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Three Colorado juniors among six Americans will tackle fitness challenge at Heusden-Zolder cyclocross world championships

January 29, 2016
Head of the junior men's race at worlds a few hundred meters after the start

Head of the junior men’s race at 2015 worlds a few hundred meters after the start

[updated January 29, 2016]

With course preview by Pete Webber

One year ago the juniors racing for cyclocross world championship stripes faced an icy, slick course. Either those conditions or the pressure of starting as overall favorite appeared to rattle then junior World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt from Belgian. He started fast, catching the hole shot, then lost ground as Denmark’s Simon Andreassen took off at the end of lap one and stayed away for the win. A Belgian photographer later said Iserbyt was upset about his tire choice and the Belgian team hadn’t stocked the pits with wheels sporting the tires he wanted. The photographer added that Andreassen had started on the same tires as Iserbyt.

The Americans had arrived with a strong team. As Iserbyt struggled Gage Hecht – who enjoys an icy challenge – took over second place on course. For two laps the threesome of Hecht, Iserbyt, and Max Gulickx from the Netherlands were locked in a nail-biting contest for the silver and bronze medals. As the racing reached the final lap Iserbyt attacked and gained second position. Just behind him Hecht and Gulickx approached the last turn together, a little over 100 meters from the finishing truss. The American’s gears skipped as he sought one for the sprint. It cost three seconds and possibly the bronze prize.

Gage Hecht on the post-barriers uphill

Gage Hecht on the post-barriers uphill at Tabor

Team USA still came away with one of its best overall results ever: three riders in the top 15 and third best in the nation’s ranking – ahead of the Belgians.

At this year’s contest tomorrow a frosty track seems unlikely. Tonight’s temperature is predicted to hover around 47 degrees Fahrenheit with a high of 49 and a chance of showers on Saturday. Course designer, cyclocross masters national champion and Boulder Junior Cycling coach Pete Webber, now at the championship venue in Heusden-Zolder, shared his assessment of Belgian track. At 3.2 km it’s one of longest riders will ever tackle.

“The soil is a sandy loamy mix that gives great traction and drains well so it won’t get extremely muddy even if it is raining,” Webber wrote by email. “A few sections will get moderately muddy in the rain, but it won’t get heavy and there won’t be any tractor pull sections. A lot of sections won’t be muddy even if it rains all day because the dirt is so sandy. Some loose sand sections will actually get faster with rain.”

That’s good news for one of Webber’s Boulder Junior Cycling protégés, Eric Brunner, one of the six young men representing the U.S. Cross fans outside of Colorado will know Hecht better than Brunner and his BJC and worlds teammate Denzel Stephenson. All three live in the Rocky Mountain State.

BJC 17-18 squad, Eric Brunner foreground left

BJC 17-18 squad, Eric Brunner foreground left

“Eric excels on any type of course except very heavy courses. He is a smaller lighter rider and he does best on fast courses,” Webber noted. “He also has really good technical skills. Zolder is a great course for him because it won’t ever get really heavy and is usually a fast track.” Brunner is a second year junior rider who has raced ‘cross in Europe this year alongside Hecht.

Denzel Stephenson rides well in the mud

Denzel Stephenson rides well in the mud

Webber also detailed Stephenson’s strengths. “Denzel is an all-rounder who has really good technical skills and can ride anything on any course. He’s also aggressive and strong and doesn’t get pushed around. Most importantly he’s the only rider on the team who is race age 17 and will still be a junior next season so he’s gaining experience and learning the tricks of racing at this level.”

In the recent Heusden-Zolder World Cup, the two Boulder juniors finished 26th and 38th. Tomorrow at their first worlds rodeo they could better those results.

Hecht returns to ‘cross worlds competition after fourth place at last week’s muddy Hoogerheide World Cup and fifth at the Namur World Cup in late December.

Gage Hecht photo bombs portrait of this father Bruce (left) and Matthew Fix

Gage Hecht warming-up at Tabor near his father Bruce (left) and Matthew Fix

“Zolder is a great course,” Hecht wrote to ProVéloPassion. “I have raced here twice already. Both of these races have been some of my best results of the year. I think this will be a good race.” He placed fifth at both the 2015 and 2016 Heusden-Zolder World Cup events .

“It’s super exciting to be able to race [worlds] a second time as a junior,” he added. “Of course there is a little bit of pressure to try to top last year’s fourth place, but I still look forward to racing hard.”

Hecht should be able to rely on the peace of mind that carries him through any conditions and intense competition, the likes of which can be expected tomorrow from Dutchman Jens Dekker and Jappe Jaspers of Belgium. Dekker leads the UCI standings. Jaspers is second and Hecht third.

Spencer Petrov using all tools at 2015 U.S. national championships

Spencer Petrov using all tools at 2015 U.S. national championships

American Spencer Petrov, who is the Pan American cyclocross champion and ranked sixth by the UCI, takes on worlds as a second year junior. He’s fared fabulously this season in Europe, with fourth at Namur, third at the Diegem Superprestige, and second at Azencross.

Cameron Beard and Michael Owens complete the American junior team. Beard competed in ‘cross worlds last year.

This year’s course, according to Webber, “is an all-rounder type of track that doesn’t favor one particular type of rider. It is very physical and hard. On a range of technical vs. fitness, it is definitely a fitness course due to the hard climbs.”

Webber described the circuit, which consists basically of two connected loops.

“The first loop is fun and flowy and lots of twists and turns with short hills. From Pit 2 to the finish is much harder, and includes two mega hard climbs that will be the crux of the race. The first climb begins up the iconic sidehill with the upper and lower split lines, and then continues to climb up pavement and then kicks up over a new flyover that is a serious sting in the tail of that climb. It makes it significantly harder than at the World Cup [at the same venue].

“Then the track descends all the way down to the race track before it hits the super steep sandy run up topped by a short flat stretch just long enough to clip in before a brutal steep climb straight thru up the hillside that requires strong legs and an out of the saddle whole-body contortions to make it up. For sure the hardest feature on the course,” Webber wrote.

“…A good bike handler will be able to go faster and will save energy, but you don’t need to be a super skilled handler to still ride the whole course well. There is only one dismount per lap during practice, and that section won’t really affect the race because it’s just a super steep wall that everyone can do more or less the same. A couple steep climbs may become runs in the rain however.”

See the UCI’s website for a link to live coverage of the junior race which begins at 3 a.m. MST tomorrow. Don’t go to sleep tonight (some of us will be tweeting in anticipation), or set the timers on your alarm clock and coffee maker for a very early giddy-up.

Team USA power-pack rides to the 2015 Tabor start

Team USA power-pack rides to the 2015 Tabor start

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