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The Rapha-Focus rider is clearly on a tear. After the stellar 2011-12 season where Powers won nearly every stateside race he entered, dominated the US Gran Prix of Cyclocross and put in a commanding ride at the National Championships in Madison to capture the Stars-and-Stripes jersey that had previously eluded him, many riders would have been happy to continue dominating American races and content themselves with the role of national 'cross hero. However, Powers has other ideas and greater ambitions for himself and the future of American cyclocross. These ambitions were on display last Sunday in Tabor where Powers laid out his foreign policy agenda, went toe-to-toe with the entrenched Flemish superpowers on a classic Euro-style course and delivered a groundbreaking best-ever finish in a World Cup cyclocross race for an American. Even the highly partisan Sporza commentators agreed that Jeremy Powers has indeed arrived on the international scene.
After his second-row start just behind the rainbow stripes of Neils Albert, Powers found himself in the scrum of the main field, riding shoulder-to-shoulder in a fight for position through the tight s-bends of the Tabor course while the lead group of usual suspects rode smoothly in single-file, establishing a slight gap and conserving precious energy. On the second lap, Powers was running in 14th position while Sven Nys pushed the pace ever higher at the front, forcing the rest of the field to dig deep to hold his wheel. Only Lars Van Der Haar, Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels seemed able to match the accelerations of the Belgian Champion. Despite his flying start and obvious good form, Nys' race looked to be over with seven laps still to go when he suffered a broken chain. Unflappable as always, the cool-headed veteran casually coasted his Colnago toward the pits as the race was took shape without him. Van Der Haar led a group of five - now including Neils Albert and Czech upstart Radomir Simunek - while Powers worked his way through the chase group 20 seconds off the pace. After trading his carbon-fiber hobby-horse for a proper chain-driven machine, Nys showcased his strength and skill in a methodical assault on the field, picking his way through twenty-odd top professionals as if they were lapped traffic.
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By the time the Cannibal from Baal joined the chase group, Powers had moved to the front of the pack and was driving the chase, fighting to keep the gap to the leaders under the critical 30-second mark. The Europeans were happy to let the Yankee test his strength in an effort to close the gap and he received little help at the fore. Powers managed to pull his group to within sight of the escapees, creating the possibility for riders to attempt to bridge the gap. Nys hung around in the bunch for long enough to catch his breath before striking out on his own in pursuit of the leaders in the final laps. Seeing the opportunity, Powers gamely attempted to follow the wheel of the Belgian master. Try as he might, the American champion was clearly outmatched and quickly dropped by Nys, who went on to pick off Simenuk for a solid fifth-place finish. Powers - whose legs were suffering the ill effects of the early fight for position and his efforts leading the chase for nearly half the race - was nipped by Bart Aernouts in the sprint for sixth but was clearly pleased with his finish.
Despite the personal and national history that Powers made with his strong ride, the Belgian armada was intractable as ever in Tabor. Powers and Van Der Haar were the only non-Belgian finishers in the top eight and Sven Nys showed that he was clearly the strongest man in the field and is still a powerful force to be reckoned with despite (or perhaps due to) his age. Despite the possibiliy that he may not have the skills, fitness or tactical accumen to go head-to-head with Nys, we did see that the unbeatable form Powers exhibited in the first rounds of the USGP this season is good enough to propel him to new heights in Europe while continuing to break down barriers and make history. After seeing what he was able to do in this first round of the UCI World Cup, we're still left with some exciting questions about the rest of Powers' season. What could he achieve with a front-row start? Could we see him on the podium of a World Cup this season? What could he do in Louisville if he is able to maintain his strong form and things go his way? Is he the best-poised rider to prevent another Belgian podium sweep at Worlds?
Despite all these questions and the pressure on his shoulders, Powers remains upbeat and enthusiastic. He currently sits in 10th position on UCI points and will hope to add to his total as the season progresses to secure the best possible starting position in the stacked grid in Louisville. His stated goal for this European campaign is a top-five World Cup finish and he'll have perhaps his best chance tomorrow in Plzen on a course where he has performed admirably in the past. His 10th-place finish last year was his best World Cup result to that date and he stands well-poised to better that result when he takes the start on Sunday.
No matter who is in the White House this February, American 'cross fans can rest assured that Jeremy Powers stands ready to represent the United States at the highest level of international cyclocross and in Louisville at the culmination of this already historic season. Now, if we can just get him to leave that toadstool helmet in his hotel room...