As we near the start of the 2017 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships in Hartford, Connecticut, we’ve got a series of interviews with Nationals racers ready to roll as we build-up to the big week of racing.
First up is Kerry Werner of Kona Bikes. Werner heads to Nationals after an impressive season, finishing fourth in the USA Cycling PRO CX rankings behind Stephen Hyde and U23 Tobin Ortenblad and Curtis White. He also heads to Hartford with one of the best track records in the sport, having come away with a stars and stripes jersey in three of his five attempts.
We spoke with Werner earlier this season as he came off back-to-back wins at DCCX but already had his sights on Nationals and Worlds. What follows is a portion of our conversation. Stay tuned for some Werner’s best stories in our upcoming feature in our print magazine.
Cyclocross Magazine: When did you start bike racing?
Kerry Werner: I was like 15. That’s when I first started mountain biking. I didn’t start racing ’cross until, I don’t know, maybe four years ago.
KW: Yeah, I mean my first Collegiate Nationals was really my first year of trying to race ’cross I guess [2012 Nationals] .
CXM: Wow, you’re still relatively new to the sport, compared to some of your peers.
KW: Yeah, I think so. But with that said, before that I’d been involved with the US National Mountain Bike Team for two or three years. So it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to a really high level of racing. It’s just that I [hadn’t] really dabbled in ’cross because I’ve always been so focused on mountain biking that when you come into fall, the idea is just like pump the brakes real hard, and hang out and party and have fun, all fall, and then kind of ramp back up through the spring into the summer. So when I went to college that was kind of the mindset, and I had so many friends get on my case my freshman year at college about racing ’cross, and I didn’t want to hear anything about it because I was focused on mountain biking for the summer to come. And then finally I bought a piece of shit ’cross bike and tried it out, and I really liked it. And it kind of grew from there.
CXM: It seems like you’ve taken a big jump up this season. After a rough CrossVegas, you’ve had a strong season. I’m wondering if there’s one main reason behind the improvement?
KW: Well, first I think that looking at CrossVegas as a result for the rest of the season isn’t… I mean, for me personally, I hate CrossVegas. It’s not reflective of anything else that’s ’cross racing at the [UCI] World Cups. You could be a roadie and go out there and do well, as long as you’re fit and can handle the accelerations. It’s just so different. But besides that anyway, I did have bad luck there, and I feel like if I hadn’t, I would have been able to throw together a decent result. But that’s the way it is.
CXM: Sure. That’s racing right?
KW: Yeah, in general though, I’ve been able to do better this season so far because of the fact that, I guess it was kind of unfortunate, but last year I was cut from the Raleigh/Clement program. And last year, during the year, with Raleigh I raced mountain bikes, and then jumped right into ’cross season and did a full year of racing. And last year I decided that ’cross was kinda gonna be my focus.
This year, the fact that I didn’t have a team to race mountain bikes for, it was really easy for me to say, “Okay, step back and just do a few races and maintain fitness. And then go into the summer and then really hit ’cross hard.”
That’s what I ended up doing and ended up just really basically racing [the] Pisgah Stage Race, Transylvania Stage Race, and then two mountain bike races towards the end of the summer. And then I was able to come into ’cross way fresher and more mentally able to handle the length of the ’cross season starting so early, and then, hopefully for me, at Worlds. I guess that’s the first weekend of September until mid-February.
CXM: Got it. So, physically and mentally fresher, compared to the season prior?
KW: Yeah. I just remember last year, I was really looking forward to Mountain Bike Nationals last year in Mammoth. Not for a good result, but because it was gonna be the last mountain bike race of the season for me.
CXM: Wow. That was probably a strong sign you were already spent?
KW: I was looking forward to it so much because after that I was gonna take a three-week hiatus [when] I just hiked some awesome mountains and hung out. And I think being able to do that helped me reset mentally for the ’cross season. But I think actually being able to physically not go so hard all year kinda helped me come into this season way fresher and sharper.
CXM: You won the Collegiate Nationals three times. I should know, but has anyone else ever done that?
KW: It was three consecutive years, yeah, and I don’t think anyone else has.
CXM: Two in Wisconsin and one in…
KW: In Boulder.
