by Molly Hurford
I’ll be the first to admit that I love interviewing Jeremy Powers. Not because he’s a superstar cyclocross racer with a reality show (though that certainly helps!); it’s almost entirely because his dog, a goofy Labrador retriever named Moose, is always a blast to hang out with. This interview was no exception. Of course, there’s also the fact that Powers is the new national champion, and that he managed a 26th place at Worlds as the second highest ranked American. Finally home from Europe, Powers had a chance to sit down with me in his kitchen while Moose and his visiting brother, Otis, pranced around, occasionally snuffling over to check out the interview action. Otis is a bit of a jumper.
But despite my being distracted by the playful pups and Powers pausing our interview almost before it had begun in order to show me a hilarious email (“I’ll just tell you… No, I gotta show it to you. Let me pull it up on my computer.”), we finally got down to business to talk about his life post-Nationals win and post-26th place at Worlds.
Or at least, sort of down to business: “I was searching for clips from movies with dudes in Speedos, so I could look more well-rounded, that I knew there was a funny movie with people in Speedos. But back to work. Very serious conversation.”
First of all, I wanted to hear about the course, before delving into the tougher stuff about how the race went for Powers, personally. “The course was a little bit easier for me, it had been ridden a lot more, it was thicker and more wet. If you look at sand in the US, it moves a lot and it’s more fine. There it’s more like brown sugar versus regular white sugar. When it got packed down, it was easier to ride. If you look at lap times from the World Cup, the fastest times were like a 6:45, and at Worlds, Niels did a 6:35. I think he was riding well, and the other guys were doing 6:45′s again. He wasn’t racing at that time, but I think he would have won that round as well. And if you look at my lap times between the World Cup and Worlds, I took 30 seconds off of each lap, so I rode a better race. There’s only a certain amount you can improve in a year.”
Of course, the sand caused its own set of problems, no matter how packed down it was. “When Niels went off the front, he could ride his own race the entire time, whereas if you’re behind someone, if I’m riding with Stybar and he decides he’s going to get off the bike, I have to get off too, because I can’t ride through him. Whoever is at the front dictates what happens.”
When I first walked into the kitchen, Powers had been in the middle of making himself a cup of tea because, as he filled me in, he hasn’t quite recovered from the trip. “I got sick a lot and I don’t want to use that as an excuse necessarily, but just unfortunately, I wasn’t my best and I did everything I could to be there but it just didn’t work. If I did it all over again, I would say I’m not going to France [for the Lievin World Cup] and I’m going to take the extra week to train and get ready for Worlds. The thing that sucks is the whole year, I went to races and said ‘I’m not going to do this one because I know I’m not going to be my best.’ So like, Boulder and Iowa, I decided to relax those weekends. I picked and chose the races I wanted to do and focused on them and I felt like I did pretty well.”
Part of why people like Powers is this struggle we’ve watched play out for years now: Powers versus Nationals. It seemed like every time he’d almost have it, something would happen. And this year, he was mentally prepared for it, though that might have hurt his race at Worlds: “I didn’t know I’d win Nationals. I figured I wouldn’t win Nationals and would be so hungry to kill everyone at World Cups, because that’s what happened in the past. This year, it felt like, now I want to do well because I’m the national champion, but I was being pulled in so many directions from having won Nationals. There were – without sounding like an a$$hole – so many commitments. Seriously, I had 13 interviews to do in three days on top of three days with no sleep. I just got there and couldn’t get out of my own way.”
But really, how does it feel being national champion? “It feels great. I’m very happy.”
“I can just sit back and be really happy with everything that happened. It really was a great year. Anything I do in Europe is a bonus to what I’ve done. After Nationals, getting in the top 15 at a World Cup [Hoogerheide], that’s three times in the top 15 at a World Cup, so to me, I say to myself, I could be top 10 at a World Cup if I go there and have a good race. And everything I do, all the races in the US, Nationals being the highest one of those, I put a lot of pressure on myself to win, and to do that takes a lot, mentally and physically. That’s my World Championships thus far. I haven’t had a chance at walking into a World Championships and saying that I could be a winner yet. Nationals, I have been and hadn’t been able to do it.”
Back to Belgium. With record numbers of people in attendance, how did that feel? “60,000 people is the same as 40,000, truly. It’s crazy. Most of the races in the Netherlands and Belgium are really popular, just a ton of people freaking out, screaming on the course. It’s a great atmosphere. I was really happy to be part of this: It’s the biggest cyclocross race that’s ever been assembled. So when you look at it like that, it’s like the Superbowl of cyclocross, and we’ve reached a new level of how deep the sport is. Even in numbers of people who were watching, it increased by a couple hundred thousand this year. 1.5, 1.8 million or something like that. I like to think that the US has something to do with it. I feel like we’re making progress, we’re doing a good job, and I’m doing everything I can to promote it – and it was fun to be a part of it. I wish I could have done better so it could be looked at differently, but it was good to be part of it.”
