Jake Wells (FORM Attainment Studio p/b IRC) headed east to Louisville looking to defend the Masters 40-44 National Championship he earned earlier this year in Reno.
For the first four laps of Friday's race, however, Molly Cameron (Point S Nokian) showed she had other plans for the Stars-and-Stripes jersey. Cameron opened up a lead on Wells in the fourth lap and carried a nine-second advantage at the bell.
With the predicted rains finally starting in earnest in the early afternoon, the race was very much still up in the air.
"I knew it was going to be a little bit tougher race, with proximity to the East Coast," Wells said about his defense. "A few more people were signed up. Molly was on great form, I saw that she did the non-championship race earlier in the week, so I knew she was going well. It's a toss-up out there."
Wells used one last big effort to pull close to Cameron on the upper part of the course and made contact with the race leader at the off-camber. When Cameron slipped on the left-hand corner before the stairs, Wells sprinted into the lead and pressed his advantage through the chicanes.
Wells' lead was up to eight seconds at the bottom of the second climb. Seemingly armed with a last-lap second wind, Wells powered up the final climb toward his second-straight title.
"I had a great race, I was able to put it together on the last lap where it mattered," Wells said. "It took about four laps to get a feel for those ruts and where I could put my pressure and traction and where I couldn't."
Another Masters Thriller
The Masters 40-44 race had big shoes to fill after the thriller put on by Don Myrah and Roger Aspholm in the Masters 50-54 race right before. The Masters 40-44 men had an added degree of difficulty thanks to rain that began to fall in earnest as the start neared.
The race started on an unfortunate note when 2017 National Champion and current Pan-American Champion Matt Timmerman (Cannondale) had his chain snap at the start. Steven Stefko took the holeshot and led the field out onto the course.
Early in the first lap, Wells, Reno 35-39 champion Kevin Day (Team Endurance 360), Steven Stefko (First City Cycling Team) and Justin Robinson lined up at the front, and after the stairs, Wells and Day pushed the pace.
Day took over the lead on the second climb, and then a mass of riders charged up the climb to Pit 2 that was still rideable at that point in the afternoon. Cameron was the strongest climber, powering past Day and Wells and carrying a six-second advantage after one lap. A large group of riders chased behind her.
The chase group did not last long. In the first third of the second lap, the group broke up and Wells went to the front with Cameron. Day sat in third as the first chaser.
Cameron got a gap on Wells on the second climb by staying on the bike longer and running less. Two laps in, Cameron had another gap on Wells. The third lap belonged to Wells, with the Coloradoan bridging at the first climb, putting the two at the front once again.
Behind the two leaders, the chase became Jared Nieters (SEAVS/Haymarket), Weston Schempf (SEAVS/Haymarket) and Stefko.
If Lap 3 belonged to Wells, Cameron returned the favor in Lap 4. She carried an eight-second advantage into the bowl, and although Wells closed at the off-camber, Cameron recovered her lead and carried a nine-second advantage into the bell lap.
Wells needed something special to defend his title.
Cameron still held an eight-second advantage on the descent into the bowl, but from the top of the bowl to the off-camber, Wells closed the gap. The two ran out of the off-camber toward the stairs together.
They made the left-hand turn at the same time, but Cameron slipped to the ground. The moment allowed Wells to sprint up the stairs and carry a few seconds into the chicanes.
From there, Wells went all-in to hold the lead. He led by eight seconds at the bottom of the second climb and extended his lead from there. When Wells cleared the final climb, it was clear he had completed his comeback and successful last-lap title defense.
"[Molly] slid out on that left-hander right before the run-up, then I got in front of her going into the descent and kind of led from there," Wells said. "I didn't look back. I knew that she was running fast. I knew that if I was going to stay ahead I needed to stay on the gas."
Cameron crossed behind Wells with a heartbreaking second-place finish.
Schempf made his move in the fourth lap to rise to the top of the chase group and take third.
For more on the Masters 40-44 race, see the winner interview, photo gallery and results below.
Visit our dedicated Louisville Cyclocross Nationals page for all of our 2018 Nationals coverage, and enter your Cyclocross Nationals Fantasy team today for a chance to win glory and great stuff from Easton, Feedback Sports, Kenda and PrestaCycle.
You can purchase race photos from our nightly galleries at cyclocross.zenfolio.com and help support our event coverage.
Jake Wells: Winner Interview