The ringing of cowbells has faded off into the grey gloom of winter, overtaken by a change of season, in nature and in sport. The UCI World Championships came and went with the kind of calamity only Belgians can muster in a 60,000 person crowd – by easily devouring nearly as many liters of beer as there were spectators. The fanaticism of Europe withstood the chill of January to support the toughest circuit racers colliding on an epic course. In those cataclysmic sprints in the most powerful race at the end of the season were the underdogs, the Americans, our elite throwing down an epic effort. It wasn’t just the effort for the US – but for all of the Americas as the race clearly was dominated by the home team in Belgium – a fury of sky blue, red, yellow, and black, streaking the top ten like a millipede of ferocity throughout the course.

In that race, one of our country’s most powerful athletes laid down an incredible effort and he was cheered on from every corner in our country, faithfully supported by the tens of thousands of fans that have followed him all season long. Amateur racers across the United States have fervently opened the door to grassroots efforts to showcase one of the most difficult bicycle racing genres to date. That genre has had its hard men and hard women heroes come to rise as the ultimate representation of true cycling heroes, even legitimizing the professional aspect of the sport. The hero we have most recently had the pleasure of speaking with has further illuminated the reasoning why we have come to cherish the hour of pain and suffering, because he has reminded us that in spite of however hard the race is, that we all do it because it is fun. Jeremy Powers has come to the forefront of the US cyclocross scene from years of grit and focused determination to make his mark on the professional cycling world by showcasing a powerful grace at the full tilt boogie.

Jeremy bestowed an afternoon of conversation upon us while he was fighting a head cold as he prepared himself for a new season on the road with the Jelly Belly squad at the team camp in California. He was not in a malaise but in a surprisingly chipper mood as his congested but clearly jovial tone permeated my cell phone. His energy was clearly present and his humor was what we have come to know through his ‘Behind the Barriers’ webisodes – wry with a professional wit. He eloquently made his way through a wonderfully passionate conversation about his thoughts on the cyclocross scene in the US, Nationals, and even Worlds. Conversing with the US National CX Champion was akin to listening to Superman talk about how flying is fun: he’s as charismatic as he is a straight shooter. Here are some of his thoughts of what it is to fly as the observer, racer, and professional of our sport.

Jeremy Powers - USA Cycling Cyclocross National Champion

“Every year cross grows so much: it’s a great community of people, and has excellent support behind it. All of this attention, every media piece and blog post, is great for the sport!” – Jeremy Powers

Did you expect that Nationals would unfold the way that it did – not just your win, but with such a powerful performance from your team with Zach McDonald?
As much as the race looked very tactical, especially after Zach’s first lap, I didn’t expect for him to be in the race. Zach rode great. Before the event, I tried to guide him, in terms of tactics. The pro race tends to go off in spurts, one rider up front, then the next, and back again. We let Ryan [Trebon] take the initiative to attack, and it worked out. Zach rode an excellent race and he came back from a big crash, and he benefitted from us playing games. Overall it did make it [the racing] less stressful. Zach rode the race of his life to come back to where we were.

Do you feel that you and your team represent the proverbial ‘changing of the guard’ from the Jonathan Page, Ryan Trebon, and Tim Johnson era?
You look at every ten years and you see the changing of the guard, you see that in every cycling generation. I’m 28 and you see the gap ahead of me – one group finishing, one group ahead, and one generation behind. Jonathan [Page] himself may admit he is part of the group that is a generation behind. He is part of the history of this sport and people are going to remember that he went to Europe to live there and be part of the sport. There is a ton of respect that everyone has for his level of accomplishment. You look at Zach, and he’s racing ahead of his generation, he’s a bit beyond that gap, ahead of his time. I’ve got a lot of great years left and I’m focusing on those greater goals.

Jeremy excuses himself as he has a minor coughing fit, and then expounds on the idea that the younger generation is coming out in full force and showing some extreme talent – his admiration for his teammate is apparent. It was a natural segue to ask him about his thoughts of the state of cyclocross for the newer generation of U23 racers.

How do you feel the sport is progressing for junior racers into professional cyclocross?
There is a lot of work to do – it is certainly growing and becoming more popular. It has a long way to go. There are lots of guys switching to road [racing] after the season is over. There needs to be awareness, amateur programs, and a clear totem pole – you start as an amateur, then to a national program, and then to a European program. There has to be an awareness to work on the next generation of riders, and look at the races on the calendar and how that plays into their progress.

Current pros aren’t challenged by the majority of [CX] courses in the US. It’s our version of cyclocross and I don’t knock it in any way, but for the younger generation, we need to continually challenge them. We have to make the courses more difficult. Spectators come to watch something very difficult. I am so grateful for what we have and what we do for US courses, but I am looking at the future of the sport.

