The 2019 Elite Men's domestic cyclocross season was largely defined by the intense battles between Kerry Werner (Kona Maxxis Shimano) and Curtis White (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld). That storyline played out a month ago at the Pan-American Championships, with Werner beating White in the last-lap thriller.
Largely left out of that narrative have been two riders familiar with success at Cyclocross Nationals in three-time Elite champion Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) and many-time Junior champion Gage Hecht (Donnelly / Aevolo). Hyde has dealt with hip and back issues, while Hecht has looked for consistent speed in his legs after a long road season.
As the Elite Men's field prepared to wrap the week of racing at the 2019 Lakew0od Nationals, Hecht and Hyde looked to put their own twist on the story of this year's Nationals, while Werner and White were hoping to cap their impressive domestic campaigns with the most coveted jersey in U.S. ’cross.
Something, as they say, had to give.
An Impromptu Duel
Curtis White kicked off the 35th and final championship race of the Lakewood Nationals week by leading the field off the pavement at the end of the long start stretch.
Shortly before the first run-up, Hecht, who was racing in the Elite race despite having U23 eligibility, took over the lead spot. He charged up the run-up and then ran the uphill of the Sunday-only section to get a gap on White.
Dropping back to the lower part of the course, Hecht already had a 3-second lead on White. Werner, Hyde and others scrambled to keep up with the young rider's blistering pace.
Hecht stayed on the gas through the flats before the second steep run-up. When he hit the base of the climb, he still maintained a 4-second advantage on Werner, White, Hyde and an upstart Cody Cupp.
Showing his early bid to take over the race was for real, Hecht kept on the accelerator up the orchard climb and back down the second descent chute. Back on the flats, Werner sensed Hecht pulling away and a chance to avoid a Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld sandwich, and he started to jump across the gap to Hecht.
"I knew from watching the course earlier today that it was all about just making sure that you’re hitting the top of every one of the descents first because there were gaps forming every time," Hecht said about his fast start. "The back guys always had to chase an extra couple of seconds. That was always my goal, to come in clean."
By the end of the first blistering lap, Werner was on Hecht's wheel. Hyde and White chased 4 seconds back. Behind them, a chase of Cupp, Brannan Fix (Alpha Bicycle - Groove Subaru), Grant Ellwood (Pivot / Maxxis p/b Stan's NoTubes) and Lance Haidet (Donnelly / Aevolo) worked to keep up.
"I knew it was going to be a little bit chaotic because that start was so long before that first run-up," Hyde said. "It was a really interesting mix of wet, slick racing, which brings out the guys who don't have a ton of power, but there were also long power stretches that brought out the guys with power. So everybody was there."
Early in the second lap, Hecht and Werner extended their advantage up to 6 seconds. White and Hyde traded turns on the front, trying to chip away at the gap. Through the sand pit and toward the Sunday-only climb and descent in the second lap, it looked like the duel du jour might be Kenny v. Gage and not the Kenny v. Curtis fans have grown accustomed to this season.
A moment of bad luck ended that potential duel before it could start.
Hecht led the descent down the Sunday-only section at the far corner of the course. Near the bottom, a rut sent him flying into the course tape. As he steered back onto the course, the tape streamed from his bike.
Following close behind, Werner got his wheel caught in the tape trailing Hecht and fell to the ground. As he got untangled and sorted out his bike, Hyde and White went streaming past.
After the incident, Hecht now led the Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld teammates by 3 seconds. Werner chased a 10-second gap.
"Some leaves got piled up in the rut and I couldn’t quite see what it was," Hecht said. "I hit it a little off-center and I flew into the tape and then came back on course through the tape and brought some with me. Kerry ended up going through the tape I dragged on course. That was kind of messy and a bummer for him. I felt really bad about that. I’ve got to apologize for doing that to him."
The Fox and the Hounds
Two laps in the seven-lap Elite Men's race, the Cannondale teammates seemed well-situated to take advantage of a two-on-one situation. To do so, however, they first had to catch the foxy young rider who had proved elusive for the first 18 minutes of racing.
Throughout the third lap, Hecht remained tantalizingly close, sitting just 3 or 4 seconds in front of the 2 teammates. After the second descent chute, Hyde broke free and took up the chase of Hecht without his teammate. At the end of the lap, Hecht now led Hyde by 4 seconds. Hyde, in turn, led his teammate by 4 seconds.
"I was thinking Curtis would be able to roll up to them, but it kind of didn't work out like that. I had to get around Curtis, and luckily Gage crashed, and I was able to get back up. But then Gage was just pedaling a lot harder than I could go. There was nothing I could do about that," Hyde said.
Hecht's power was on display on the flats on Sunday, but he also showed superior running ability on the steep run-ups. On the first steep climb, he extended his lead up to 6 seconds. After Hyde led the pursuit at the end of the previous lap, White stepped up on the flats of Lap 4. Hecht's advantage sat at 6 seconds with 3 laps to go.
After two laps of the gap between Hecht and Hyde and White holding steady, Hecht finally broke through in Lap 5. His advantage grew to 9 seconds after the first run-up and descent, and it then swelled to 12 seconds with 2 laps to go.
"I don't know how much of it was working together," Hyde said about the chase. "I would just look up, and if Curtis looked like he had some legs, I would let him go around, and if not, I would go. That's all we could really do."
A lap later, a 19-second advantage sat between Hecht and his first Elite National Championship.
White stepped up to lead the chase early in the bell lap, and he chipped a few seconds off Hecht's lead by the time he reached the second run-up, but it proved too little, too late. The young fox was going to outwit the hounds in Lakewood on Sunday.
"There were a few run-ups but there weren’t many places to make up time outside of that," Hecht said. "It was just laying down every bit of gas I could going up to there and making it down safe."
Hecht pulled onto the pavement with a significant gap and was able to enjoy the moment as he crossed the line as the new Elite Men's National Champion.
"It’s so exciting. To win Elite ’Cross Nats, it's the pinnacle of American ’cross. There’s not much better than that. I’m just ecstatic," Hecht said.
White followed in second, and Hyde crossed the line close behind to take the bronze.
Werner and Haidet battled for fourth for most of the race before Werner got the upper hand.
For more from the Elite Men's race, see the interview, photo gallery and results below.
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Gage Hecht: 2019 Elite Men's Cyclocross National Champion