Powers opens national title reign, worlds build-up on strong footing

Jeremy Powers is riding into ’cross season with not only the desire, but a responsibility to establish himself amongst the sport's elite

Photo: Wil Matthews

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — It’s too early to talk about worlds. Don’t even think about it.

Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) is off to a furious start. He’s won three times in four outings, opening up his title national defense campaign in mean fashion. He seems armed to the teeth. Is it too early to talk about worlds?

Powers prepared for this season a bit differently than he expected. Plainly, his Jelly Belly-Kenda road squad was left out of the Amgen Tour of California, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge, in Colorado. Suddenly, he had a lot more time on his hands and a lot less race days in his legs.

“This year, all of August was dedicated to training,” Powers told VeloNews. “I worked by myself and with the scooter to get ready for the events.”

It wasn’t racing against a handful of WorldTour teams — and the associated boost that comes with it — but it was good in that it allowed Powers consistency.

“You can control so much more when you’re home,” he said.

OK, fine. Let’s talk about worlds.

“I secretly would like to get a medal. If I was in the top five I would probably be happy with that,” he said. The hope isn’t so secret anymore, is it?

To get there, Powers will measure his progress at two World Cups in the Czech Republic in late October. Does he hope for a top five there?

“That would certainly be a real confidence booster for me,” Powers said. “That would be awesome for me, and if we’re not, then we go back to the drawing board.”

After the first World Cups, in Tabor and Plzen in late October, he’ll come home to race and then head to Belgium before Christmas for the Namur and Zolder World Cups and potentially the GP de Ster in Sint-Niklaas and the GVA Trophy Azencross in Loenhout. That’s a total of six major European races — six chances to see the speed of elite European racing and four opportunities for World Cup-level UCI points — before the worlds, to be held in early February in Louisville, Kentucky. Powers also has to race enough in the States — and do well, consistently — to earn the spot in the front row in Kentucky that he covets.

He sits 12th in the UCI rankings dating to the close of the 2011-12 season — the standings that will determine call-ups for the World Cup opener on October 21 in Plzen. Powers is 288 points behind Frenchman Francis Mourey, the final man on the front of the grid. After winning two of the first three C1 events on the calendar this fall, Powers is in line to move up the rankings, so long as he keeps his momentum into October.

To move up just a bit could make or break his race, but he knows “it’s easier said than done.”

Powers sounds like he’s all business, but only in bursts. The 29-year-old is an effervescent personality in bike racing. He’ll talk candidly and for a while (a reporter’s dream) and is always ready with a smile. In Philadelphia in June, the day before the International Championship, he decided he’d step up the “Rocky Stairs” in Philadelphia, one-by-one, on his Focus Jelly Belly bike. He almost rode it clean. That’s Powers — enthusiasm and talent. And it also explained his ability to clear barriers.

“JPow” grew up in Connecticut and now lives in East Hampton, Massachusetts. He rode his first cyclocross race on a mountain bike in a lime green skinsuit when he was about 14. Can you just imagine that, if only for a moment?

Powers, it turned out, is a natural in the short, intense efforts. It comes from genetics — but perhaps not where one might think. Sure, he’s gifted in quick efforts, as we’ve seen already this year, but hour-long racing is also a distance and time his mind can wrap around without wandering. In longer efforts, he loses concentration. Powers has actually come up short in a ‘cross race — somewhat recently — because he forgot it was the final lap. When he was younger, he liked the shorter mountain bike races, because he could concentrate fully.

“The fact is that I’m still the same person,” he said. “And this hour-long effort has always been what’s suited me best.”

And while this year is shaping up nicely for Powers thus far, he won’t get to walk to wins in the U.S. Tim Johnson and his new Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com teammate Ryan Trebon will see to that. Johnson has finished twice now to Powers this year. Powers raced alongside Johnson for Stu Thorne for years. He was the up-and-comer, and Johnson was the star. Of course, that began to change. In 2010, Powers won the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross series while riding for Cannondale, and won it again in 2011, but this time with his new Rapha team.

“We have a friendship based on being competitors,” Powers said. “We both secretly feed off each other.” That was a good thing when they were on the same team. But it was a bit rough from time to time as well, that fierce of competition among friends and teammates.”

Powers called Tim a “hard guy.”

“He doesn’t give up,” said Powers. “He’s the rider who will just sit there and say, ‘nope, I will keep suffering.’ He’s always the last rider to crack, when he’s on.”

Powers’ March 2011 move to Rapha-Focus was more than a year in the making. Slate Olson, Rapha’s North American general manager, was putting together a team, and he wanted Powers.

“He called me up, three years ago now,” Powers said. “He just liked me. And I told him it would be the wrong move.”

Powers told him to call back in a year if he was serious. Olson did call back and the two began contract negotiations.

“I was optimistic, and cautious,” said Powers. “I was like, ‘I hope this is going to be everything I want it to be.’”

Powers knew Olson was good. He knew the crew was good. But he was still hesitant. Powers signed on with the new team, joining road pro Chris Jones and a brash upstart named Zach McDonald. The team’s first week of racing — CrossVegas and the Planet Bike Cup — was rough, with equipment issues and the usual growing pains of a new program. But before October experienced wrench Tom Hopper had Powers firing on all cylinders. He went on to win half of the eight races on the USGP circuit and, eventually, his first national title after a well publicized string of close calls.

“The guys were really able to give me the attention I needed to make these gains,” said Powers. “Whatever the stupid thing is that bothers and limits you as a pro, and having none of those barriers… it takes a lot. And those things all add up.”

Back to this Worlds talk.

Is it a long shot? Maybe. But maybe not. Look at the things Powers does well: short bursts, top-end, and excellent work in the barriers. This year’s worlds course is on home soil, giving him a boost. He’s won in Louisville before. Four times, actually. He’ll work in the areas he’s less gifted when he’s in Europe and as the weather gets worse — mud, in particular, and running.

“I’ve got to go out and do those workouts pretty heavily,” Powers said. “There’s a lot of guys who ride naturally well in the mud.”

It’s no surprise that Powers prefers a faster track. This means early season is good, the middle of the season in the mud he has to survive, and when the ground freezes up it’s fast again, and hopefully Powers is, too.

“The faster the track the better,” Powers said. “That’s always been my really strong suit. My short, fast, punchy accelerations; that’s something I was given genetically.”

The next week’s worth of racing takes place in his backyard, practically. This weekend sees the Great Brewers Gran Prix of Gloucester. A week later, the show moves to Rhode Island for the Providence Cyclo-cross Festival.

Powers will keep plugging — perhaps harder than ever, and with more expectation — this season. He can’t help himself.

“While it’s a hardman’s sport, it’s short and suits me well. And I have had a lot of fun riding bikes. I feel really lucky, and I take the role very seriously. I’ve followed my dream, and I’ve worked hard at it… it’s about me. It’s about sport. It’s about pushing myself,” he said. “Not everyone has this opportunity to do this. Not everyone has the chance. Because I have it, I feel like it’s not only my desire, but my duty to do this.”

And in 2012, duty is calling. Now, more than ever.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.