Mountain bike racing is the greatest thing in the world, but it cannibalized itself. It didn’t grow with TV – who knows what led to that downfall, it didn’t go out on good terms. Cyclocross grows with web streams, it must have another baby step towards, like the totem pole analogy, towards more mass media like TV. It has to make that progression. I hope it doesn’t eat itself.

Aggressively taking the lead for the ultimate winning move

What were your thoughts about the Nationals course? Was it worthy?
Definitely a difficult course! The climbing made it very hard, the ruts made it difficult. It was a medium course – had it been colder or muddier, it would’ve been much more difficult. It wouldn’t have been as challenging as some other courses. Everybody’s legs suffered on those two climbs though. It was plenty hard and had a lot of features that a lot of cyclocross courses should have. Did it have some sections with room for improvement? Sure, but it didn’t have a lot of risk versus reward sections.

Jeremy explains that he prefers to have a course where he knows there is a great risk that rewards greatly in terms of finding the fastest outcome out of a risky situation. He gets into the tactical part of his ability to find the Achilles’ heel of a course to take advantage of it when most others won’t risk the line, corner or obstacle, thereby turning it into a reward when he can capitalize on a gap that wouldn’t have existed without taking the risk no one else could.

The best still came to the top on that course. You want a course that challenges the riders’ fitness as much as their technique. I was happy with what I had. If it was icy and nasty, that could have been worse, and the corners would’ve still been rideable – they did well with not knowing what type of weather they would get.

Why has cyclocross become such a great grassroots attraction?
Because it’s fun! I think, overwhelmingly, people have a good time at CX events. The atmosphere is exciting. At a road race there isn’t a bonfire or a beer tent – ‘cross is more like tailgating. You finish your race and it’s an event more than it’s a race. “Man I can go hard for an hour and then have fun!” If you want to race your category you have that option to race and then see the pros. Road racing is a different beast and it attracts a different person. It’s the expectations that people have – people want to have a good time, it’s not reinventing the wheel – it’s awesome.

How is your experience with the prolific sponsorship of both Rapha and Focus?
Everyone cares about the program – that is key. They have a sincere interest in the program, and that is the best type of relationship you can have. If someone owns a local business, and they have that excitement and pride, and then they leave it for someone else to run, it’s not as exciting. The president of Focus USA and the General Manager of Rapha are hanging out in the pits at these races! These are the people running these companies and they make the decisions, and they are a part of it the team. When you see the autograph signing, the ‘Behind the Barriers’, the pre-race, the race, the win or the upset – you can really justify your investment.

Jeremy receives congratulations from Focus CEO, Scott Rittschof

Focus and Rapha have a passion for racing. They are showcasing what cycling is about and they really bring that out, keeping it fun, and they instill that value into the company. That’s why they reached out to me in the first place – this is who we are as a company and we want a racer that’s serious, but has a passion of the sport. Being serious in racing and enjoyment of the sport, they go hand in hand.

We are obviously biased towards SRAM, being a Chicago contingent and all – what professional feedback do you have?
I love SRAM! I look at their dedication to the sport, specifically cyclocross, and I love being able to ride such a solid product. SRAM as a company is amazing, I love the ability I have to…

At this point in our conversation, Jeremy has a “WTF?!” moment as a cat apparently freaks out around him while he’s on the phone. He laughs it off and I’m on the other end wondering exactly what the heck just happened. He explains his mom’s cat saw a neighbors cat on the porch and went crazy, and with that, he gracefully goes back to SRAM talk.

…improve the product through feedback. They bring a lot to the table. I have not broken a shifter or derailleur all season long! No broken frames either! The Focus Mares Is a really great bike and overall a solid machine. The equipment’s ability to shine in awful conditions – it says a lot about the products we’re using and it’s a real testament to not just SRAM but all of our sponsors.

What is your favorite Rapha gear?
The Classic Softshell Jacket. It’s the most versatile piece of clothing I own. You can use it in a twenty degree variation either which way. Which is very useful and of course just looks great too. Everyone should have a great jacket.

What is the best heckle you’ve heard?
I don’t really love heckling. When it’s an insulting thing, or gets personal, attacking integrity – then it is not acceptable. I’m all for free speech, we want the cross clash, and have a rivalry and have a real sport. I’m just a regular guy that races cross bikes, if you know you overstepped the boundary in a heckle then it’s a line not to be crossed. If I get heckled about my girlfriend or called a doper… That just crosses the line for me. I’m adamantly against doping and about clean racing and that’s just an attack on my integrity. People should be creative and heckle funny stuff. Feel free to heckle, but when you go for personal attacks, that’s going too far. There have been so many [bad heckles] that it soured my taste. I hope that it doesn’t make me sound like a jerk, but where does the line get drawn? Sometimes when there is something funny, if I can hear it and identify with it, I’ll laugh. Sometimes you only remember the ones that hit home that left such a sour taste.

