Cowbells, mud, sleet, sweat, bicycle shanties, beer and lactic acid – all the elements that make cyclo-cross the best party on knobby tires – will fill Badger Prairie Park over the next five days.
Verona, the Madison Area Sports Commission and Team Sport Inc. hosts the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross national championships, bringing the country’s best pro and amateur riders to Wisconsin for a second year.
Racine native Kaitlin Antonneau will be racing for a similar repeat, riding to defend her titles in the women’s collegiate Div. 1 and U23 races, and to return to the podium in the women’s elite category. Antonneau, a junior at Marian University in Indianapolis, Ind., finished second in the pro race last year, behind her mentor and eight-time national champion, Katie Compton.
“There’s definitely pressure on myself,” Antonneau said Tuesday, on a break from her cold-weather training.
“I want to go there and feel like I had the best race I can have,” she said. “I do want to be on the podium and I do want it all to come together on that day.”
Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) will take the start line in the women’s pro race on Sunday, the close to nearly a week of battles for stars & stripes jerseys and national honors awarded to juniors, masters and collegians.
Check out the full schedule of races and events here.
Nearly 1,200 individual riders have registered and the direct economic impact from lodging and food sales is estimated to be $405,000, according to Jamie Patrick, director of sales and program development for the Madison Area Sports Commission. More than 5,000 spectators are expected to line the course to cheer, jeer and heckle.
“I think it’s huge for Dane County and huge for the state,” Patrick said. “It keeps us on the map for what our cycling scene is; drives that stake a little deeper in the ground. It also opens people’s idea to a sport they may not be familiar with.”
This will be the 45th USA Cycling Cyclo-cross nationals, but the sport has only gained prominence in the U.S. in recent years.
Race participation, spread across the pro and amateur ranks, tripled from 2005 to 2011, and will likely top 100,000 in 2012, according to USA Cycling.
Juniors and 60-somethings have taken to the sport, adopted from Europe, and made it much more than a late-season training exercise. Races are shorter – 40 minutes for the masters category – and the scene is as celebratory as competitive.
“It ends up being a party, so you attract a different group of people,” said Micah Rice, USA Cycling vice president of national events. “The tradition is to drink beer and eat brats and do whatever after the race. Road racers would be chugging Gatorade and eating power bars.”
The course: The 1.8-mile layout is largely unchanged from the hilly, technical loop that tested fitness and bike handling last year. Team Sports Inc. used small snow plows and front-end loaders to clear the snow, up to two feet in some places, and the dirt is clean and firm, according to race director Tom Schuler. Changes have been made to improve spectator areas at the toughest sections, including a steep run-up over railroad ties and the twisting downhills.
Velo News offered this description: “a multifaceted challenge, with grinding climbs, bombing descents, twisting technical sections, and the balancing act of off-camber slopes, which should be made all the more demanding given the snow and ice that have covered the Wisconsin park’s contoured grass hillsides.”
Rain is forecast for Thursday. Combined with temperatures projected to be in the high 40s through Saturday, the rain should create the muddy conditions cyclo-cross fans, and some riders, relish. Cold weather returns on Sunday, and could freeze the course into a maze of rock-solid ruts for the pros.
The favorites: Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) powered away from a group of four to win the national championship in 2012 and has been a force throughout this season. The men who chased him last year, Tim Johnson, Jonathan Page and Ryan Trebon figure to test Powers again, along with younger racers Zach McDonald and Danny Summerhill. Among the Wisconsin riders, Brian Matter and Tristan Schouten will fight to gain spots in the top 10.
Katie Compton has won four races on the World Cup this season and won the overall championship. It would be a shock if she failed to notch her ninth straight national title. Georgia Gould, who won a bronze in the Olympic mountain bike race, figures to be in the mix with Meredith Miller and Nicole Duke, either challenging Compton or racing for the podium. Antonneau also makes the list of contenders.
Check out this piece from Velo News for a comprehensive look at the top riders coming to Verona.
Not only will the riders be fighting for Stars & Stripes jerseys, but coveted slots on the U.S. team in the UCI World Cyclo-cross championships, being held for the first time in the U.S. on Feb. 1-3, in Louisville, Ky.
Antonneau: With more than a half-dozen national championships, dating back to her time riding in the junior ranks, the 20-year-old is already a veteran.
“I’ve learned how to race smarter and my approach going into races is better, trying to stay relaxed and not over-think things,” she said. “It’s so easy to start thinking negatively when you’re racing against the world’s best.
“I think my fitness is good. I came off a trip to Europe and two World Cup races. That was a hard trip and the races were really hard. My results (top 20s) were decent. I came home for two weeks and trained here. Thursday I’ll go to Madison and get ready for the racing. I’m happy with where my form is.”