LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It isn't the world championship, but this weekend's Derby City Cup -- the third round of the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross -- will give America's finest cyclocross racers a glimpse of what it will be like to race for the rainbow stripes come February.
In 2013, Louisville will host the first elite cyclocross world championship outside of Europe. But first, there is the important step -- for racers and organizers alike -- to wage a battle on the undulating soil of Eva Bandman Park.
"To an extent, this is a dry run for worlds," says Joan Hanscom, event director of the USGP series and the world championship. "I can't say the course will be identical to worlds, but it will be very close, utilizing full road closures [on River Road]. Likely, there will be some tweaks that come after the race this weekend."
The weekend calls for sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures, likely a very different scenario than what competitors will face in February. Dry conditions should lead to a fast, tactical race.
On the men's side, the battle between Rapha-Focus and Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com will undoubtedly continue to burn. And on the women's side, based on the dominance of Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), the question could very well be who will fill out the rest of the podium.
Can anyone stop Powers?
The Derby City Cup, which became part of the USGP circuit in 2010, has become one of the favorite venues in the country. The course's technical features may be primarily natural, but that in no way discounts their difficulty. Abundant sand on the natural dune, punchy climbs and off-camber sections contribute to the challenges at Eva Bandman Park.
The park has hosted tight, unpredictable racing in the past two years. And reigning national champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) has reaped the rewards.
"I do love Louisville," says Powers, who swept last year's weekend of racing. "The course is fairly flat and it's pretty fast. Those are two of my strengths and it's a course that in the past I've always felt suits my style. The distance from corner to corner, the sand pits. ... I like courses that I can capitalize off of. When I'm able to ride something that another competitor can't or has a hard time with, those are my favorite courses."
Powers been nearly unstoppable on American soil, racking up win after win in UCI C1 races. He's won three of the four stops in the USGP series. And he's fresh off the highest American male placing at a cyclocross World Cup in history with his seventh-place finish in Tabor, Czech Republic.
In short, Powers is on fire. After a trying World Cup in Plzen, Czech Republic, which saw him get shouldered off his bike at the start and later lose his rear derailleur, he returned to the States and picked up where he left off, racking up two more wins at the Cycle-Smart International weekend in Northampton, Mass.
But the travel days in his legs and body were evident; his wins didn't come in the usual convincing fashion. Which Powers will be in Louisville? With a more professional attitude this season, the fiery Powers is likely to be back on full form.
"I definitely was pushing through some jet lag and tiredness last week and weekend," Powers says. "I decided at the last minute to stay home and race the Cycle-Smart International. It was perfect for what I was hoping to get out of the weekend, and I rode to and from the events both days, so that was the big bonus for me. To stay home and not have to do any major packing or moving and shaking."
The usual cast of characters will join Powers, among them top pros like Tim Johnson and Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com teammate Ryan Trebon.
Trebon's last experience on this course had him walking barriers and run-ups after a crash in practice nearly caused him to pull out with a knee injury. While he finished the race, he conceded the USGP series leader's jersey to Powers.
Johnson, meanwhile, has had another inconsistent season thus far following his up-and-down campaign from a year ago. He's trying to find the form and consistency for which he was once known. But he has no special preparation plans because this is the world championship venue -- he wants straightforward, hard-fought racing to get back on track.
"I'm going to race this weekend as if they were two random races," Johnson says. "My approach and results haven't been dialed in consistently this fall so I just want to race my race as best as I can. Cliche, but that's what it comes down to for me."
Ben Berden (Raleigh-Clement) has been the token Belgian at this year's domestic men's races, and has been consistent and nimble. That steadiness in the U.S. has put him third in the USA Cycling cyclocross standings, and his will certainly be a face near the front of the race.
Danny Summerhill (Garmin-Chipotle) has repeatedly shown great form, especially in the races near his Colorado home. Most recently, he fought a searing battle with Trebon at the Boulder Cup, just missing out on a huge win by a tire width. Look for Summerhill to again ride as the aggressor.
Wyman back on the scene
Although the women's field will be loaded with top domestic pros, the race for the podium will undoubtedly be a three-way contest. Between national treasure Compton, newly crowned European cyclocross champion Helen Wyman (Kona) and Czech rider Katerina Nash (Luna), the race will be up for grabs.
Like Powers, Compton won both days of last year's Derby City Cup. She also took the win from Wyman two weeks ago at the second World Cup in Plzen. Compton leads the Briton in the UCI standings, where the American is second behind cycling's most decorated athlete of all time, Dutchwoman Marianne Vos (Rabobank), with Wyman sitting fourth.
With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to claim a first world championship on home soil, Compton has all the pressure in the world to perform in February. Does that change the way she approaches this weekend? The composed Compton doesn't flinch.
"I'm not doing anything differently for this weekend, just trying to rest from last weekend and come into Louisville ready to race hard. I'm excited to see the course and how the race unfolds," Compton says.
"I take every race one at a time and have a game plan going in but let the race dictate what I do. There will be a really strong field this weekend, so I'm planning to have another hard race that will be fast. Right now, I just want to get a good start since I keep messing that part up lately."
Wyman leads the USA Cycling cyclocross rankings after taking nine early season wins in the United States, and she hasn't slowed down.
"I've had a pretty spectacular week," Wyman said after the European championships. "Second in the World Cup, winning at Koppenberg on Thursday, and now winning here is pretty exciting."
The only other rider who can consistently give Compton a run for her money is Nash. The Czech has a world championship bronze medal from 2011, behind Compton, who won silver.
Nash was just off Compton's pace last year in Louisville, finishing second and third, trading places with Compton protege Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), who will also be in attendance this weekend.
London Olympic cross-country bronze medalist Georgia Gould (Luna) is the only woman besides Compton to win the race in its four iterations. With Compton overseas, Gould has been head and shoulders above the domestic field, but facing an international lineup, Gould may have a fight on her hands just to reach the podium.
Rounding out the strong international field are Wyman's compatriot, Gabby Day (Rapha-Focus), and French riders Julie Krasniak (Rapha-Focus) and Caroline Mani (Raleigh-Clement).