When Lane Maher got the bell while sitting in third during the Junior race at the 2018 World Championships in Valkenburg-Limburg, he was looking to join a select fraternity of U.S. male cyclocross riders. Only Matt Kelly with his legendary 1999 ride and Walker Ferguson (2000) and Danny Summerhill (2007) with their silver medals have reached the podium for the U.S. at Junior Men’s Worlds, and more recently, Logan Owen and Gage Hecht had podium near-misses.
No matter how he finished, Maher caught the attention of U.S. fans up early that Saturday morning with his impressive effort on the muddy, hilly Valkenburg course.
Maher went on to finish the race in fifth, which he celebrated accordingly after leading the race at one point and coming oh-so-close to a medal. Two months out, he is still feeling the vibes of the impressive accomplishment. “I am still feeling amazing about my ride at Worlds,” he said. “Even though the focus right now is on road racing, I am still being congratulated on the result, and I will always be grateful for that day.”
On that Saturday in the Netherlands, Maher survived the early mêlée on the sloppy course and shared the sentiments of pretty much everyone else who raced that it was incredibly hard. “The course was technically tougher than I thought anything could be,” he said. “I found that no matter how much power you could put out, it didn’t matter if you couldn’t ride the course well. It was also hard because you had to hit the perfect line every time and if you didn’t the cost was huge. Trying to ride that course and ride those ruts smoothly while absolutely pinned to the max was difficult.”
Despite the tough course, Maher was in the mix with the big European names like eventual winner Ben Tulett and Tomas Kopecky early in the race, and in the second lap, he asserted himself by taking the lead. A U.S. male rider getting screen time during the second lap of the World Championship is a rarity, and Maher knew everyone up early back home would not miss the red, white and blue peeking through the mud at the front of the race.
“During the moment when I was leading the World Championship race it truly felt like the pain in my legs went away for a bit,” he said about leading the race. “I couldn’t stop thinking that everyone back home who woke up early to watch the race could see me and that I was able to wear the nation’s colors at the front. It was one of the best and most powerful moments of my life so far. ”
Maher held his spot near the front, and with one to go, was sitting in third. A bobble in the last lap cost him his shot at the podium, but he fought back to eventually finish fifth. He was still pretty darn excited, as he should be. “When I was in medal position with one to go I was beyond happy and was so focused on keeping it. I bobbled and hit a course barrier on the last lap which knocked me back to eighth, which was the only down moment of the race, but bouncing back and grabbing a top five was great.”
Maher’s fifth-place finish put his name alongside Owen and Hecht in the annals of the best U.S. Junior male performances at Worlds in the past decade, which he is totally okay with. “Being mentioned alongside names like these is an accomplishment for me,” Maher said. “I would love to continue my cycling career as many of these riders have and be someone who younger riders can look up to and talk to as I did with these riders.”
Trust the Process
Racing Juniors is a tough proposition for young riders. After moving up from the 15-16 ranks, they get exactly two years to make their mark in the category while trying to do well in high school during their travels across the U.S. and Europe. Maher’s top finish at Nationals prior to his Junior career was an eighth in the 13-14 race in Boulder, but when he turned racing age 17, U.S. ’cross quickly learned his name.
Maher podiumed during the first Junior UCI weekend of 2016 at the KMC Cross Fest weekend and went on to win two UCI races and finish third at the 2016 Pan-Ams. In Hartford, Maher finished second behind Denzel Stephenson after the two battled well off the front from the field. With Stephenson moving up to the U23 category, Maher returned in 2017 as arguably the top U.S. Junior cyclocrosser.
Maher also made his first trip to Europe during his first year as a Junior, heading over the for the Christmas block of EuroCrossCamp at Namur and Zolder. Maher was quick to thank EuroCrossCamp program director Geoff Proctor for his help. “Geoff and USA Cycling help a tremendous amount when we are racing the EuroCrossCamp blocks,” Maher said. “Working with Geoff in Europe the past two years was a fantastic experience, and it is a relationship I will value forever.”
During his Junior years, Gage Hecht burst onto the scene and won a World Cup and finished fourth at Worlds during his first year. Maher said for most young athletes, getting to that level is a two-year process. “In the beginning [Proctor] always said it was a two-year process. The time it takes to get everything dialed and ready is a lot, but when it comes together it shows. Even in the week leading up to Worlds, I was still learning new things to help make my race the best it could be. With Geoff’s help and a full two years, I was ready for that day.”
