Winning championships is a feat that is not foreign to Kerry Werner. The Kona Maxxis Shimano rider won three-straight Collegiate Cyclocross National Championships for Lees-McRae from 2012 to 2014, and he also won the 2013 U23 XCO Mountain Bike National Championship.
Finishing on the podium at Elite championship races is also something Werner has accomplished more than once. He finished third at Elite Nationals in 2017 and 2018 and the Pan-American Championships in Midland last November.
One thing missing from his palmares, however, was an Elite cyclocross championship. That changed on Sunday when Werner outkicked Curtis White (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) and Jamey Driscoll (Mavic / DNA Cycling) in the last lap of the Pan-American Championships to take home the title in a hard-fought battle.
Midway through the final lap, the battle at the front came down to Werner and White. That it was those two fighting for the Pan-Ams jersey was the perfect story for the first half of the domestic cyclocross season. White and Werner have become friendly nemesi, pushing each other to the wire in race after race and really becoming the story of the 2019 domestic cyclocross season.
In Sunday’s last lap, White passed Werner leading into the final technical section, but right before the end of the series of off-cambers and steep pitches, Werner re-took the lead. With a small gap, he “sprinted like Usain Bolt” up the first set of stairs and punched it up the second set, not looking back as he took the final slick plunge back to the finishing straight.
After a week of visions of facing off against White on the finishing straight in Midland, Werner’s last-lap heroics saved him a finishing sprint against his rival and allowed him a moment to enjoy the first championship ride of his Elite career.
I chatted with Werner on Monday about his win. You can read the transcript for a report of the race in Werner’s words and a look into what it means to him to get the win.
Interview: Kerry Werner, 2019 Pan-American Cyclocross Champion
Cyclocross Magazine: Dude, you did the thing. How does it feel?
Kerry Werner: I did do the thing. It feels good. I’m mostly pumped that after deciding to not race on Saturday, I had a good race. That’s what I was mostly nervous about; putting all my eggs in the basket and then getting like 10th.
CXM: You guys race twice a weekend all season long. What was the thought process behind not making it a normal weekend and how was that different for you?
KW: I came off an off-weekend. I did some specific training last weekend. I actually had a rest day last Sunday. I came into the week way more rested and just kind of focused on one specific goal. That allowed me to have a little bit more of an opener on Wednesday, and then I coasted through the end of the week on that. I kind of treated Saturday like I would a normal Friday. That’s how it went physically.
Then mentally, I was just trying not to think about it too much. Over and over again, I kept thinking about that final sprint straight because I knew how long it was last year. Then seeing the course on Friday helped me not think about it because I didn’t think it would come down to a sprint, and if it did, it would just be the first person out on the pavement.
CXM: Did you watch Saturday’s race?
KW: Yeah, I took the course during one of the open windows at 11, and then Rebecca and I stuck around to watch Emily race before we left. I was checking out stuff and getting a feel for how the race would play out. I watched the Men’s race because they went before the Women. That also kind of helped ease my mind a little bit and feel more confident for Sunday’s race.
CXM: What did the conditions end up being like, and how did they affect what was going on in the races?
KW: It was weird because it was more than just the weather. There were also temperature variations that were playing a role in how the course was shaping up. Saturday was colder than Sunday, and there was precipitation early on Sunday. But the ground was so hard, and the soil had two different compositions. The top half was a really rich soil that would be super muddy if it was dumping rain, and then the bottom half close to the beach was really sandy, so it would never really get super deep.
Then with it being cold, the ground was kind of hard and holding onto water, instead of draining it. It was really slick on top, kind of similar to Cincy Day 1. I felt really comfortable on that stuff. Then the added technical bit was really nice because it wasn’t just flat corners like Cincy was; there was a lot of up and down and punches that kept you on your toes.
Saturday and Sunday were kind of the same, but it did rain a bunch more on Sunday. No snow.
CXM: I’m guessing I know the answer to this, but seeing the conditions, you were probably pretty stoked when you saw what it looked like?