Do you get star struck moments when you meet some of your racing heroes?
I have a lot of respect with all the guys I race against. I know the realities of the sport, and I don’t have a lot of ‘oh my god’ moments. That was a huge mental change for me in the last couple of years. I used to be mentally beat before the race, but I gained a level of confidence from racing in Europe. I have enough palmares to remind myself that I belong there. I don’t get fanned out, but we don’t have a real relationship (with the racers in Europe). US cyclocross is different than European cyclocross. I have a lot of respect for what Europeans do, and I hope that they give a lot of respect [to us].

As a DJ – who would you like to open for?
Ahh man, I don’t know! There are so many DJs I’d love to open for! I think it would be fun to open a really big cyclocross race up with music and a superstar DJ – who knows when cyclocross in the USA will get to that level. but If I could be on the turntables before I started my event, I think that would be one of the coolest ways I could ever represent my sponsors!

Determination of a winner

I stepped carefully into the next question about Worlds. A week after Worlds, I felt shy about asking the almost obligatory question for an interview like this about Jeremy’s experience. It was shyness out of respect for someone who I could only assume to be as introspective as I am after any performance that could be scrutinized. The World stage was both huge and personal at the same time.

Do you feel you were best prepared for Worlds?
I did train a lot for it. I did a lot of specific training – intervals in the middle of intervals. An interval with 20 second max intervals inside of an effort to get a taste of that type of intensity that was specific to that event. I took 30 seconds off my lap time as a result. I lost a majority of the time in the first few laps. Unfortunately, the trip didn’t go that well. I had a head cold, and in general my trip to Europe this time around was hard.

I want people to know that I wanted more than what I put out and I looked at it [the results of the laps and all] and I was pissed. I analyzed it [my performance] with my coach. They [UCI race officials] pulled me, and did so when it wasn’t true or real to what happened out there. You see the time gap, and the leaders took 3 minutes and 30 seconds out of me, and they pulled me?

Jeremy has a somber tone and definitely reflective of the true competitor of the most elite level. He pauses after his last statement, and with such a professional aplomb, led into this next statement.

It’s up to me to do a better job. I want to be the best ‘crosser I can be. I’m 28 and I analyze everything. I learn from my mistakes, my coach, and I have the opportunity with Louisville [UCI Worlds 2013] that I can make a big leap for US cyclocross racing. I put that pressure on – we all put that pressure on, we should all be expecting more from ourselves – it’s not just racing for ourselves but for our country.

Will you keep the ‘Behind the Barriers’ webisodes going during your road season?
They were cool to keep it going but it’s [road racing] really not the same type of event. In cyclocross you have to really walk around and keep the vibe of the event. It’s a lot easier than a road race [where] it doesn’t have the same type of excitement. I don’t see myself going down that same type of release with ‘Behind the Barriers’, but we may have some irons in the fire. [The episodes] are dependent on the sponsors and if people are interested in seeing them.

We had a laugh about Bart Wellens and his reality show. Jeremy says that a lot of European racers are watching his [Bart’s] show, and that it’s even cooler that some Europeans have said they watch the ‘Behind the Barriers’ webisodes. All ‘ten Europeans’ he states and has a good laugh at the great divide of the public interest in reality TV on Wellens in Europe versus US cyclists.

It really has served its purpose, more people are looking at cyclocross results and racing. If people have gone out and bought a cyclocross bike and raced, as a result of watching the show and if that happened to five people, then it was worth it. It helps build momentum, it’s a fun thing to showcase. The stuff you see is real. You putting yourself [out] there and people want to see it.

What are you final thoughts before you head to Jelly Belly camp?
It’s about having a good time, and keeping it fun!

How sweet it is indeed - JPOW!

We thanked Jeremy for his time, especially given the coughing circumstances – he was not only professional about it, but genuinely spirited to share his insight and feedback on the sport that our friends participate in as amateurs seeking the same qualified glory. The sport is slowly gaining recognition and traction as a legitimate professional cycling avenue, and it is because of riders just a few generations before Jeremy that have paved this route for him to carry the challenge. He has proven equal valor in continuing the journey on that route all the while reminding us to keep it as enjoyable as we can, and along with him, we hope to keep the tradition of fun alive in cyclocross. Many Chicagoans who have met, worked, and supported Jeremy at the races have all shared the same thoughts – he’s a true champion of the sport, and an absolute blast to be around. Here’s to 2013 Jeremy!

All Photo Credits: Amy Dykema

  1. Linda on Wednesday 22, 2012

    Well-written and fun to read!