CXM: Boulder. So the Collegiate Nationals in Wisconsin, they both were pretty cold and frozen events. Does that make you more excited for Hartford, where it has a good chance to be really darn cold?
KW: Yeah, I mean… I don’t necessarily think it was the cold that helped me. I think it was the fact that the course…with Collegiate racing, we raced first thing in the morning. I remember I had on three layers of top and two layers down low. I think I had a regular bib and a fleece bib on. I was afraid of frostbite down under! But anyway, it was so cold that morning that the course was like ice, and I remember hitting frozen ruts and pieces of dirt that you’d think that looked like grip and it was crazy, you probably couldn’t have walked on them with regular boots, but somehow we managed to race on it.
KW: But I don’t know, Hartford…
CXM: You like those conditions?
KW: Well, I like different conditions. Conditions where you can’t just put power down and not think about how much you have to lean your bike into a corner. Just different things like that. Last year, at Asheville, that was my favorite course by far, and before that, Jingle Cross was really close up there too. It’s hard. There’s elevation change. It’s not just a dirt crit. And a lot of courses in America you get, the only time it’s gonna be hard is when it’s really, really wet and gnarly. So I’m not sure what the Hartford course is like, but I heard that if the weather isn’t nice, it’s gonna be like a tractor pull. I heard it’s just on a floodplain and there’s not much elevation change, and it’s kind of down by the river in Hartford. But I don’t know. I mean Louisville is down by the river, too, and Louisville’s always a really good course.
CXM: Last year you had a successful campaign with Raleigh-Clement. How did the team change from them to Kona this year happen?
KW: So Kona really came in out of nowhere. Last year [after getting the Raleigh news] I was reaching out to every contact that I had, and every contact that I could get, trying to figure out a program. And it just wasn’t working out, and finally I got in touch with Brian Fornes, who used to work at Raleigh, and then he went to Kona, and I got in touch with him. Actually Allen Krughoff had set me up and put in some good words for me. And Donn [Kellogg] from the Raleigh team, he was really pivotal, and kinda put in really good words with me with the Kona crew. I just had a lot of good people pulling for me with them. And I knew it was an option in December before the end of my ’cross season with Raleigh-Clement.
CXM: That must have been a relief?
KW: Yeah, because I reached out. I knew that it was there, and I reached out to Barry, and he was like, “Oh yeah, cool. Thanks for reaching out. We haven’t figured anything out with our ’cross roster yet, but I’ll keep in touch.” And I’m sure he thought I was a pain in the ass because I probably emailed him once a week saying, “Hey man! You got any updates? Come on, let me know what’s going on.” [laughs]
Finally… I mean, it took a while. It was like the end of May, when finally Kona was like, “Okay, here’s the thing” And they were offering me something. And it was still in talk then, and at that point, I had reached out to Rachel Heal at United Health Care for their ’cross program. And so I had two options all of a sudden. So it was pretty incredible because I know in the bike industry, it’s kind of hard to get things done quickly, a lot of the time.
CXM: Right. We can relate for sure.
KW: I’m sure. So to have this happen and, you know we were talking about it. It was basically just talk for a month or a month-and-a-half, and then within two days it was like, “Okay, here’s like the actual budget and here’s what’s actually gonna happen,” so that was pretty cool.
CXM: Your Kona cyclocross bike, is that a special frame or a leftover model from previous years or is that a black version of the green carbon Jake CR that the company sells now?
KW: It is the Major Jake.
CXM: That’s what they sold previously, right?
KW: Yeah, so that’s last year’s bike. I think we’re waiting on some new re-designed frames, but I’m not sure when they’re gonna get those out to us.
CXM: How is the equipment working out?
KW: Yeah, it’s great. So the big thing… I mean with Kona everything was all set up, all I had to do was figure out a wheel sponsor. I guess they went through OEM stuff for everything else, and also they paired with Barry [Wicks]’s endurance mountain bike program. So we allocated sponsors from the mountain bike program into this ’cross program to get the little accessory pieces that I needed. And then the big thing was wheels, and I have a really good friend that I actually went to college with, Eric Thompson, who works at HED. He works in [the] marketing department, and I reached out to him about getting some deals on some wheelsets. And HED was able to help me out big time with that so, yeah, after I got wheels, I was ready to go because Donn had jumped on board from last year with tires. I had that, and then everything else kind of just flowed through from Kona and from Barry with his mountain bike program.