KW: Last year I remember it being a bit drier, and it seemed like more of a drag race. There was precipitation earlier in the week, but because of the nature of the ground, it being sandy, it never really played a role in the race. This year was a little slicker, so it wasn’t just about power. There was a lot of cornering and technical riding to be done.
If you watch the vlog, you’ll see Jamey Driscoll go over the bars going down the chute. Curtis wiped out once in front of me. Falling was part of the race on Sunday. Those kinds of conditions always favor me, when it’s faster and slick as opposed to slow and heavy. I was pretty stoked when I showed up on Sunday morning.
CXM: You say that in terms of conditions favoring you one way or the other, but this year it really seems like you’ve developed your power game this year? You’ve been throwing down with Curtis race after race.
KW: I definitely feel more confident when the conditions get heavier, but it’s definitely still something that’s not where it should be. Like a Fayetteville or Day 2 at DCCX or the Trek World Cup. I’ve had better races there than I feel like I would have last year, but I think more of it is kind of paying attention to how I race those races and not getting too excited when I make mistakes. I have been metering my efforts and drawing them out longer over the course of the race instead of trying to do short sprint efforts and making mistakes and blowing matches and then just going backward.
It will be interesting to see if we have any more heavy stuff before we go over to Europe. Nationals seems like it will be a little sandy, so it might not be too heavy there. But there is a good bit of running in those run-ups, kind of similar to this past weekend. Some shorter run-ups, then one big longer one.
I have been running more consistently this year and focusing on it. Not just off the bike, but making it part of interval sessions. Getting off the bike and running with it on my shoulder up hills. I think it has definitely helped me become a more dynamic rider, and it’s kind of shown through here.
CXM: In our preview, Curtis kind of said running has been a strength of mine. Have you been able to minimize his advantages in there? What is your sense of how your running has affected your racing against him?
KW: Again, Pan-Ams was still faster speeds and the running was more explosive versus long, drawn-out, sloggy running. It will be interesting to see if we get any more of that before the end of the season. I do still think Curtis has the upper hand in something like that, especially transitioning from a big power section on the bike to a 30-second run through ankle-deep run kind of thing. I think I fare a little bit better when we do short, explosive efforts and then punch it up a stair set and get back on.
I think I just need to stay on top of what I’m doing now and hope it works. These races are definitely helping me bridge that gap. We’ve had some heavier races this year, definitely more than we had last year. Getting that experience and training in makes a difference.
CXM: Going off lap times, it looks like you had an interesting group early on, but then pretty quickly it broke up. How did the first half of the race play out?
KW: It was really interesting, and I was surprised, actually. I thought the course would break the race up a lot more than it did, but even four laps in, we had a bigger group. You could look back and see a string of guys behind us. There were gaps throughout, but I thought it would be Curtis and me off the front with a big gap and then people battling behind us.
Then to see Jamey Driscoll claw his way up into the top three and be there, that was a shocker. You never want to be in a group with Jamey Driscoll at the end of a race. If he’s there at the end of the race, it usually means he has a little bit more to give.
CXM: And we’ve certainly seen that at Nationals in 2017.
KW: It briefly crossed my mind that last year at Charm City, I won the C1 day, Jamey was in the front group, and then on Day 2, it was him and me battling on the last lap, and he beat me at the end of the day. I got second. It briefly crossed my mind, and I was like, “I cannot let that happen today.” Curtis and I were not letting him on the front at all.
CXM: You and Curtis have been spending all season gaming it out and trying to play to your strengths, to what point were you trying to push the pace to make sure the Dangler doesn’t catch up and to what extent were you trying to save something for the end of your battle?
KW: In the beginning of the race when you’re both pretty fresh, you’re just taking turns and it doesn’t really affect anything. Then in the middle of the race, you start thinking about conserving a little bit. Curtis would take a pull on some of the longer straights, and then I would come around the next lap and do the same. We both wanted it to be between the two of us, but then the last three laps, there was nothing we could do to keep Jamey off our wheels. I think we kind of traded turns on the front to keep him back at third, and that way if something happened, one of us would be in front of the other.
