Kerry Werner is known for his laid-back nature, but with the biggest race of his season minutes away, Werner could be forgiven if he was a bit nervous. Not surprisingly, that was anything but the case.
As the Elite Men congregated around the call-up area at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno, Werner was sporting a large gold chain over his Kona warm-up jacket. The chain was not new in Reno; it had gotten some use earlier in the week when Aaron Bradford wore it en route to a third-place finish in the Baby Masters race on Thursday.
Was he going to wear the chain during the race like Bradford did? “It’s for pre-races vibes,” Werner replied. Bradford’s chain made it all the way to the start line, where the nerves often start to intensify. Werner still seemed relaxed.
The pre-race juju courtesy of his friend Bradford paid off. Werner finished third for the second straight year, coming back in the last lap to top Tobin Ortenblad for the final podium spot.
Werner originally hails from Pennsylvania and Bradford from Washington, so the connection between the two is not a given. Both, however, succumbed to the allure of the mountains of North Carolina and attended Lees-McRae College and raced for its varsity cycling program.
The connection between the two is one of many among riders who come to North Carolina for college and find themselves unable to resist the siren call of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the case of Werner, Tristan Cowie and Eric Thompson, giving into that temptation has paid off both professionally and personally.
The Old College Try
There are areas of the U.S. that are certainly legendary for producing top-level cyclocross riders — the Northeast, Oregon’s Cyclocross Crusade, the Boulder area — and in recent years, North Carolina has produced a low-key impresive congregation of talent.
“North Carolina is a stacked place to race,” said Mills River resident and Worlds team member Tristan Cowie. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say we are starting to rival the New England guys in terms of the depth of racing at the local events. It’s pretty regular that Kerry, Travis Livermon, recent transplant Eric Thompson and plenty of other guys show up to the local events.”
North Carolina has a strong cyclocross scene, with the NCCX holding 16 races in 2017, including the snowy North Carolina Grand Prix UCI weekend in Hendersonville, but perhaps more importantly from the standpoint of attracting talent, it is the home of two top-level varsity cycling programs in Lees-McRae and Brevard College.
The two schools are located in the Appalachians — Lees-McRae in Banner Elk, northeast of Asheville, Brevard to the southwest. With the number of songs about Carolina and its allure, it is no surprise young adults would be drawn back after college.
Eric Thompson, who recently moved back to Carolina, said the riding there has made him feel like a kid again. “It has been amazing.” he said about his return. “When we first got to Asheville I was like a kid in a candy store. Lots of group rides, so many roads to get lost on, and the climbs made me realize that I wasn’t really in shape enough to be here. Eventually things came together and I got to know a lot of nice people in the community and more of the roads. I feel like I’ve honestly just scratched the surface.”
Thompson and Cowie joined Werner as young athletes drawn to North Carolina for college. They started their adult cycling careers in small southern college towns, but this weekend, Werner and Cowie’s names will ring out on the sport’s highest stage at the 2018 World Championships in Valkenburg-Limburg and Thompson will be there to watch them while doing a European block of racing of his own.
Werner and Thompson attended Lees-McRae while Cowie went to rival Brevard. Perhaps fittingly, Bradford and his good-vibe chain helped launch the cyclocross program at Lees-McRae, allowing Werner to step in and win Collegiate Nationals three straight years from 2012 to 2014. Thompson also benefited, finishing as high as third at Collegiate Nats in 2008.
Werner and Thompson established a college friendship that continues to this day. “I knew Kerry very well before moving down here,” said Thompson. “We both went to college together at Lees-McRae, and he has been one of my best friends since. In school we spent lots of time training, taking cycling team trips and obviously behaving ourselves very well as usual college kids do.”
“Eric and I go back to college together,” said Werner about his friendship with Thompson. “He was pretty influential in getting me to race ’cross and was our top rider when I was a freshman and sophomore. He is one of my best friends and actually came up to Winston for Thanksgiving and recently Christmas so we could do some training together.”
Separated by less than three hours, Brevard is a big rival of Lees-McRae. Cowie attended Brevard when the cycling program was on the upswing and helped establish it as one of the top programs in the country, especially for off-road riding.
Cowie remembers racing against Werner well. “He was this scrawny kid that had amazing technical skills and plenty of power,” Cowie said about Werner. “He wasn’t the top dog on the team just yet, but you could tell he definitely had the make-up for a successful racer. The pure drive he had was impressive. I remember him breaking his collarbone at Collegiate Nats one year and he just laughed it off like it was no big deal. You could see in his eyes that yep, he was going to come back and destroy everyone he could the next year.”