It was a little crazy last year with Raleigh because there was like six racers at every ’cross race with Rebecca from the Amy D Foundation and then the Raleigh crew. So [the change] was kind of like a fresh breath of air.
CXM: An upside to an unexpected change?
KW: For Donn and the mechanics as well. I know James, the head mechanic there now… I’m sure he’s much more happy this year with only four riders so… And it worked out for both Rebecca and I even though we’re not part of that program anymore, we’re resourceful people, and we are nice and we burned no bridges, so people were willing to help us.
CXM: Right, that’s a great professional training.
KW: Yeah. So we’re very fortunate for that. But it’s worked out really well for both of us this year so far.
“And it worked out for both Rebecca and I even though we’re not part of that program anymore, we’re resourceful people, and we are nice and we burned no bridges, so people were willing to help us.”
CXM: So, I know you’re racing Clement tubulars tires, and you had two great, close battles with Timmerman [in DC], who’s riding tubeless tires. I’m curious whether you think tubulars are still a significant advantage?
KW: You know, it’s actually interesting, I’m really curious because, I’ve talked to Dan, not a lot, but a little bit about this because I’ve been curious myself, because the idea of having a tubeless tire and being able to have, instead of eight sets of rims, to have tubulars glued to, you can have three sets of rims and just pop tires on and off. That sounds awesome. From a consumer standpoint, that’s the way to go. But I don’t know from a professional nitty gritty standpoint… He claims to run tubular pressure in his tubeless tires and he never burps, and he never pinch flats. Stan’s been around for a while, so they have their side of it dialed. And so from the rim and tubeless setup, they’re all set. But this year, I think they’re on IRC tires, which they claim is a really, really tight tire to put on. So, I guess that helps also, so I don’t know, it’s interesting.
I haven’t been able to try it too much. I have a set of Clement MXPs set up tubeless right now on a training set of wheels. And I’ve gone down to 24, 26 no problem, and I raced them in a local ’cross-race two weekends ago, and I didn’t have any problems with them.
So I don’t know, I think that from a professional standpoint that tubulars are the way to go. Especially in muddier races where pressure matters. But I think from a consumer standpoint, I think that’s the way the market’s gonna start going. And I think you’re gonna see more and more tire companies starting to cater to that. I know Clement is already starting to cater to the tubeless market. I’m sure Challenge is gonna jump on that at some point. And having a team like the Stan’s No Tubes team run only that, I think is only gonna help push that through faster. Which is cool, because what is racing about? Or what is biking about? Being a professional about? It’s about getting more people interested in racing and having a good time. And if that means that people can relate to a pro by running tubeless, then I think that’s awesome because it’s only gonna grow our sport.
“…I’ve been curious myself, because the idea of having a tubeless tire and being able to have, instead of eight sets of rims, to have tubulars glued to, you can have three sets of rims and just pop tires on and off. That sounds awesome.”
CXM: So what benefits do you still see with tubulars?
KW: I think the fact that, like with Clement, the system is just a vulcanized system. So like the inner-tube inside and the outer rubber piece of the tire is all just vulcanized together. So when you glue that on a rim surface, you get this really predictable piece of traction to where when you lower pressure, it’s not just gonna… I feel like with a tubeless because it’s that U-shaped tire, because of the bead and the way that it’s set up on the rim. I feel like if it were to fold over, it would be really unpredictable. And the lower pressure you go, I feel like that’s where you’re gonna run into issues. Because just with a tubular, the rim surface itself isn’t as deep, it’s just more stable. I think it’s just, like I said, at lower pressure it’s just more predictable, and I guess it’s more of an issue over in Belgium where it’s muddy all the time. For us, we’ve had two muddy races this year, so it’s like, whatever…
CXM: So, you had one of your best weekends with double wins in DC, what are your goals for the rest of the season?
KW: Yeah, I mean coming off of that weekend, was really, I was really happy with that. But like I said earlier, it wasn’t the highest contested race, so…
CXM: You gotta take some credit. You showed up.
