Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) and Curtis White (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) both had something to prove on Sunday at Louisville Nationals.
Hyde had something to prove to himself after suffering two major injuries that kept him off the bike this season. He wanted to show that he had the toughness to overcome his setbacks.
White wanted to show the cyclocross world he belongs at the top of the sport in the U.S. after his most successful season as a professional cyclocrosser. White also carried the burden of still seeking his first-ever cyclocross national championship.
The two teammates quickly got off the front in the first lap. Unfortunately, only one could emerge victorious in the thick Joe Creason mud.
Once off the front midway through the first lap, Hyde and White traded leads—and mistakes—on the challenging course. Hyde bombed the chicanes and took the lead, White took the lead by riding more of the big climb, both riders wiped out trying to be aggressive in corners.
"The two of us worked together as a team first," Hyde said. "When we've separated ourselves from everyone else, that's when we race, and we race respectfully and we race with heart. It's the best guy who wins."
In the fourth lap, White made a move by riding the bottom of the long climb out of the bowl, gaining a few seconds on Hyde. The next lap, while chasing a few seconds on Hyde, White dismounted and ran the section. Hyde remounted after the run and powered up the climb to Pit 2, pressing his advantage.
At the bell, Hyde led by 12 seconds. After how tight the race had been from the opening green light, it seemed like a large gap, but in Hyde's mind, with White still close behind, it was anything but.
Not even a last-lap crash could keep Hyde from surviving the brutal afternoon to win his third-straight national championship.
"I've had a lot of downs this year," Hyde said. "Some ups, but mostly downs. It's been a season of questions for me. The big question was if I could keep coming back from injuries and the downs, and I'm really happy to say that I can push through and make it happen when I need it to happen."
Two Teammates Off the Front
With rain starting on Friday and continuing through Saturday, the course at Joe Creason Park was still a thick, muddy mess for Sunday's Elite races. Organizers re-routed a few sections to keep riders on the bike more, but it was still a challenging grind with a lot of running.
"That was definitely the heaviest Nationals that I've been to. It reminded me a lot of Worlds at Limburg. Super heavy, a lot of running, deep ruts," Hyde said. You couldn't really worry about all the mistakes that were going to happen. You're going to make a lot of them."
From the opening green light, White powered out onto the course with Hyde close behind. After a chaotic first part of the lap, White still led the way.
As the field dropped into the bowl for the first time, White led the way with Hyde closed behind along with Cody Kaiser (LangeTwins / Specialized) and Maxx Chance (FCX Elite). Hyde soon moved to the front and when they cleared the stairs, White and Hyde already had a 10+ second lead on a new group that included pre-race podium hopefuls Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle - Groove Subaru) and Kerry Werner (Kona Maxxis Shimano).
Hyde passed White on the chicane descent, which was the first of what would become many lead changes during the race. With Hyde leading the way, the two pressed their lead. The duo extended their advantage to 12 seconds over Hecht after one lap.
"First lap, I was just trying to battle to make sure I was staying with Curtis and Stephen," Hecht said. "I got stuck behind a few little slip-ups on the first lap and kind of lost sight of them."
Curtis White's bike handling has been impressive this year, and in the second lap he showed his skill on the big descent, taking the turns smoother than Hyde and gaining a few seconds on his teammate known for his handling ability.
One should, of course, never speak too soon. White soon went into the snow fence on the big drop after the chicane descent, giving Hyde a big advantage. White snuffed it out on the climbs, taking the lead on the second climb back to Pit 2.
"I had a good start. Pretty soon after, Stephen Hyde and I were off the front," White said. "We were comfortable just extending our gap for a while, learning from each other's lines."
Two laps into the six-lap race, the duo had 23 seconds on Hecht. It looked like it was going to be the two Cannondale riders dueling at the front.
Early in the third lap, it was Hyde's turn to make a mistake. He went down in the first corner after the flyover after hitting it with too much speed. Hyde quickly recovered, however, and dropped into the bowl with White.
Hyde struggled on the long descent into the bowl all afternoon, but he had the chicane descent dialed in. The defending champ used a mix of riding and running to open up a small but measurable lead through the section. He kept the advantage through the end of the lap and headed into the second half of the race with a five-second lead on White.
Another Classic Race
In the upper part of Lap 4, Hyde clung to a slight lead on White. However, he could not really extend it.
"It was a one-speed race," Hyde said. "You couldn't really make any big accelerations. You couldn't really worry about all the mistakes that were going to happen. You're going to make a lot of them."
White again made up time on the descent into the bowl and caught Hyde and passed him at the bottom of the first climb up to the stairs. White kept the lead until Hyde passed him by taking the outside on the last drop after the chicanes. Two more lead changes for the tally.
"Neither one of us had a clean lap, all race long," White said. "We were always making mistakes. He had a gap at one point, then he made a mistake and then I had the gap. We went back and forth."
Perhaps White's most impressive move of the race came on the last climb to Pit 2. White rode the first muddy incline on the climb to an advantage while Hyde ran. At the end of the lap, he now led by four seconds.
"Curtis is really good in these conditions," Hyde said. "He's a real threat in that regard. He's very good and strong. He absolutely had the ability to take it today."
With two laps to go, Hecht was 45 seconds back, meaning all teammate time was over for White and Hyde. Hyde caught up with White at Pit 1 and took the lead into the descent. White rode the slick section better and again re-took the lead. Not a minute later, Hyde again moved into the lead.
The race changed in the second half of Lap 5. Hyde opened up a few-second advantage on the second climb on the backside of the course, as both riders had done several times during the race.
Would White ride the climb again and climb back into a share of the lead? He powered up the slick grass, but his tire slipped and he had to dismount and chase. Hyde exploited the opportunity with a powerful climb to Pit 2, opening up more space on White.
At the bell, Hyde's lead was 12 seconds.
After the top half of the last lap, it looked like Hyde's lead might be sticking. Then, in a race filled with mistakes, Hyde crashed on the long descent that had been his Achilles heel all race long. Fortunately for him, he quickly popped back up without losing more than a second or two.
Hyde's crash was the last bit of suspense left in the race. He held his lead for the last half lap to take his third-straight national championship.
"I was suffering," Hyde said. "I was like, hey, you know how to suffer, just do it. Just keep pushing, just keep pushing. If he gets away from you just keep doing what you're doing. Hopefully it will work out, but hey, it's still cool to get second."
White crossed shortly behind Hyde with a second-place finish at his second Nationals as an Elite racer.
"My goal is to bring my best to the start line," White said. "I gave myself the best chance to allow myself to win, but he did the same. Cyclocross, especially on a course like this, the strongest guy wins. Stephen has kind of been to hell and back this year. He earned it today."
Lost in the excitement of the duel between the teammates was the impressive Elite debut by Hecht. Hecht held a consistent gap behind the two leaders after missing out on their early move.
His bronze caps a domestic season where he won two UCI C1s and the U23 Pan-American Championships. Up next is Europe and a chance to improve on his ninth-place finish at the 2018 World Championships.
"Running is definitely not the strongest thing I have, so that made me a little nervous," Hecht said about the race. "I know I love the mud, and I was definitely really excited to have a mud race. It's hard to find something this hard in the U.S., typically, so it was really good."
Like fellow OVCXer Spencer Petrov, Drew Dillman (SDG - Muscle Monster) was back at home racing where he grew up, taking an impressive fourth.
Jeremy Powers (Pactimo/Fuji/SRAM) rode up to fifth after a slow start.
For more from the race, see the interviews, photo gallery and results below.
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Stephen Hyde: Winner Interview