It hasn't been easy, for either the racers or the organizers, but the rise in American cyclocross talent and success on the world stage happens to coincide with a historical first: the elite world cyclocross championships will jump the pond, leaving its traditional epicenter in the Belgian countryside for the unlikely host city of Louisville, Ky., to a slice of land along the banks of the Ohio River. This weekend, Eva Bandman Park will host the revolution.
"Our results [in Europe] don't always reflect how well we've been riding or what kind of a race we can put together when all goes right," said three-time national champion Tim Johnson of Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com. "We always travel to race, we always go well outside of our comfort zone to race. The questions I've had from my Belgian peers are pretty funny because they have no idea how to travel and race at the same time."
Advantage number one to the Americans: They finally get to tackle the biggest race of the year at home.
Naturally, knowing a course and the nuances of the city surrounding it make a professional racer that much more comfortable come race day. It all adds up to advantage number two.
"There's no added pressure, actually it's the exact opposite," said Johnson's new Cannondale teammate, Ryan Trebon. "It is so many extra small things that we don't have to worry about this year: We have our own trucks, our own mechanics, good, normal food that's always accessible, and no trans-Atlantic flights to contend with. I am beyond stoked not to have to spend January in Belgium this winter."
So, who among the Americans are most likely to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at 'cross glory?
Jeremy Powers: The 2011-12 national champion has had a strong season. His physiology and mind were fine-tuned for the quick bursts and short duration of the punchiest niche of cycling. He started his season with a victory at ClifBar CrossVegas, and he won every UCI C1 race in the United States through November, including five of the six days of the Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross.
But Powers scored one of the biggest results of his career in late October, and it wasn't a race victory. As he focused on Louisville, he was chasing UCI points across North America and Europe, from World Cups to USGPs and everything in between, and his quest was highlighted by a seventh-place finish at the World Cup stop in Tabor, Czech Republic, the best-ever World Cup result for an American male.
After years of racing at the top, including his overall victories at the USGP series in 2010 and 2011, Powers was able to grab his first national championship in Madison, Wis., in January 2012. It brought him an inner peace and a new, more potent focus.
"After nationals last year, I've got the monkey off my back," Powers said. "I feel a lot less stress. I'm at peace with what I want to do [at worlds]."
And, so, the goal is simple. "I want to medal at worlds," Powers said. "If I don't come away with a medal, I'm going to be disappointed."
In USGP races held in Louisville, Powers has won four and finished third another five times. He has the venue dialed. His confidence has never been higher.
"I'm not doing anything besides riding my bike," he laughed. "There's been so many years where I've been doing a lot more stuff like DJing a party, or going out with my friends, or having that extra beer, or eating that thing that I really knew I shouldn't. I've been a lot more serious in my approach and in the time I'm dedicating to everything. I had this realization -- my racing age on my license is 30, I couldn’t believe it -- so there was this moment when it all clicked for me."
Jonathan Page: The Belgium-based Page is arguably the most accomplished American man in the history of cyclocross, and he's the only elite American man to collect a medal -- a silver in 2007 -- at a world championship. But much of his 2012-13 season has been spent in limbo, without a title sponsor, repeatedly finishing mired in the mid-20s. He was sick and many wondered if Page's time had passed.
Then came the Namur World Cup. His 15th-place finish guaranteed Page a slot on the American team for the world championship in Louisville. Furthermore, his performance on one of the most demanding 'cross courses in the world, nearly two minutes ahead of the next American, showed that his form was coming around. He followed that up with a handful of quality rides in the mud and slop of the Kerstperiode.
But it was his meticulous and dogged performance in the brutal conditions of Verona to take a fourth elite national championship that irrefutably demonstrated Page's technical skill; he glided over the frozen ruts that sent many other elite riders flailing.
If the weather brings heavy, adverse conditions to Louisville, watch for Page (who signed with Fuji this week) to turn his role as the European underdog into American success.
Ryan Trebon: Trebon is a three-time winner of the USGP overall title, taking the crown in 2004, 2006 and 2007. He also has two national cyclocross championship titles to his name, in 2006 and 2008. A former elite national cross-country mountain bike champion, Trebon shines brightest on the cyclocross stage. He was second at the 2012 national championship. He began this season's campaign with an early victory at the Midsummer Nights Cyclocross Race in July ahead of new Cannondale teammate Tim Johnson. On numerous occasions he has been the race animator when no one else was willing to wait for Powers to ride away from the field. The tall, lanky Trebon will look to use his straight-ahead power on the Louisville course's long straightaways, and his lengthy stride on the multiple run-ups to secure a top placing among the world's best.
Tim Johnson: A veteran of the road peloton, Johnson is in his second year of year-round, full-time committment to cyclocross. He sports a silver medal from the 1999 world championship in Slovakia (when he was a U23), the first American to have stood on a cyclocross world championship podium. Johnson won the USGP title in 2008, finished second in the series on five occasions,and is a six-time national cyclocross champion, with three of those titles coming at the elite level. His palmares is littered with podiums and wins, but there's no doubt the 2011-12 season was a disappointment for the Massachusetts native. Johnson started 2012-13 strong, with a second place to Powers at CrossVegas. A pair of victories finally came his way at Jingle Cross Rock in mid-November. Known as a fighter, Johnson will have to fight to the death to find success in Louisville.
