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Ride Hard, Smile Often
The words emblazoned on Jonny Brown‘s ball cap offer a near perfect description of the reigning U.S. road champion’s personality, with perhaps one phrase left out: Outsmart everyone.
It’s a chilly afternoon in Gent, Belgium, and Brown sits in a cycling themed cafe called Pedaleur de Flandres and retells the now famous story of how, at age 21, he won the U.S. professional road championship. Brown smiles as he describes the moment he launched his winning attack, just beyond the course’s painful climb. The move caught his older and more experienced breakaway companions by surprise.
“It was clear that everyone was hurting really bad,” Brown says, replaying the scene. “I took a leap. I know that if I’m hurting, then everyone is hurting. I put in an attack and they all just looked at each other.”
Ride hard. Smile often. Outsmart everyone.
Brown has chosen to live in the heart of cycling-crazed Flanders for his final season in the Under-23 ranks; one last immersion in Europe’s breakneck development races before graduating to the pros. Every day Brown puts in long training miles along the canals and hilly cobblestone lanes to prepare for the Under-23 version of Paris-Roubaix and the other hard races on his calendar throughout the spring and summer.
These races represent a potential springboard for Brown to overcome what is likely to be the biggest challenge of his young career. Despite his lofty title as the current U.S. professional road champion, Jonny Brown is still without a professional contract for 2020. He would love to graduate to cycling’s WorldTour, to continue his steady progression toward a place in the European peloton. But Brown’s spot in the pro cycling’s top tier is, at this point, hardly a guarantee.
“I’m still trying to figure everything out,” Brown told VeloNews in a phone call this week. “It’s in that weird period where it’s still early, so the worrying isn’t too bad. But in the back of your mind you would like to have something figured out sooner rather than later.”
Compounding Brown’s challenge are structural hurdles that have limited his race days throughout the 2019 season. Earlier this year USA Cycling redistributed funds toward the medal contending programs at the 2020 Olympics. The move led the federation to quietly cancel its springtime European racing program for Under-23 riders.
The decision siphoned off valuable European race days for Brown and other American U23 riders.
Brown felt the pinch after his Hagens Berman Axeon team did not get selected to participate in the Under-23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In previous years, Brown could have raced with the U.S. national U23 team, but this year, it was not an option.
“I don’t really have any results this year even though I can tell from last year that I’ve made huge gains,” Brown says. “That’s where it’s tough in cycling. The directors are telling me how I’ve made huge strides but at the same time I still need that one big result.”
Instead, Brown targeted hard one-day races and kermesses throughout Belgium. But since he rides for a UCI Professional Continental team, UCI rules barred him from participating in many local events in Flanders.
A final hurdle came in June. Organizers of the Under-23 Giro d’Italia forbade riders with WorldTour experience from participating in the event. Since Brown had raced the Amgen Tour of California with Hagens Berman Axeon, he was not allowed to race.
“It puts us in a weird position to get racing days,” Brown says. “You can go race Redlands, but if you want to make it to the WorldTour, you need exposure racing over here in Europe.”
The snub marks an unfortunate bookend to Brown’s experience in the U23 ranks. Over the course of four seasons Brown learned to survive in Europe’s breakneck races for young riders. In his first year as a U23, Brown struggled to even finish the events. He often poured his energy into the first half of each race, or attacked at the wrong time, only to miss the crucial move late in the race.
“I would fight so hard to get up there and spend so much mental energy, and then the pace would go again and I’d get dropped,” Brown says. “I learned pretty quick to save my energy for the last 40 kilometers.”
Over the years Brown learned the ebb and flow of the European races. During the 2018 U23 Paris-Roubaix, Brown predicted that an early break would make it to the line, and so he attacked. His early aggression formed the day’s major breakaway.
After his breakaway companions faltered, Brown kept pedaling alone, knowing that fresher riders were likely to catch him. Sure enough, Brown was eventually joined by a group of favorites.
A puncture at the Carrefour de l’Arbre knocked Brown back to seventh place. He may have been the strongest rider in the race. He was definitely the smartest.
“I was fighting for years and I finally got to the front of a big U23 race,” Brown says. “It’s my best memory of racing in Europe.”
Brown’s results underscore his strengths and weaknesses as a rider. Brown is incredibly smart at reading a race, however he is not an uber-talent who can simply ride away from the field. He relies on his racing intellect, and has done so since his early days in the sport. Toby Stanton, founder of the Hot Tubes development team, directed Brown throughout his junior career.
“When he was young, he was never the strongest so he had to be smart to win,” Stanton says. “Now he’s strong and smart.”
Stanton saw Brown’s racing intellect pay off during the 2016 junior national championship road race, where Brown lined up against junior riders with more impressive results. Rather than play to the strengths of his competitors, Brown surprised them, and took the victory.
“He rode away from Adrien Costa on a downhill because he knew he was never going to get away on the uphill,” Stanton said. “Jonny was always thinking and taking calculated chances based on his strengths. You don’t see a lot of that in junior racing.”
In order to win Jonny Brown must take risks and ride smart. He will get one more chance to work his racing magic this Sunday, when he lines up to defend his U.S. professional road racing championship in Knoxville. The city is Brown’s adopted hometown, and he will again be racing in front of friends and family.
Brown says he is feeling prepared for the race after so many months of training.
“I’ve just been riding,” Brown says. “It feels good to be acclimated to the heat.”
As the defending champion, Brown is likely to have a target on his back. But even as the defending champion, Brown is hardly the odds-on favorite to win. That title likely goes to whichever WorldTour stars arrive to race, or whichever domestic team has the most number of riders.
As he did last year, Brown may once again fly under the radar and wait for his moment to ride hard, smile often, and outsmart the field.