The three riders’ college days laid the groundwork for a North Carolina cyclocross rivalry years down the road.
In My Mind, I’m Gone to Carolina
Each of the three athletes had a different path to North Carolina. Tristan Cowie one who came to Carolina and then stayed. Cowie grew up racing bikes in Georgia before moving to North Carolina to attend Brevard.
As a young rider, Cowie was a star. “I raced mountain bikes with the National team in Europe a few times and also competed at the World Championships in 2007,” he said about his Junior days. Not surprisingly, he had big career dreams, but as often happens to top-level Juniors, his high-level racing was too much too soon. “I was dead set on making the next big step after graduating, but injuries and plain old burn out made me quit cycling for a few years.”
Cowie stepped away from racing for a year and a half before returning to the mountain bike in 2012. In 2013, he decided to pick up cyclocross and target the 2016 hometown Asheville Nationals. “I decided to get back into bikes but wanted a new challenge,” he said. “Around that same time it was announced that ’Cross Nationals would be in Asheville, so I had a few years to get into a position to get good UCI points and pull off a good result at my hometown National Champs.”
Cowie finished 20th at the 2015 Nationals in Austin, and then 15th at his target in Asheville. Cowie has continued to steadily improve, and this year in Reno he made the big leap, finishing seventh and qualifying for the Worlds team.
Eric Thompson is a rider who left North Carolina, but eventually found his way back. Thompson is originally from Minnesota and moved down south to attend Lees-McRae. He admitted that living down there “planted the bug for my love of the mountains.” After graduating, Thompson and his girlfriend Heather Angel moved up north for the hot dishes and poutine.
Despite leaving, a return was always in the offing. “We spent some time in the cold where I grew up, but ever since we made the move, we wanted to eventually get back to North Carolina.” After five years of living in Minnesota, the siren call of the mountains of Carolina finally brought Thompson back during the cyclocross season.
Kerry Werner is originally from Pennsylvania, and he also came to Carolina in 2009 to attend Lees-McRae. As college progressed, he too found himself wanted to spend more time in his adopted home. “I went back home to Pennsylvania for holidays but gradually started staying more and more because Banner Elk is such an enchanting place.”
Werner’s residency was secured when he met Emily Shields at Lees-McRae. Shields is originally from Salisbury, North Carolina, so after college Werner had probably the best reason to stay. The two now live near Winston-Salem, east of the Appalachians.
Werner admits, riding-wise, maybe the mountains would still be a bit better. “The mountain biking around here is lame, but there is some so it’s better than nothing,” he said.
That said, like a twangy country song, he found love in Carolina. Werner proposed to Shields at the end of the summer and the two are now engaged.
“I will admit I was much more nervous than I thought I was going to be when I proposed,” he said about the experience. “I knew that I wanted to and I thought I wouldn’t have a problem because she is my best friend and I tell her everything, even the weird gross stuff.”
“We got up to the top of the mountain, and I had my friend stand on the ridge over so he could take a photo of me proposing. Well, I got so nervous that I forgot to go down on one knee, so his pictures simply look like we are standing on top of a mountain talking.”
She still said yes.
A NCCX Brawl
With the three college friends now in North Carolina, the talent pool for North Carolina’s local series, NCCX, has deepened considerably. Throw in Travis Livermon and the Beard Robert Marion when he gets healthy, and there are a number of national-caliber athletes who may find their way to local races.
Cowie, Thompson and Werner spent most of the season traveling the UCI circuit, but with the US Cup-CX series ending in Louisville, the domestic calendar went more regional in November and early December.
That meant the three got to stick around North Carolina for the North Carolina Grand Prix in Hendersonville the second weekend in December. The day before the race, Hendersonville got dumped on. By snow. The Minnesotan Thompson was right at home, and Werner got the muddy, gross conditions he craves.
More importantly, there was the hype. And some darn fine hype it was.
A key to the success of the social media hype for the North Carolina racing was the trio does not take themselves too seriously. “We all have a great time with it, and making light of racing in a way people can get behind brings something else to the sport,” said Thompson. “We’re hoping it initiates the need for rider supporter groups in the U.S. that come to each race and cheer on their rider.”
Prior to the North Carolina GP, race and NCCX series director Tim Hopkins wanted to build some excitement for the UCI race by encouraging the riders to talk some good-natured smack about each other. “That spawned from Tim Hopkins, basically forcing me to stir the pot at one of the earlier rounds of NCCX racing,” said Werner. “He wanted me to call Tristan out for not being there and start hyping up the NCGP, which I was glad to do because Tim is an awesome guy and I really like the NCGP. From there things escalated a bit.”