I finally asked the question everyone was asking while watching the live coverage during the race: What happened to Powers?
“The start was bad. I had a great position, but the way I remember it, I was next to Ryan [Trebon] and Ryan slipped through the hole that I should’ve shot through. He had a good start. I was then behind Jonathan Page, and he got really aggressive with Kevin Pauwels. Not aggressive, but he leaned on him so much that four guys next to him leaned as well, and it was looking like there was going to be a crash before the first corner. With the live coverage, you can’t see it because they shoot back to the shot of the Spanish guy crashing. But I faded back a bit. The way it shook out, some French kid was trying to put me into the barricade, it was just really chaotic and fast. I was 45th in the first lap.”
So how did he jump almost 20 spots to finish in 26th? In context, that’s a pretty impressive turn-around, considering his somewhat disastrous first lap. “I had a decent ride, seven minute laps. But there just wasn’t anywhere to pass, it’s just a bottleneck situation. I’m not going to run by guys because I’m not that great of a runner, so I’d just have to stay in place. Then there’s a very short amount that you can take; there’s one line for the entire course and if you’re not in that line, you’re riding in loose sand. You can’t race in loose sand, you can’t pass in loose sand. That’s why this race is great in so many areas: They killed it with spectators, it’s right in the heart of Belgium, but the truth is that for a World Championships, it’s not that awesome of a course because you really can’t race it, you can’t go around people. It’s more difficult than, say, Hoogerheide.”
As Americans watching the live feed well know, after seeing him disappear from the race, Powers did get pulled. How did he feel about it? “It sucked. But I’m not going to go Tweet about how pissed I am. People have already made their decisions about what happened and it’s just water under the bridge now.”
“I was really disappointed, I sat there with the UCI commissaire and waited to see how much the gap was, and I said, ‘I’m gonna time this.’ I was just really frustrated with everything because I knew I was well past the 80 percent. There was no way. I was riding with Heule, who’s a multiple-time Swiss champion, Franzoi, who’s multiple-time Italian champion… there’s no way that within 10 minutes of racing that you’re going to take three minutes out of us. That’s not how it works. It was frustrating. I was disappointed that I got ‘lapped,’ because I haven’t been lapped in a race in Europe in five years and it’s really a disgrace. When I think about it now, I just get kinda pissed about it.”
“Well, I don’t want you to get pissed,” I responded and Powers’ typically sunny face re-emerged and he laughed it off, returning to the goofy guy the cyclocross community has come to love. “What are your plans for the offseason?”
“Well, you’re looking at a little bit of it right now,” he responded, gesturing to the dogs scrambling on the floor. “These two guys, and just relaxing. I have to fly to camp on Monday in Napa for Jelly Belly, but it’s not much riding, just meeting sponsors, getting clothes, that stuff. It’s nice to relax and get my life back, because I’ve been racing since July.”
“This break is definitely well needed. More than well needed.”
Everyone who watches Behind the Barriers know that Powers is a little on the … well, the hyper side. So how does he get his energy out during the offseason? “I’m not going to go ride for four hours, I’m not going to get my energy out that way, so what am I doing? For me, that’s I’ll jam out on the turntables, I’m going to clean and get my stuff organized. Send 18 bags of clothes to be sold on Ebay, catch up on things I put off all year long. I’m going to the Bahamas too, for 10 days.”
Of course, I couldn’t let the national champion go without asking about his plans for Worlds next year, since with them coming to American soil, his chances of a great finish are arguably higher than ever before. “This is the biggest opportunity I’m going to have against these guys in the foreseeable future. What it looks like for me is that I’ll race Nationals, and then I’ll be here in the States racing until Worlds. I won’t be going back to Europe next year in January.”
My last question, and perhaps most important: what can we expect from the Worlds episode of Behind the Barriers, since filmmaker Sam Smith was unable to get a photo vest, much to his and Powers’ dismay? “We had to bite the bullet and deal with it. Sam got a lot of coverage of the course from just asking a fan if he could shoot in for a section. He was also in a tree, on top of one of the flyovers. He got a lot of inebriated Belgians cheering, a lot of atmosphere stuff. So there will be some good footage. He got great coverage at Hoogerheide as well. There are two more to come.”