Danny Summerhill: Summerhill is one of only a few Americans to own a cyclocross world championship medal -- a silver from his U23 days. The Colorado native is set to embark on his neo-pro road season when the Louisville worlds close, but his UnitedHealthcare team has given him its blessing following a 'cross season as heavy on results as it was light on racing. Without a sponsor footing the bill for most of the 2012-13 campaign, Summerhill chose his UCI races smartly, targeting events like the USGP stops in Louisville, Fort Collins, Colo., and Bend, Ore., as well as the national championships. His story was one of podium or bust, and Summerhill on a number of occasions had top-three rides derailed by mishaps or missteps. He is arguably one of the strongest Americans in the men's race and the Louisville track suits him well, but the question is whether Summerhill can overcome his own eagerness to land a result. If he can, he could realistically find himself vying for the top 10.
Jamey Driscoll: The national championship bronze medalist was a bubble guy. Ordinarily consistent, Driscoll has, for the most part, had a disappointing season, as he told VeloNews in October. He has won twice in big races -- once at Harbin Park in Cincinnati, one of the top venues in U.S. 'cross, and then at CXLA -- and rode smoothly over a rough, greasy Verona track for bronze at nationals. Driscoll is a wild card for the worlds; he could slide inside the top 15 or find himself deep on the second page of the results sheet.
Katie Compton: American eyes and hearts will be with Compton. With nine national championships and three medals at previous world cyclocross championships -- two silver and one bronze -- Compton goes into Louisville as one of the favorites.
After a 2010-11 season that saw her win nearly every race she entered, including five World Cups, it would be an understatement to call her silver medal at worlds a bit of a disappointment. Her 2011-12 season was also strong, though at the world championship in Koksijde, Belgium, she spent too much energy fighting back from a crash to contest for the win, finishing fifth.
This year, Compton became the first elite American to win the World Cup.
A world championship gold medal, on home soil, would be the culmination of years of determination and a statement that American cyclocross has finally and fully arrived.
"It would be amazing. Since I haven't experienced that, I don't know what it's going to feel like but I'm sure it'd be amazing to be able to win in the U.S. and just have a great race and not get second or third again," Compton said. "I have to have everything come together, I have to feel strong, ride well, just have a good day. I don't feel like I've had that year yet."
Georgia Gould: Gould is a cyclocross veteran, having won the USGP overall title in 2007, 2010 and 2012. She is still one of the best female cyclists in both cyclocross and cross-country mountain biking. Gould has four national titles in cross-country (2006, 2010-12) and represented the U.S. in mountain bike cross-country at the London Olympics and the 2012 world championships, taking bronze medals at both. Gould's dominant cross-country fitness carried over into the cyclocross season in 2012; she placed second behind Compton at the first four stops of the USGP series, took top honors at the Colorado Cross Classic and Boulder Cup, and kept her podium form at the Derby City Cup behind Compton and teammate Katerina Nash. With a proven record of big performances on the world's biggest stages, look for Gould to battle for a top-10 finish in Louisville.
Amy Dombroski: For the second straight season, Dombroski, a Vermont native, has based her racing campaign out of Belgium. This year, she joined the Belgian powerhouse squad Telenet-Fidea, home to legends like Bart Wellens and Rob Peeters and British champion Nikki Harris. After spending last season in Europe, largely on her own, she is now riding for one of the biggest teams in cyclocross; the additional support has translated into new success on the bike. She scored top-10 finishes in medium-sized Belgian races (including a fourth place at the Fidea GP Neerpelt), then placed 11th at consecutive World Cups in Koksijde and Roubaix in the heart of the season. She can race among the best, as demonstrated by her late-race fiery attacks at this year's CrossVegas; unlike that race, where she faded in the closing lap, she will need to put together a complete race to notch a top result on home soil.
Kaitlin Antonneau: Aside from reigning elite national champion Compton, Antonneau was the only other female U.S. national team member to secure an early automatic spot on the worlds team, an accomplishment she achieved at the first round World Cup stop in Tabor, Czech Republic. It's an achievement that is only bested by the fact that in her third season as a U23 rider, she will be making her third visit to the elite women's world championship. Antonneau is quick to credit some of her success to the guidance she's received from veteran Tim Johnson, a teammate on Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com, as well as Compton, who is her coach. Antonneau finished fifth overall in the USGP of cyclocross in 2011, then took second in the elite women's national championship in 2012, bested only by Compton. In Louisville, Antonneau is hoping for a top 15, but she could be the surprise of the women's race.
Meredith Miller: The pressure was on Miller and she came through. The Boulder-based Cal Giant-Specialized rider fractured her wrist early in the 2012-13 season, missing two months of racing in a key season. But Miller came back strong in December and made the team based in large part on her 11th-place ride at the Namur World Cup on Christmas Eve. She is a former U.S. road champion and one of the top all-around domestiques in the women's peloton. Miller is right at home on the Louisville course and can lay down power on the track unlike almost any rider in the field. If she can continue her streak of good starts, Miller could ride her way into the top 10.
Jade Wilcoxson: Sixty days ago, Wilcoxson wasn't on the radars of the selection committee members at USA Cycling. But she burst on with more than a blip when she rode to a brilliant silver medal, behind Compton, at the U.S. national championships earlier this month. Wilcoxson is a relative newcomer to the sport; she was Velo's Domestic Breakthrough Rider of the Year on the road in 2012 and has come on strong late in the 'cross season. A USA Cycling track camp carried the Ph.D. physical therapist into nationals, and she floated over the messy ruts in Verona as though she'd been turning pedals in the mud for a decade. We honestly don't know what to expect from Wilcoxson in Louisville; she's powerful and could find herself continuing to break through barriers when the racing heats up late Sunday.