generally having a high old time. Like Belgium, but louder and with better food concessions. Up on Bonkbreaker Hill, where the riders negotiated a treacherous singletrack descent through the woods, the noise was deafening.
And while the result sheet may not look very surprising, with Jeremy Powers (Rapha/Focus) and Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing) both successfully defending their titles, the story of the day was one of closely fought racing, for high stakes.
With Logan Owen (Cal Giant/Specialized) electing to ride the Elite race, the overwhelming favourite for the U23 Men’s race was Curtis White (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld). And on the first lap when he flew into an early lead, he looked to be confirming his status. But on a slippery off camber section White crashed and a trio of riders including Cal Giant/Specialized’s Tobin Ortenblad took advantage. White chased hard, driven by desperate fury, and when he got back to the leaders it looked like the favourite was in back in control. But the chase cost him. Ortenblad and White detached themselves from Andrew Dillman (Cyclocross Network Racing) and rode into the penultimate lap together. Then came the decisive moment. Coming down the steep off-camber Heckle Hill, with horns and yells and cowbells ringing in his ears, Ortenblad took a new riskier line, and shot into the lead. Down the next technical descent he consolidated his slim gap and despite another all-out chase by White, Ortenblad held on for the win. Remind you of another famous rider who wins races by taking surprising lines? Perhaps Ortenblad is the heir apparent to Sven Nys.
In the Junior Men’s category favourite Gage Hecht, brought home his fifth national title for the Alpha Bicycle Co./Vista Subaru team. Hecht missed his pedal at the start but soon recovered and picked off the riders ahead of him. Even a last lap crash couldn’t stop him taking the gold medal. Boulder Juniors duo Denzel Stephenson and Eric Brunner completed the podium.
The Women’s U23 race was billed as a duel between Ellen Noble (Jamfund) and Emma White (Cyclocrossworld.com), and on the early laps it looked as if it was going to play out that way. Noble led from the start, but White stuck to her back wheel. But it was college student Sofia Gomez Villafane (Fort Lewis College) from Durango, who was the story of the race. Starting from the back of the grid, Gomez Villafane stormed through the field and bridged up to White just as Noble rode away. Sensing White was suffering, Gomez Villafane rode away to take the silver medal behind Noble, with White completing the top three. Within the same race the Junior Women’s title was taken in convincing style by Hannah Arensman (Twenty16 Pro Cycling).
Much like their peers on the track, professional cyclocross riders focus on process above all else. They follow a strict pre-race schedule, eat and drink the same things, warm-up for the same time, every race they do. This has the added benefit of distracting them from thinking about the result. Which must have been useful for Jeremy Powers and Katie Compton as they prepared for their title defences. When you’ve won a national title over many consecutive years, the narrative conveyed in the media is how it’s yours to lose, how strong the pretenders are to your crown.
This year the pretenders certainly got closer. In the men’s race Powers, Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld) and Logan Owen established themselves at the front of the race on the first lap and proceeded to attack each other mercilessly. Owen set the pace in the first half of the race but when he started to tire Powers took the opportunity to go. Hyde clawed his way onto Powers’ wheel but a couple of mistakes – including hitting a fence post on the switchback climb at the back of the course – cost him dearly. Powers rode a faultless race, and that kept him clear to the end. Hyde took second, Owen third.
2015 was a challenging year for Katie Compton and her season started slowly due to the health issues that beset her over the summer. In the past, by January she has been tired and lacking motivation. This season she’s excited to be racing and that showed in Asheville. Always focused, always tactically in control of the race, she was also patient, sometimes a very useful strategy. Georgia Gould, more known for her mountain biking than cyclocross, proved to be Compton’s nearest rival. The pair were inseparable for lap after lap and the crowd were starting to think the impossible – could Compton really lose her title?
Then, with just over a lap to go, Gould made an error, lost her line and momentum, and that was all the invitation Compton needed. She was gone. And no one was coming back to Katie Compton.