"I really want to win Nationals," Alex Morton (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) revealed at Montana Cross Camp last summer. "That’s my dream."
Morton had visions of taking home a title in snowy Hartford in 2017. The young rider from Michigan sprinted to the holeshot and sat in second behind Nick Carter before sliding out on the final time on the treacherous Bonk Breaker hill, and sliding down to the fifth spot.
Those dreams were once again derailed last year heading into the 2018 V1 Nationals in Reno due to a dislocated shoulder. Young athletes only get two years to race the Junior category, so missing one Cyclocross Nationals can be a tough pill to swallow.
Now at racing age 18, he was more than ready to take advantage of the chance to go for the win in Louisville.
Among the riders standing in his way were heavy favorites Pan-Am champion Magnus Sheffield (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) and 2017 Junior 15-16 champ and Reno's runner-up Nick Carter (KCCX Elite), both of whom were looking to take a Junior 17-18 title in their first year racing the category.
"I've gotten a lot of second places," Morton said. Would Sunday's first race of the day present a chance for change that?
Motocross Skills in the Mud
"When I saw it was gonna rain, I was really excited," Carter told Cyclocross Magazine after the finish. "And then I saw the course when it got really muddy, that was less exciting."
Carter certainly kicked off the excitement with a fast start and early gap. While he secured the holeshot, the Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld Devo squad quickly moved to the front, sandwiching the KCCX rider.
Carter returned to the front, running to a lead before the limestone stairs, while Sheffield took a conservative approach, running the first time down the plunge from the stairs and catching up to Carter as he tried to ride more of the lower half.
Morton did his best to remain on the bike and used his two-wheel drifting skills to remain in lead group.
Morton started racing motocross at age three, and put his high-speed off-road background to good use by navigating the sloppy, heavy course with confidence. However, the young Michigan Junior wasn't afraid to get off. "My coach trains me running a couple times a week," Morton revealed. "I was very thankful that I did."
While Sheffield ran past Carter to take the lead, Morton went stride-for-stride with his teammate.
The runs proved too much for Carter early in the race, but he too hoped to use his mud skills to remain in contention.
"Magnus and Alex were taking the first running sections basically [at a] full-out sprint," Carter said. "I knew I couldn't hold it for 40 minutes. I let them get a little bit ahead, and made up time on the technical sections."
Two-Man Time Trial
Once Carter dropped back, it looked like a two-man race that might come down to a final lap sprint.
Morton and Sheffield remained just a bike length report as they circled the course, but with just a lap and half left, Sheffield slipped heading into a running uphill and got caught up in the course tape.
He remained calm, but had trouble freeing his bike as his teammate ran through lapped traffic to open up a gap.
The gap was all Morton needed, but his Hartford experience taught him anything can happen on a final lap. There were lapped riders out on the course, and thick, bike-stopping mud that could lock up anyone's wheels.
"I just tried to keep my own pace and push forward and make sure I didn’t make my own mistakes," Morton explained. "Stay smooth, stay calm. Keep the pace going, but don’t make mistakes."
Morton was in the clear. Could Sheffield recover to maintain second?
Carter didn't see Sheffield get caught in the tape, but caught wind that he had a chance for second.
"[Magnus] was making little bobbles, I think he was tired and just making small mistakes," Carter said.
Sheffield, who has balanced ski racing and cyclocross in seasons past, is now focused on cycling, and tried to focus on keeping his teammate in sight, but instead had to worry about who was chasing him down. With one lap to go, Carter slipped past to take the lead down the big descent into the bowl.
The descent proved fateful for Sheffield, as he slipped on the final descent and had to run after the riding Carter.
The final order was set.
Carter would slide out himself late on the last lap, and finish with crooked bars, but the top three crossed the line with muddy faces telling the story of the race, and with plenty of stories to tell for years to come.
Morton might have the most memorable ones.
Jared Scott (Boulder Junior Cycling) finished in fourth, with Jules Van Kempen (Tri-Cyclists BRC) in fifth
Full results below the photo gallery.
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