New Column – Erik’s Wednesday Cross Power Rankings

As the 2009 road season winds its way to a close, it’s time to look ahead to wonders of fall and winter. For many, that means one thing and one thing only: cyclocross.

At Pavé, we can’t help but have a crush on the sport—like that cousin you see once in a while at family reunions and can’t help but wonder what would happen if you met her in a bar and had a few too many Vodka-Red Bulls—

But I digress. Sorry.

Seriously speaking, it’s time to show some love to the sport responsible for much of our early season form. Without cross, where would be come April? Without drop bars, knobby tires, and mud, what would we do when the asphalt ends and the rough stuff begins?

To do it right though, I’ve decided to do it the American way—I’m outsourcing. Erik Mitchell has been a good friend (and an okay student) since he entered my classroom in the 11th grade. Now he’s a fine, respectable young man known throughout the area as an announcer, official, race promoter, motor-pacer, and a racer. He works in a shop, rides with some of the area’s finest elite racers, and writes about the sport on his blog with a style I can appreciate.

So here it is, the first installment of Erik’s Wednesday Cross Power Rankings—both international and domestic. We hope you enjoy!

Take it away, Erik…

Wow, what a week it has been! We saw the best field ever assembled on US soil battle under the lights just off the Vegas Strip. Erwin Vervecken flew halfway around the world for 3 top-notch races, winning one of them. Jamie Driscoll and Jeremy Powers laid down several vicious attacks that saw them solo to victory. And speaking of solo victories, Niels Albert won his third consecutive race. (I wonder if he ever gets tired of riding alone.) Also, some guy on a steel bike notched two big UCI wins in Vermont of all places. Clearly it was an action packed weekend.

Riders like Page, Trebon, Powers and Vervecken have all found their stride as the real cross season begins. Not to mention some lady named Compton made mincemeat of the entire US Elite Women’s field.

So who came out on top? Who’s number one? It was a tough call with no real dominant rider on either side of the pond. The Europeans are starting to settle down just in time for the first round of the World Cup. Meanwhile the US continues to be a hodgepodge of one hit wonders and long time cross racers finding their form. It all should come together in Gloucester and Treviso next weekend. Here we go:

International Rankings: (Last Week’s Rank)

1. Niels Albert (1) – Honestly, I’m running out of things to say about Albert. His dominance is clearly beginning to fade (he won by only 10 seconds this weekend) and it appears that the ever-consistent Nijs is right on schedule. Next week marks the first big test for Albert as Round 1 of the World Cup will find everyone in Italy. This weekend, Albert once again rode his own race, but it may be only a matter of time before he’ll have to ride a very tactical race as part of an elite group.

2. Sven Vanthourenhout (6) – Jumping up to 2nd this week, Sven showed excellent tactical and technical skills while locked in a battle with Albert and Nijs. Obviously, his result was overshadowed by the horrific crash of his cousin in the closing meters. It appears that Sven is strong enough to ride with the lead group; he just has to ride smart enough to get there early and not waste energy playing catch-up. A podium place in Italy seems likely; however, a victory may just be out of his grasp.

3. Erwin Vervecken (5) – After a tenth place two weekends ago, Vervecken flew halfway around the world and picked-up three top-5 places, including a victory on Sunday. I’ve said all along Vervecken’s farewell tour will be one to remember. Expecting three straight victories stateside was a bit ambitious on my part, but he showed he’s still one of the best. He’ll have a bit of a break while travelling back to Europe, giving him a chance to rest. However, while I still think he’ll win a World Cup this year, Treviso (Italy) will not be it. But a top-5 is in the cards.

4. Jonathan Page (3) – 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd. Talk about consistent, talk about frustrating. Should he have worked harder at Cross Vegas? Could he have won? How much damage did those mechanical issues do at the USGP’s? Clearly, Page is on the verge of something special once again. While he hasn’t shown his face in Europe (and will stay stateside, missing the Treviso World Cup), Page has shown that he’s one of the best riders around. Traditionally, his best results have come after a season filled with mishaps and near misses. I have a strong feeling about Page this year, even if he leaves the US with lingering questions.

5. Kevin Pauwels (7) – Pauwels is my man this year. He lost a two-up sprint for 3rd against Sven Nijs. A top-5 next weekend wouldn’t surprise me as Pauwels seems capable of riding with the leaders this year. The real question is can he attack the lead group? He’s almost always going to be in the mix, but the ability to attack guys like Albert and Nijs will move Pauwels up to the top step. Just remember, Pauwels is young and will certainly be getting better with age.

6. Sven Nijs (9) – But he beat Pauwels, I know. Here’s the important part: Nijs went from the gun, had everyone on the rivet, and would have won if he didn’t puncture. So why isn’t he further up, you may ask? Because it will be more impressive when he jumps up to #1 next week after he wins Round 1 of the World Cup. Clearly, Nijs wasn’t lying when he said he wasn’t going to come into form until October. It’s scary to think about what he’s still capable of doing when he’s in shape.

7. Christian Heule (4) – Heule picked up a pair of top-10 places this weekend and will make the transition back to Europe this week. I don’t know if he’ll reach the level of success he had in his first few races this year, but Heule is a veteran, and as we’ve seen with Vervecken and Nijs, cross vets are capable of amazing things.

