When Eric Brunner (Blue - Stages Racing) took the start line for his final U23 Men's National Championships race on Sunday in Lakewood, there was a lot on the line for the young man from Colorado.
Brunner came close to winning a title in Reno in 2018, and he finished third a year ago in Louisville. Missing from his collection was a cyclocross Stars-and-Stripes.
Halfway into the second lap of Sunday's race when the two-time defending Collegiate Varsity National Champion Caleb Swartz (Linear Sport Racing / Trek) joined him at the front, the Collegiate Club National Champion got more motivation with the chance to represent for his University of Colorado-Boulder team.
Brunner vs. Swartz, Club vs. Varsity, the two young men kicked off a battle to close the morning of racing on Sunday.
Lane Maher (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld Devo) came into Lakewood Nationals on a hot streak after wrapping up the Vittoria Series overall last weekend. Maher took the early lead through the Sunday-only section and led down the first descent. Scott Funston (The Hold Fast Project) followed in second, and Brunner, Alex Morton (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld Devo) and Jack Tanner took up the chase 5 seconds back.
On the flats leading to the second run-up, race favorite Brunner took over the front of the chase and powered toward Maher and Funston. Once at the top of the run-up, Maher pushed the pace up the orchard climb, and Brunner powered to second position.
Once back on the flats, Brunner, the Collegiate Club Criterium National Champion, quickly ate into Maher's lead. He pulled within a few bike lengths at the sand pit and then made the catch at the Sunday-only run-up. Behind the two leaders, Swartz led the charge along with Funston.
After a first lap of chasing, Brunner took over the lead early in the second lap. He led down the first descent chute and pressed his advantage on the flats. Maher struggled to keep up his pace, and Swartz powered forward into second.
In his Collegiate Varsity win, Swartz excelled on the run-ups, and in Lap 2, he proved fleet of foot again. Once at the top of the steep incline, he quickly closed the gap to Brunner on the climb to the top of the orchard. Once back to the lower part of the course, Swartz took the lead when Brunner pitted, but two laps in, the two Collegiate champs were together. Funston chased 15 seconds back.
"I did really expect Lane to be one of the strongest guys in the race, and I was surprised that he wasn’t there," Brunner said. "But I had to race who was up there in the front."
Early in the third lap, Brunner opened a gap, but Swartz recovered, and the two took the second descent together. Then, on the flats leading to Pit 2, Brunner started to really turn the screws.
"The long straightaways were one of my strengths," Brunner said after the race.
A few bike lengths became a few seconds at the sand pit, and then Brunner led the charge up the Sunday only run-up. Already chasing a few seconds, Swartz crashed at the top of the descent and had to run to the bottom of the feature. Brunner's lead was now 15 seconds.
Armed with a comfortable gap, Brunner did not leave anything to chance. He stayed dialed and extended his lead the next 2 laps to carry a 32-second lead into the bell lap.
He stampeded through the final lap to capture the U23 National Championship and score a win for his Collegiate Club team as well.
"It was cool to take one out for the Club guys and show that Colorado is a real Collegiate program," Brunner said about the impromptu intramural race.
"It was honestly such a hard course that I just had to focus on doing well on the course and not really worrying about the other guys," he added.
Swartz wrapped up his impressive Nationals with a silver, and Funston took third. Morton and Sam Noel (Competitive Edge Racing) rounded out the wide-angle podium.
For more from the U23 Men's race, see the interview, photo gallery and results below.
Eric Brunner: U23 Men's Winner Interview