“This year we were talking about making the North Carolina Grand Prix more of a ‘Fight Night’ theme between the major North Carolina cyclocrossers, and Kerry came through big time with his skills in graphic design,” said Thompson about the escalation.
According to Werner, it was really Thompson who came up with the “Fight Night” theme. “Eric Thompson chimed in on Twitter referencing a boxing match and a potential belt up for grabs,” said Werner. “Then I got bored at home and got the idea to photoshop that boxing photo together.”
Cowie agreed that the whole hype machine worked perfectly. “Tim wanted to grow some interest so he asked us if we wouldn’t mind kind of talking smack on the other,” he said. “I thought it was a great idea. Cycling needs a little bit of comedic relief. I mean maybe the top one percent of the sport is actually making a living at it, so why not actually have some fun with it.” He added, “Everybody loves a good competition.”
He continued, “We started doing some interviews where we jokingly trashed talked the other guy and then Kerry made a parody UFC ‘Fight Card.’ It had our weights, most recent wins and interesting facts about each other. He superimposed our heads on to body builder bodies. It was hilarious.”
“I think it helped both of us step out into the limelight. Doing the mock rivalry thing was a great way to break the tension and just remember why we all do it; because riding bikes is an absolute blast.”
The pre-race hype paid off and the North Carolina GP was a memorable weekend for the three Carolina transplants. Werner won both days in the snow, and on Sunday, they pulled off the podium trifecta, with Thompson grabbing second place.
After the race, they … yeah.
Having a concentration of national-level talent helped the riders stay sharp in the month before Nationals. Cowie has aspirations of making the Worlds team, so the competition helped stay sharp for the Old West shootout in Reno.
After finishing third at the 2017 Hartford Nationals, Werner established himself in the top tier of U.S. cyclocross riders. With a month left before Nationals, Stephen Hyde was in Europe racing against the world’s best, and Tobin Ortenblad was laying waste to the western half of the domestic UCI calendar. He also benefited from his old college pals talking trash and throwing down against him.
The three raced the following weekend at the Pinehurst NCCX race, where Werner again grabbed top honors and Thompson and Cowie rounded out the podium. They gathered again the first weekend in January for two more battles before Nationals. Not surprisingly, all three were on the podium again.
“Having that to keep my engine hot in the weeks off before Nats is pretty crucial and takes stress off of having to focus specifically on training,” said Werner. “Interval training is necessary, but racing always pushes you a little harder.”
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
As Jeremy Powers mentioned in his interview about the end of Aspire Racing, U.S. cyclocross is going to a more individual model where privateer programs are increasingly common. Whereas European teams often train together and do team camps, U.S. riders are often forced to do their training solo and then drive and fly across the country each week to race.
Friendships like the ones Werner, Thompson and Cowie have formed are essential for filling the void left by not having a large team to spend time with and learn from. In the case of the three Carolina transplants, it also fits their personalities.
“Going to the races and seeing familiar faces that can take your mind off of the seriousness of the weekend is great and critical,” said Werner. “I am a pretty laid back guy and hate anticipating race starts and sitting around idle to get on the trainer or wait to get on the course. So it is great to have Eric pop by my tent or roll over to Hyde’s and talk some shit or hang out and talk about stuff that isn’t race related. This kind of stuff keeps me mentally fresh and less stressed.”
“It’s super important,” said Cowie about the friendships he’s formed. “Not only with other racers but with local friends and fans. It’s kind of nice having a home away from home. I’ve got friends that I might only see a few times a year at certain races so it’s good to break up the travel. And you end up racing against the same guys every weekend, so it’s good to have a little bit of camaradery at each race. Cycling is such a cool sport like that; we’ve always got common ground and something to talk about.”
“I think it’s super important, at least to the point where you have a small community at each race and are still welcoming to other riders,” said Thompson, echoing Cowie. “When traveling for cyclocross, things can get pricey or maybe you forget a key tool or component, and most guys are nice enough to share a bit of love and help you out. Everyone has been there, and our sport is relatively small and most riders are working on a very small budget, so I think it’s best to keep supporting each other in order to continue to grow the scene.”
Another benefit of the European team model is athletes get to ride and train with other elite-level riders. Anyone who rides bikes knows that joining the fast group ride or racing up a category is going to push you to get better. The same is true for the pros.
“Sometimes it is hard to push yourself enough, but with other guys around of similar fitness and skill it makes the efforts that one or two percent harder, which is obviously beneficial,” said Werner. “Otherwise it is just nice to have people on the same page as you.”