8. Klaas Vantornout (5) – Klaas picked up a solid 5th place this past weekend, confirming the fact that he’s capable of consistently placing near the top of the field. However, he still seems to lack the ability to stick with the lead group. Obviously next weekend is a big test for everyone, but it’s time for Klaas to take the next step and move-up to the top of the podium.

9. Zdenek Stybar (2) – A big drop this week for Stybar. He most likely will pop back up towards the top after a World Cup podium next weekend. However, winning a round of the TOI Cup pales in comparison to winning a race in Belgium with all the big boys. (No offense to the Czech Republic.) As I said though, Stybar should do well next weekend, and who can blame him for wanting to spend some time at home before the season really heats up?

10. Katie Compton (NA) – Since I don’t have a separate women’s power ranking, Compton earns the last spot here. (Remember this list is about the best cross racers, period.) And with an insanely dominating week, the real question is can Compton improve on her third place last year in Treviso? If so, she may move up another few spots.

North American Rankings: (Last Week’s Rank)

1. Jeremy Powers (8) – This spot was a real tough one. Powers rode solid at Vegas and crushed Round #1 of the USGP. It’s tough to criticize his 6th place finish on Sunday, but that was his worst result of the week. Clearly a heavy road season is paying its dividends right now, but unlike most other roadies, Powers seems to be able to carry his form through a full season of cross. Last year he had a true breakout year, and with this kind of start, he could end up winning either the USGP or the NACT.

2. Jamie Driscoll (5) – Driscoll has always been a consistent rider who broke through last year at Nationals. The issue that still surrounds him (and to some extent Powers and Trebon) is that his success on the Elite level seems to come through long, leg burning, solo efforts. While there’s nothing wrong with that, he still has yet to prove that he can ride a long, tactical, race with the big boys.

3. Ryan Trebon (9) – In the past, I’ve criticized Trebon for his lack of consistency—it seems as though my “advice” is paying off. He pulled-out 3 solid performances last week and landed on the podium on Sunday. Obviously the Stars and Stripes carries a bit of pressure, which I’m still not sure Trebon can handle. However, if he rides consistently, picks-up a few wins and some podiums, he could be in the running for the USGP or NACT as well. Whether or not he can repeat at Nationals remains to be seen.

4. Dan Timmerman (na) – Who? Here’s the rundown: finished 110th in the UCI rankings last year and raced exclusively stateside. He had a bunch of top-10’s, an insane amount of top-5’s, but never picked-up a win. Perhaps this is the start of a breakthrough year for Timmerman. The competition he faced this past weekend was a little lackluster compared to the star-studded fields in Vegas and Wisconsin. However, don’t count Timmerman out, he’s the dominant leader of the New England Cross Series, which has had some pretty impressive winners in years past.

5. Chris Jones (na) – Honestly, Jones may never appear on this list again (ouch!). He’s a solid road rider who seems to enjoy a cross race every now and then. That said, three top-10’s in three straight top-tier US races means he’s doing something right. Still, he appears to be just a roadie with some leftover fitness he’s trying to burn-off. Look at it this way: last year he raced twice in September, three times in November and once in December. Dedicated crosser? I think not. Job well done though.

6. Geoff Kabush (na) – Another longtime crosser who seems to be hit or miss. He had a solid mountain bike season and looks poised to pick-up a few wins this year. He’s clearly one of the favorites for the “Maple Leaf” jersey that will be handed-out in a few weeks. Should he capture gold (more like red and white), he’ll be looking forward to racing on home soil when the North American racing crowd heads to Toronto the following weekend. I’m not going to write-off Kabush as he seems to be coming into form, but he’s got to prove he still has the ability to win on a bigger stage.

7. Barry Wicks (na) – Two top-10’s in three races this week bodes well for the other half of the Kona Towers. Wicks can basically write-off last year’s cross season after a few setbacks seemed to knock him out for the entire season. I have high hopes for him this year and if he and Trebon can find the form they both had a few years ago, the Kona duo could do some major damage this year.

8. Andy Jacques-Maynes (2) – A week after I called him the potential surprise of the year, Andy failed to pull-out a major result this past week. His 9th place on Saturday showed that he’s still there, but after his superb performances in the Northwest last week it was a bit of a letdown. It will be interesting to see how quickly Andy can bounce back. Next weekend he’ll head into the New England lions’ den in Gloucester.

9. Luke Keough (5) – Another pair of top-10’s mark the arrival of the future of US cross. He still lacks the ability to attack the lead group and go for the win, but that will come with time and patience. I don’t expect any big victories out of Keough this year, but consistency will be key since Keough cannot dominate the big boys like he did the juniors in years past. It is worthy to note that Zach McDonald is looking very good in the Northwest. It will be very interesting to watch these two ex-juniors when they meet-up later this year.

10. Jesse Anthony (10) – Only one decent finish in three tries this week—it’s a wonder why Anthony is still on the list. He continues to show signs of life, but lacks that little bit extra he once had. This may be the last week for Anthony, but he is returning to New England for a pair of races this weekend. Anthony always seems to be able to put something together when he races in the Northeast.

That’s it for this week’s rankings. Come back next Wednesday for more!

In closing, here’s a look at the weekend ahead:

Oct. 3 – GP of Gloucester 1 (C2)
Oct. 4 – GP of Gloucester 2 (C2)
Oct. 4 – World Cup 1 – Treviso, Italy (WCD)

Should be lots of fun. As always comments, suggestions, and debates are welcome.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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