Last week I wrote about the US Junior men. I thought they were going to be the highlight of nationals. I was wrong. The highlight of cyclocross nationals were the U23 champions. Zach McDonald and Katie Antonneau may have the brightest futures of anyone racing cyclocross in America.
Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing Jeremy Powers in tears coming across the finish line for his first national championship. Katie Compton once again showed her brilliance. Dylan McNicholas was riding phenomenally well. But Zach and Katie exceeded even the high expectations they had for themselves.
Zach dominated the U23 race on Saturday. He took the race wire to wire. Unlike last year when he was leading Danny Summerhill until a crash with a spectator, there was no error. He won with a 2:20 minute margin to second place. His really impressive ride was in elite race on Sunday. After taking the hole shot Zach crashed through the course tape. A mechanical and long bike exchange put him 40 seconds behind the leaders. The front four favorites were not waiting for anyone as they sped through the course. Yet by 3 to go Zach managed to bridge up to the group and play a critical role in Jeremy Powers win while holding onto fourth place. Zach showed the technical skill, strength, and poise to race with the best American champions.
Katie has a similar race in winning the collegiate championship as Zach's U23 race. The only other racer within 3 minutes of her was college team mate and room mate Coryn Rivera. In the elite race on Sunday is also where Katie truly shone. Her second place behind Compton reveal Katie to be the smart, strong, dedicated racer that her coach has indicated.
The question that remains is how will these two young racers perform in international competition? This year they have both had some strong results in Europe: Zach getting 3rd in the U23 race at Zolder and Katie getting 10th at the Namur World Cup. The next two world cups will reveal how much form they have left at the end of a demanding season.
On paper neither should do well at the World Championships in Koksijde. The sand dunes in Koksijde are typically conquered by big power riders. However, Daphny Van den Brand has done very well there in the past few years, perhaps showing that a rider like Katie might as well. Zach has stated that he is learned to love the sand, and is targeting a top ten result. With some luck perhaps they can both get top tens at worlds. Regardless, if they continue to develop, they will be at the front of US cyclocross for years to come.
Much has been said of late about American Cyclocross peaking, or declining, or being killed. I could not disagree more. Never mind that American pro's are doing better than ever. Never mind that the best pro/elite racing for women is in the United States. Never mind that our best u23 riders are competing at world cups for podiums. Never mind that there are more people racing cyclocross across the country than ever before. The future of US cyclocross is stronger than ever because of the talent of our juniors. Yes, our juniors are the sign of the strength of American cyclocross.
Consider this before nationals: as I look at the race predictor rankings for the various categories, the most competitive event of the week is the Mens Juniors 17-18 race. Each of the predicted top ten have a legitimate shot of winning. 8 of the top 10 have been racing in Europe during Christmas week at Geoff Proctor's 'Cross Camp. 5 of them achieved top 20 results while racing in Belgium.
Remember these names; Logan Owen, Curtis White, Andrew Dillmen, Sam O'Keefe, Nate Morse, Chase Dickens, Tobin Ortenblad, Cyprus Gorey. They are the future of American Cyclocross.
Will they all become Pros? Who knows. Some of them may go the way of Jesse Anthony or Danny Summerhill or Gavin Mannion and decide that road racing is more attractive. Then again, those guys may be like Tim Johnson and eventually come back to cyclocross. Some may even leave the sport entirely. But even if half of them go the way of Jonathan Page and Jeremy Powers and Ryan Trebon, then the future of American cyclocross is bright. All of these kids have already been across the pond. They've seen how the game is played at its highest level. They've had a glimpse of how the top Pro's race on the toughest courses.
Oh, and besides those boys, there are a dozen 15-16 year olds coming behind them. I haven't even mentioned the junior women yet, or Katie Antonneau. And who knows how big Bruce Fina, Joan Hanscom, Adam Myerson, & Paul Boudreau can make US Pro Cyclocross races. But I am excited to see it.