CXM: Did Jamey make contact with you at the end of the race?
KW: Yeah, he was there the last three laps. We never let up and let him get on the front to set a pace for himself. Jamey’s a really good technical rider, so I knew I didn’t want him on the front, and I really didn’t want to be third wheel in case a gap opened or Curtis slipped a wheel. I was trying to stay on the front or second wheel as much as I could the last two laps.
CXM: Looking at lap times, with two to go, is that where things started to happen? How did you get a gap, and what was the last lap like?
KW: I got lucky. I was on the front, and if you watch the vlog, you’ll see Jamey go over the bars at the bottom of the plunge right before the finish. Curtis was on his wheel when that happened, so that helped me get a good 5-second lead. The unfortunate thing for me was I unclipped coming down the plunge at the bottom, and I must have gotten a rock or too much mud in my pedal, and I couldn’t get clipped in on my left foot.
I came down the start straight and I lost a lot of that gap. I looked back and saw the gap and was like, “Okay let’s run with this. I can hold them off.” But I had to do some soft pedaling. It wasn’t until I got around to Pit 1 that I solidly realized I could clip in on half of my pedal, the other half that didn’t have a rock in it. By that time, I still had a gap, but it was small enough that those guys could put in a dig to make contact.
CXM: Did they catch you?
KW: It was right at the end of two to go that that whole incident happened. Then coming through Pit 1 on 1 to go was when it came back together. I was still on the front, and I wanted to keep it there. I knew I didn’t need a pit bike at Pit 2. I knew leading through the sand would give me an advantage to punch it a little more and string it out.
I came through Pit 2 with a little bit of a gap and rode it into that last hill section. It was like a false flat up and then a more steady climb into the last technical section, and Curtis being the powerhouse he is, he passed me and led the first two technical off-cambers and then he slipped out in front of me. Being smart like he is, he splayed his bike out so I couldn’t come around him. I have a good picture Bruce Buckley got of that. I was like straddling my top tube with nowhere to go even though he was on the ground.
Then the little run-up after that, he went wide, and I kind of cut inside and briefly hammered to get in front of him. Then we descended down into the first set of stairs, and I just said, “It’s going to be now or never.” I just sprinted like Usain Bolt up the stairs. I didn’t look back at the top. There was like a 10-second ride to the next two flights, so I rode it out and then sprinted as hard as I could up those stairs. I could kind of tell I had a bit of a gap, so I didn’t bother looking back at the top. I figured as long as I could ride down the plunge and not crash, I could ride it out for the win. And yeah, I just managed to hold him off.
CXM: Dude, it sounds like an incredible race.
KW: Oh yeah, it was a typical Curtis and Kerry battle. Last lap, lead changes, it was a good one.
CXM: We’ve asked this a few times, how has it been knowing you guys are like the best thing going in cyclocross right now? How has it affected your relationship? At the start line do you kind of look at each other and say, “Alright, we’re going to do this again.”?
KW: Curtis and I have a lot of respect for each other. We know that’s the way it’s going to be unless one of us has a mechanical or a bad day. For me, it’s honestly pretty funny because although it sucks to not win every race, it does mean a lot more when you do get a win like I got yesterday or at Cincy. Any time I’ve beaten Curtis it’s been on the last lap within the last quarter to half a lap. It just means a lot more.
And we push each other harder every race. I don’t see it negatively. Like I said, it sucks to go to a race and know you might not win, but at the same time, it keeps it fun for everyone watching. It also keeps me motivated because there’s no opportunity for you to be complacent. You have to show up every weekend and be ready to battle until the very last lap.
CXM: We’ve talked about this a little bit on the Cyclocross Radio podcast, and at one point we reached the kind of conclusion that it seems like Kerry is never a favorite, even though you certainly deserve that. Has that provided some extra motivation for you during those battles? Do you feel a little overlooked?
