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Gage Hecht wins junior 17 – 18 US cyclocross championship against exemplary opponents

January 13, 2015
Gage Hecht wins the 2015 junior men's 17 - 18 USA Cycling cyclo-cross national championship

Gage Hecht wins the 2015 junior men’s 17 – 18 USA Cycling cyclo-cross national championship

The 2015 cyclocross national 17 -18 men’s title went to Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Co.) after an intense showdown in a talented field that left the winner undecided until the final push to the finish line. This close, exciting contest further confirms the strength and grit of a set of young American men that should continue to infiltrate the top ranks of cyclocross in the coming years.

Race action

Hecht’s fast start carried him first off the pavement and onto dirt. Right on his tail were Jerry Dufour (Team Mugshots), Spencer Petrov (Element Cycles), Cooper Willsey (Cyclocrossworld/Cannondale), Christopher Blevins (Team Specialized Juniors), and Brannan Fix (Boo Bicycles).

But halfway into lap one Lance Haidet (Raleigh Clement) found Hecht’s wheel after sailing past about six riders, and then moved into the driver’s seat and quickly opened a gap.

Gage Hecht shoulders a clean bike in the messy pit

Gage Hecht shoulders a clean bike in the messy pit

In lap two, when Haidet and Blevins remained on their bikes, Hecht made a change and Blevins slipped by him. Haidet’s lead rose to twelve seconds and at the time it wasn’t clear if Hecht could limit the new Raleigh Clement rider’s gains.

But Hecht got after it. He led the chase group with Blevins, Gavin Haley (Red Zone Cycling), and Willsey. Petrov, last year’s national champion ahead of Hecht in the 15 – 16 category, hung just behind them.

Petrov looked strong despite recent illness and near the end of lap two leapfrogged Blevins, Haley, and Willsey into third position on course after Hecht. Cameron Beard (Cyclocrossworld/Cannondale) had also entered the picture; he chased alone behind them.

It wasn’t until late in lap three, in the off-camber section leading into the long limestone staircase, that Hecht stole the lead. He scaled the steep, uneven stairs with about four seconds’ advantage over Haidet. Haley arrived next, followed by Beard. Petrov was missing from the head of the race.

“I was running better lines than everyone else so I started picking everyone off and found my way to Gage and we were catching Lance,” Petrov later said. “And then my derailleur snapped which was horrible. I felt like I had amazing legs.” He ran more than half a lap.

When the bell lap began Hecht and Haley powered up the pavement in a two-man paceline with the Alpha rider in front. A minute or so later Haidet tapped along the pavement with his bike shouldered, his chance at a medal evaporated.

Lance Haidet crests the long limestone staircase

Lance Haidet crests the long limestone staircase

“I was going through the last couple off-camber switchback sections before coming onto the barriers and I got off, slid out a bit and my chain got caught in between my wheel and cassette,” Haidet said. “I tried to yank it out and it was not budging. My derailleur was so close to being snapped off, so there was nothing I could do except for run.”

Ahead on course Hecht outdistanced Haley by five seconds with about half a lap remaining and then steadily increased his lead, winning by 18 seconds. Haley took second. Then the next three finishers arrived split by gaps of six to eight seconds. Beard placed third, Blevins fourth, and Willsey fifth. Haidet finished nineteenth.

Hecht shared modest post-race comments. “I kept it smooth, kept pushing it, and somehow ended up first, so it was good.”

When prodded a bit more regarding his hard-fought win, he added, “This is so amazing, I’m so excited.”

Haidet said he might have pushed too hard early on, but if not for the mechanical, thought he could have remained a factor in the race to the finish. “I was feeling good out there. [I could have got] at least second, I think, if not the win,” he said. “Gage is fast, so, you never know what he’s going to do, but yea, I had bad luck.”

Mud masters

Even with slight changes to the course to mitigate concerns that had emerged on Saturday about damage to the Zilker Park venue in Austin, Texas, slippery mud coated much of the course. The younger juniors in the day’s prior races struggled with brakes and cogsets clogged with mud. More than a few finished by running their bikes.

“This mud is like almost European conditions, just having to get the bikes cleaned every lap or so or even half lap and just being really smart about when you run, when you ride, when you pick up the bike so you’re not rolling your bike through tons of mud and getting the wheels and stuff all clogged up,” Haidet said after the race. “So you really have to think about what you’re doing in conditions like this for sure.”

Gavin Haley in a front-side off-camber section

Gavin Haley in a front-side off-camber section

Co-course designer Pete Webber built a course with a heavy dose of off-camber lines on the front side. Many riders slid to the outside away from the netted fencing to their right. Hecht, who normally dismounts to the left, dismounted to the right in this section as did Haley. Choosing the right side helped them grab poles and fencing more easily for better stability while running.

Haley later explained in a message that he dismounts naturally to either side. “It depends on the course and what happens in the moment,” he wrote. “[At nationals] it made a big difference to do both!”

Unfortunately for Haley, those exemplary skills didn’t shut down Hecht’s power.

“I really wanted to win this race my entire life. But when you’re racing somebody as strong as Gage Hecht and his quality as a rider, I’m content with that,” Haley said. “I’m really happy for him. He’s dominated all season and he definitely deserves it. But, when you’re that close to winning…I have a mix of emotions right now, but I’m content.”

Spencer Petrov racing third on course

Spencer Petrov racing third on course

Petrov also started with high ambitions, seeking to make good after some trying months.

“The whole season’s been pretty rough. I found out I have asthma, [had] bronchitis, a sinus infection. Nothing too good for the lungs. I was hoping I could pull out a good race here to get a discretionary pick for worlds. We’ll see. Hopefully I can still get a spot. I really want to go. I love racing in Europe.”

Hecht goes to Tabor in the Czech Republic for world championships at the end of this month. Haley said he’ll be there, and the selection committee has chosen Haidet too.

The national champion has seen video footage of prior Tabor races. “It looks like a really fun course. I’ve heard it might be very snowy and cold.” And if that comes to pass, he said, “I’ll be so excited, it will be just like being at home. I love the snow. I love the cold. It will be fun.

“I think I can medal there and I definitely think I can pull a top five, which is super exciting.”

 Gallery (more to come)

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