KW: No. I mean, I’m very happy with the way it went down, and I mean just because you show up doesn’t mean you’re gonna win kinda thing. I know that very well. So, my focus is kinda on C1s, and that’s where the points are. The C2s are nice, to get the exposure and get that confidence, there’s a lot to be said for the mental boost you get from coming off of a double weekend win or even a win or whatever, you know a podium. But for me, I’m really looking forward to go to the two World Cups before Worlds and then Worlds. So Nationals through Worlds is kinda my big goal right now.
CXM: You mentioned focusing on the C1s. Would there be a time when you would actually just do the C1s like Jeremy Powers has done in recent years, and skip the C2s?
KW: Nah, nah. I mean, Jeremy has his program…I understand where he’s at especially if you’re gonna incorporate a lot of overseas travel, and you know he’s done enough double weekends that he knows what he needs to do, but for me, I kinda want all the experience I can get right now.
At this point in my career, I’m just starting to hang on those guys’ wheels. So, from last year, it’s a big jump up to me, and whether or not Jeremy [races] both weekends, Stephen does, or Jamey does…It’s like I’m always there learning, which is important I think.
CXM: Got it, that makes sense. In terms of Nationals and Worlds, you seem like a shoo-in for the Worlds team. Would you trade a Nationals podium, let’s say, for a World’s top 10? How do you weigh the two?
KW: Oh, a Worlds top 10 for sure.
KW: Definitely. Yeah, I mean a lot of guys… It’s interesting I actually even reached out to Marc Gullickson about this because him and I are pretty tight just from my past involvement with the USA Mountain Bike National Team. And I always like bouncing off ideas of him. Because he’s done basically what I did. He started in mountain biking, jumped into ’cross, and he was really successful in both, so I really value his opinion in a lot of different ways.
“At this point in my career, I’m just starting to hang on those guys’ wheels. So, from last year, it’s a big jump up to me, and whether or not Jeremy [races] both weekends, Stephen does, or Jamey does…it’s like I’m always there learning, which is important I think.”
KW: So, I’ve asked him about it, and I always hear every year and I always get jealous no matter what happens in the season about guys going over for those Christmas races, just because it sounds like such a fun experience to raise that much, and be that submerged in the cyclocross culture over there.
But at the same time, after Hendersonville, North Carolina, which will be my last race in December before Nationals, there are three weekends off before Nationals. And I could go over to Europe, and I could waste some time traveling over there and then, not necessarily waste time, but instead of training, I’ll be preparing for races while I’m over there. And then I come back, and I have to race Nationals. If I skip that trip then I can spend two-and-a-half weeks of really solid training and hit Nationals with really, really good form and then try to carry that through Worlds.
I think budget-wise that makes sense for me because I don’t know that’s necessarily in my budget for two trips over there either. I think it also makes more sense for Kona because… You know, Helen Wyman’s been around for a while for Kona racing, the international scene. And I don’t know that I’m at the level that she’s at to finish in top 10’s in the World Cup. So, for me I think to stay and podium or climb to that top step at Nationals, I think that would be much bigger for Kona as a brand and kinda help me solidify myself with them for a couple of years to come.
CXM: Got it. What did Gully… What advice did he have for you?
KW: Was just to save it basically. The travel is a lot, and he said, “There’s three weekends off. That’s a lot of good training.” And he was actually the one that kinda said to me, “From a marketing aspect that Kona can… That they would value you having a better Nationals result than they would you having 20th in a World Cup.” Which is more realistic for me, 20th in the world than a top 10. So it kinda makes sense to do it that way.
CXM: He’s pretty familiar with that situation. Gully, before Jonathan Page’ silver, I think he had one of our best showings ever at Worlds with 13th one year.
KW: Yeah, Gully is a bit of an unknown legend I think. To the people that come up under him that he takes over to Europe and everything to race. Nobody really understands how good he actually was though. It is kinda cool.
CXM: What do you do when you’re not bike racing, and you want to just have a good time? Do you have any other hobbies?
KW: It’s really hard because now bike racing and just bikes, in general, have become such a big part of my life that I’m already thinking down the road. I’m super pumped on this season and really focused on ’cross, but I’m already thinking down the road towards the summer, and my girlfriend and I have a…you could probably look at it as a make or break our relationship plan, but we want to do a tandem ride, a through ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. So we want to start up North and ride it all the way South, which is like 476 miles, and we want to bike pack it on a tandem. So that’s pretty ambitious, but I’m just really into adventure and kind of just… I really like to experience new places especially outside.