While Geoff Proctor takes care of the more psychological and physiological aspects of preparing young riders to succeed in Europe, USA Cycling helps take care of the mechanical side. As we have seen each year, getting Junior riders to Worlds is expensive just for the athletes, and the family and team vans that support them struggle to make the trip across the ocean. USA Cycling steps in and provides mechanical support for young riders like Maher, allowing them to focus on the difficult racing task at hand.
“The support that USA Cycling provides is also fantastic,” Maher said. “Especially with the epic Worlds course and muddy conditions, the mechanics had to work so hard to keep everything running smoothly. Their effort was one of the biggest parts, in my opinion, of the result I had. My bike was perfect from start to finish even with the hectic pit and bike wash. All I can say to the USAC staff at the World Championship is thank you very much. One-hundred percent could not have done it without them.”
Looking for the Wins
Maher entered the 2017/18 season as one of the top U.S. Juniors to watch, but he also faced a talented group of riders that included Ben Gomez-Villafane, Scott Funston, Alex Morton, Greg Gunsalus, Sam Noel, Calder Wood, Dillon McNeill and many more. In short, wins at the UCI Junior races, Pan-Ams and Nationals would not come easy for Maher or any of his talented peers.
Maher finished off the podium both days at the season-opening KMC Cross Fest but then bounced back with an exclamation point. He took wins both days at the Silver Goose weekend in Canada and then won both days in Cincinnati as well. He also took second at the Pan-American Championships just behind a very on-form Gomez-Villafane.
“This season was full of highs for me,” Maher said while looking back on his season. “I did better than I did last season in every European race I did last season and had more success in the domestic races than last year. The World Championships went perfectly, and I was beyond happy to make so many people proud.”
After a successful European block that included a great start at Zolder that was (though we did not know at the time) a sign of things to come, Maher headed to Nationals in Reno looking to get the Stars-and-Stripes jersey that he came oh-so-close to getting in Hartford. It’s not quite that Eminem song about getting one shot, but Junior bike racers really only get two shots at a Junior national championship. (I guess “you only get two shots” doesn’t have the same lyrical je ne sais quoi)
On the fast, dry course in Reno, Maher started fast, but a dropped chain halfway through the first lap set him back and forced him to chase the riders at the front. He ended up finishing the morning in sixth but still learned from the experience. “Even the National Championships was good for me, I think. I got to get away from the New England cold, I got to see a lot of friends, I got to see great racing and I learned that if you run 1x without a clutch derailleur, don’t be surprised when the chain comes off.”
Maher concluded, “I deal with the good and the bad by trying my best to see everything as a win, whether it has to do with bike racing or not.”
“I deal with the good and the bad by trying my best to see everything as a win, whether it has to do with bike racing or not.” – Lane Maher
On to the U23s
Like many of his peers, Maher will be busy this summer. He is racing a full road schedule with his Hot Tubes Development team that will include, not surprisingly, a trip to Europe. “My plans for the summer consist of racing my bike with the Hot Tubes Development Cycling Team and relaxing when I can,” he said. “I am very excited to be racing the Junior Tour of Ireland again with my team and racing many other races throughout the summer.”
Even though Maher now spends his summers on the road, he actually got his start in a different discipline. “BMX was the perfect place to start in my opinion,” Maher said about his start in the cycling. “The skills it gave me were a big part of it all, but it was such a fun way for me to get into bike racing.”
Maher said the skills he learned as a young BMXer still help him today. “The starts from BMX racing have still stuck with me to this day in cyclocross starts and on the road. I think BMX helped with quick accelerations and sprinting, and especially when I am in Europe, I think that I learned from an early age how to rub shoulders going into turns from BMX racing.”
Does he still get some BMX time in? “I don’t do anymore BMX riding,” he said. “However, I would love to get back on a BMX bike someday. I do visit my local BMX track sometimes and it brings back great memories.”
Maher graduates from high school this May and then he will be off the cyclocross U23s after his season on the road. His road campaign wraps up his time with the Hot Tubes Devo program, and he said he has a not-yet-announced plan shaping up for the coming cyclocross season.
Moving up to the U23s is a next-level challenge, especially given how much talent the category currently has in the U.S. No matter what, Maher is likely to get some literal race wins while continuing to learn and improve through the more metaphorical kind.