Thompson agreed. “I think there is always something to say about training with someone who is faster than you, it really helps you work on the smaller things that make a difference in a race.”
There is no question the Europeans benefit from the team structure and having the opportunity to compete against one another. The friendships among U.S. riders have provided them with the opportunity to ride with and learn from each other.
These, dare we say, cyclocross bromances, are en vogue this season. The biggest one is obviously Stephen Hyde and Wout van Aert, who did a training block together in Spain at the end of November.
However, before there was Hyde and Wout, there was Kerry and Stephen. Werner and Hyde have become friends and have taken the opportunity to ride together when the opportunity presents itself.
“Hyde is a cool dude to ride with,” said Werner. “I remember doing some mid-week efforts with him in between the World Cups and Worlds last year over in Europe. I look up to Hyde for sure, and when he tells you ‘this is what I am doing,’ then I kind of drop what I am doing to ride with him and see if I can glean anything from that experience.”
When Thompson first moved to North Carolina at the end of last year, he spent some time staying with Werner and Shields, which also meant he got to do some training with Werner.
Much like Hyde looks up to Van Aert and Werner looks up to Hyde, Thompson looks to Werner to see what he is doing. “I consider myself really fortunate to be able to train with him again,” said Thompson about riding with Werner. “It’s not only been awesome because we’re great friends, but also for me to learn from someone who has already been very successful in the sport is invaluable.”
Although Cowie and Thompson look up to Werner because of what the Kona rider has accomplished on the bike, they were still not afraid to razz him a bit.
Cowie focused on Werner’s clothes. “Space pants look terrible on me but great on him,” said Cowie. He also added, “Kerry used to race downhill and dual slalom in some cut off jeans. Not sure if he had a chamois down there or not. That was pretty entertaining.”
And Thompson ribbed him for his old ’cross mustache. “Kerry and Emily give me a hard time,” he said about his facial hair. “The ironic thing is that in school and a few years after Kerry was all about the mustache, but now it seems that love has faded and I’m all alone now that I actually try and grow one for ‘cross. I’m sure you could find some good old photos with him still sporting one with possibly some help from Just for Men mustache dye.”
He concluded, “It’s okay though, I’ve got enough self-esteem to battle through cyclocross season banter and work on my exceptional looks afterward.”
With the privateer model of U.S. cyclocross, friendships among the riders are likely to continue to play an important role in the development of U.S. talent. The UCI scene and the European races provide the country’s best to spend quality training and social time together and push each other to get better.
A Fortuitous Confluence of Success
Admittedly, the idea for this story was spawned by Werner’s “Fight Club” poster for the NCGP and since first reaching out to Cowie and Werner, the pieces have all fallen into place perfectly.
When I spoke with Cowie, a trip to Worlds was his moonshot cyclocross goal. “Realistically I’d like to get a top ten,” he said about his Nationals goal. “I’ve been knocking on the door with both mountain bike and ‘cross results, but still haven’t punched through it at Elite Nationals. The icing on the cake would be a top five and a trip to Worlds. That’s my long term goal.”
His long-term goal came to fruition pretty quickly in Reno. Cowie finished seventh and punched his ticket to Valkenburg-Limburg as a member of Team USA.
Thompson’s move to North Carolina was timed perfectly and his friendship with Werner added another level to the story. Thompson missed Nationals, but that was because he is over in Belgium and will be racing there after Worlds to the end of the season. “Last year I learned so much while competing there and hope to gain more knowledge and experience to make another leap for next year,” he said about the trip.
Werner has benefitted from the competition of his friends and after a third at Nationals is ready to put everything together on Sunday at Worlds.
“I really want to put together at top 20 at Worlds,” he said. “Last year I was 33rd, but I think I am better than that and want to put all this training to the test on the world stage. That would also validate my pursuit of going over to Europe for a long time next year. I want to go right after Nats, in December, next year and stay through Worlds. I think having a good results over there this year will help me go into next season with some lofty goals.”
Each of the three is over in Europe for their different reasons, but soon enough they will be back in North Carolina, racing bikes, learning from each other and talking some friendly smack to keep things loose. Werner and Cowie will likely meet on the singletrack at the Pisgah Stage Race, and Thompson is working on acquiring a mountain bike to get ripping on Ridgeline at DuPont and the rest of the impressive trails in North Carolina.
As we like to say, stay tuned to see what this trio of North Carolina transplants accomplishes and make sure to follow all the hype on social media.