KW: I don’t feel overlooked. I actually don’t really pay attention to what most people say. I think it’s better for me to not get caught up in that. The least amount of pressure I can put on myself is good. If I start getting influenced by outside jokers, that can always add to the tension of a race weekend. It kind of works in my favor to not be favored or whatever.
But I know what I can do, so I always try to set very realistic goals for myself. Really the only time I get bummed out is when I don’t meet those goals.
CXM: In our preview, I got the impression you were indicating Nationals is your number one goal for the season, but Pan-Ams is still pretty important. It’s your first Elite championship, what does it mean to you to win and be able to wear the jersey, whatever we’re calling it?
KW: I am stoked. Nationals is definitely the number one goal, even though according to the UCI, Continental Champs are a bigger deal, but for us and American cyclocross, American Nationals still holds the most clout. I want to prove to everybody that I deserve that jersey and I am capable of taking it. I don’t want to hang up my career until I can put the jersey on my back, so that’s just a huge goal of mine.
But to have this stepping stone along the way, it’s a huge confidence builder. It reinforces everything I’ve been doing all season to get there, and it proves I’m on the right track. And while it is a stepping stone, it is a huge deal.
CXM: You’re still improving but at the same time you’re starting to come into your peak as an athlete. You talked about not wanting to put too much pressure on yourself, so how are you going to balance knowing you have a legit shot at achieving your goal with not coming up short when it’s time to perform?
KW: Yeah, I know. I segment my season out into blocks, and I put goals on the different blocks. I kind of take each race as it comes, so right now, I really had a keen interest in getting that jersey; I got that, which is awesome.
But I’m also battling with Curtis for the Pro CX title. And while it doesn’t matter for much, my sponsors are really interested in following along. It’s fine with me that people are getting interested, and the fact that USA Cycling is pushing out those standings every week helps keep the hype building.
Curtis and I battle again this weekend at Supercross, and we’re only separated by 33 points in the Pro CX. This past weekend didn’t count for that, so we’re still only 33 points apart. If one of us has a bad day at Supercross, that could seal that for me, or vice versa. Then we will each race one more time before Nationals. I’ll do Hendersonville, and he’ll do Warwick.
I’m just trying to cinch down the Pro CX win, and then after Hendersonville, I’ll start thinking about Nationals. I’ll be putting my head down and getting my last bit of training in. But you can only do what you can do; there’s only so much training and sharpening to be done before you kind of go over the top. I’m just going to be walking the line and be as conservative as possible and focus on recovery more than intervals while at home.
Then after Nationals, we fly out on Monday to head to Europe, and we don’t come back for two months. It was really cool to learn I qualified for Worlds yesterday. I got a fully funded Worlds trip, which is great because I already bought the ticket. It would have sucked to buy the ticket and not be able to race.
CXM: Your vlogs have really helped people get invested in what you’re doing, but it was a big weekend for your co-star Becky too. What do you think about her getting on a podium at a championship race? It seems like you guys have been celebrating each other’s success, even though you are quote-unquote competitors?
KW: By the way, I am now only down two in the Interteam competition, and I’ll likely stay ahead of her in the CX Heat Check. But I do think we build off each other. We take each other’s successes and grab stoke from it. It was really cool to see Becky do well because she isn’t the top technical rider, but to see her come out well on a course like that where a couple of mistakes can bury you, it was great to see her bound back and keep it together.
Then she has the pressure of trying to win the Pro CX as well, and her main competition is Clara [Honsinger] and for the good bit of their race, they were only 5 seconds apart or with each other. To have her get that close and be able to fight with Clara at a big, important race should be a big confidence booster for her moving forward.
I think with Maghalie [Rochette] out of the picture, I think Becca has a good shot at a great result at U.S. Nationals, and I think she knows that.
CXM: Awesome. Thanks man. I appreciate your time. Congrats again.
KW: Thanks man. The stoke is high.