So it doesn’t matter if I’m on a bike or I’m hiking, or I like to run every now and then. Not too often, but every now and then. And I don’t know… I don’t post too much about it, but I do have a KTM 250 moto. So, I’m big into that when I have time for it, and I’ll definitely dust the cobwebs off of that this spring. And there’s some OHV parks, not too far from where I am in Winston, so I’ll get to take that out and throw some smoke out the exhaust. But besides that, it’s just… I don’t know. Being outside, and just… As many experiences as I can get. That’s kind of what I’m going for.
CXM: Are you officially a dedicated ’cross racer? Or do you still consider yourself a mountain biker as well?
KW: No. I do love mountain biking, and that’s where my… In terms of riding, that’s where I can associate with the most, just like my attitude towards cycling. I am more associated with mountain biking, and maybe that’s only because ’cross hasn’t really gotten the stigma yet. Like there’s roadies, and there’s mountain bikers, but nobody is ever like, “Oh, dude, you’re a ’cross racer.” You know what I mean?
Maybe at some point, I’ll be there, but right now I’m definitely a mountain biker. And just because that’s where I started, at heart, I really love going out for trail rides and having fun and finding the flow. But for racing, it’s kinda weird because…but I guess I don’t really like racing mountain bikes anymore. I mean I like it, but I [would pick racing] ’cross. It’s just so much more exciting and thrilling for me in a ’cross race, and maybe it’s because I find myself better at it, but I just don’t like the direction that UCI mountain biking is going now. It’s just like really shitty, short courses and just not very fun. I really like 50-mile mountain bike races…the Epic Ride Series is where I am. They have some sick races. Awesome trails. Great for pros and just citizen racers going out there, that is epic. When I did Carson City last year, I saw some of the sickest views ever, and that was in a mountain bike race! That wasn’t like me, going out for a hike and looking for views. That was in a race. I saw some sick stuff. So that was cool. And I think that’s actually the direction of the sport where it’s going right now. I’m all about that.
CXM: Nice. And your contract with Kona is for two years, so for sure, we’ll see you doing a full ’cross season next year in Kona Jersey?
KW: Yeah, that’s the plan. Right now, we’re talking about going into… Transitioning into the mountain bike endurance team for mountain bike. Like I said, I’m going to focus on ’cross, but if I can put a Kona kit on, and do some really cool mountain bike races… I plan on doing Trans-Sylvania this year, after I won it last year, I get a free entry fee out of it. So, that’s a no-brainer, and it’s so close to my home. The trails are awesome. That race and then maybe a few races this summer like the Boston and Windham race just because they’re close to me…but I don’t think I’ll be doing like a full pro XCT, like full pro UCI Mountain Bike schedule, anything like that.
CXM: Any interest in any of these like longer gravel events?
KW: Yeah. Actually… Not like Dirty Kanza, I think that race is ridiculous…one race that I’ll never ever do.
CXM: Maybe like a Lost and Found or Grinduro or those kinds of things?
KW: Oh man, Grinduro is sick, right from its inaugural year, I was like, “I wish this wasn’t during ’cross season.” Because I would totally find a way to go to that. But yeah, Grinduro looks cool, and even just up near my place in the Northeast, like the Rochester area’s coming up with a pretty cool gravel series this year in May and April. So yeah, I think it’s cool. It’s good way to get in some base miles and not consider yourself a roadie I guess, which is good.
CXM: For any young junior or collegiate racer who sees someone like you and sees you doing so well, do you have any advice for them if they have aspirations of making it in the pros?
KW: Yeah, for sure. My big thing and this is so cliche because everybody’s gonna say this, but it’s like don’t give up. But that’s really what it’s about. It’s just about… And it’s not necessarily just with racing and training or anything, it’s also when reaching out to people, and really it’s about marketing yourself, and as much as it sucks to say, results aren’t a huge issue anymore, especially with social media and everything. [Related: See Craig Richey’s tips to getting sponsored here.]
CXM: Thanks a lot for the time, and good luck with the rest of your season. See you in Hartford.
KW: Thank you!