California's George Smith (Menlo Velo Cyclocross) has come close to winning a cyclocross national championship before. Not just once, but three times, he has finished second.
On Wednesday in the Masters 65-69 race at Lakewood Nationals, he had another shot to get that Nationals monkey off his back. The only problem? Opposing him move for move off the front was U.S. cyclocross legend Paul Curley (Spin Arts / American Lung Association). No problem, right?
Curley started fast, pushing the pace on the run-ups and forcing the rest of the field to chase him down. As the first lap closed, Smith was the one man capable of answering Curley's call. The two held an advantage of 7 seconds after 1 lap and would duel for the next 3 trips around the Fort Steilacoom Park circuit.
For the rest of the race, a pattern repeated itself. Curley opened up gaps on the run-ups and descents, while Smith used his power to close those gaps on the flats. Still, as the final lap progressed, Curley was unable to shake Smith and the two approached the final corner gearing up for a sprint.
Smith again called on his power and charged down the long paved straight wheel-to-wheel with Curley. An extra final kick gave him the ultimate win and his long-awaited Stars-and-Stripes jersey.
"I knew to win, I’d have to battle Paul pretty hard because he’s always strong," Smith said. "Just to let you know, I’ve been second like three times in the past. So I've never won, and I was thinking another second, but it’s nice to get to the top."
Down to the Wire
Wednesday's Lakewood Nationals Masters Men 65-69 race kicked off with an East Coaster, in Massachusetts' David Goodwin (Northampton Cycling Club) taking the holeshot.
After slotting in a few wheels back, Paul Curley quickly made his presence felt by moving to the front at the first run-up. Curley led the way down the first descent along with Kevin Johnson (Egencia). Goodwin and then Smith chased behind the two fast starters.
Curley's hot pace would only last so long, and the two chasers eventually bridged to make it a lead group of four at the second run-up. This time, when Curley again continued to excel on the technical features, Smith answered the call, and after one lap, the two had a gap on Johnson and then Goodwin.
The second of four laps demonstrated how the rest of the race would play out. Curley again opened a gap on the first run-up and descent, but Smith powered back to him on the flats to make it a two-up charge up the second run-up. Curley again opened a gap on the run, but Smith again closed it up on the flats.
Halfway into the race, the two riders' respective strengths balanced out to parity. Now, in addition to racing the damp course, the two had to strategerize where to make their moves down the stretch.
In the third lap, the same dynamic again played out. Curley opened leads on the two run-ups, and Smith shut them down on the flats. However, this lap, the sand pit seemed like it might prove the site of a decisive moment.
Curley led into the sand on foot, while Smith tried to charge through on the bike. He got hung up and while he dismounted, Curley opened up another small gap. The advantage became 4 seconds at the bell, and with the run-up looming after the start/finish straight, it appeared Curley had the upper hand.
Smith was not going to go down easy though. He minimized Curley's strengths and then pulled even with the New England legend at the second run-up. Smith and Curley both put everything into that dash up the steep, muddy, rutted hill, and Curley again remounted with the smallest of leads.
Smith recovered, and again took the lead with a big dig past Pit 2. He led the charge into the sand, but Curley was able to run past him and grab the lead one more time. Smith again regained Curley's wheel. The second sprint finish in three races loomed.
The two charged down the long stretch of pavement, weaving, grabbing space and trying to get the smallest of advantages.
Smith ultimately got the upper hand and came across the line to grab the Stars-and-Stripes jersey.
Curley finished second and Mark Schwyhart (Team S&M CX) third. Goodwin and Jan Bear (Team Santa Fe) rounded out the wide-angle podium.
Full results and a photo gallery are below.
George Smith Winner Interview