Rocking the new, stylish red Clement Professional Cycling Team kit, second year U23 rider Lance Haidet scored the biggest win of his fledgling career when he earned the national championship title on a technical and icy track in Hartford, CT in frigid temperatures. In a tight three-way battle with Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Company-Vista Subaru) and Maxx Chance (EVOL DevoElite Racing) in the bell lap, it wasn’t until the final 30 seconds of the dramatic 53-minute race that Haidet took the lead for the first and only time. And that was all that the California resident needed to earn himself the coveted stars and stripes jersey.
Hecht finished second with Chance taking the final podium step.
Haidet, a 19-year old college student at Cuesta College, started racing while growing up in Bend, OR when he was 13. In the 13-14 category at the national championships in Bend, the burgeoning star made the long podium when he finished fifth on his hometown course. But getting back to the podium has been a feat Haidet hasn’t able to reproduce since 2010. He was plagued with illness both years in Madison, was sixth in Boulder, fell victim to a broken derailleur while leading the race in Austin and was simply “off” in Asheville.
And the 2016-2017 season hadn’t really been a smooth ride for Haidet either as he struggled to get the results he had shown he was capable of in the past.
“The whole season I didn’t feel good on my bike at all,” said Haidet. “I was constantly moving on the saddle. I wasn’t comfortable. My legs were going numb and I had back pain as well.”
After spending time with a physio leading up to nationals, the physical ailments started to subside allowing all the hard work on the bike to pay off.
“For about three weeks now I’ve felt really good on the bike,” Haidet said. “I was training with Jamey in California and racing CCCX with him and Tobin [Ortenblad] where I was actually able to lead for a couple laps before getting dropped with a quarter lap to go.”
Stacked up against many of the other U23 riders, Haidet doesn’t have the power to go head-to-head on a heavy, power course. But give him dicey conditions, and he will shine.
“I like it fast where you can carry your speed, not peanut butter,” Haidet said. “I don’t have the power like Curtis [White] or Gage. When it’s fast enough that it’s about carrying speed and not losing speed or making mistakes in the corners, that’s where I feel good.”
“After the pre-ride I thought I was going to win as long as nothing went wrong,” Haidet exclaimed. “I felt so good and felt like I could just ride the course and do whatever the heck I wanted.”
Fighting back from a slow start that included two bike changes, Haidet used his technical prowess and relaxed demeanor to ride his way through the field. As the bell rang to indicate the last lap of the race, Haidet, Chance and Hecht were set-up for a three-way duel.
“It was a matter of perseverance and keeping cool and calm,” said Haidet. “But I knew I had to get around them. There was no out sprinting either one of them, even if I had felt my best, because that last corner into the finish was so slick.”
Each of the three riders had the same idea about being on the front. There was a lot of bump and thump happening as each rider tried to overtake the others. The game changing move came in the last half lap when a drift by Chance led to a bobble by Hecht which opened the door for Haidet to slot into second wheel several seconds in arrears of Chance.
“Right after I connected with Maxx, I tried to go around him, but he’s pretty darn good at holding his position,” Haidet explained. “Through the whole last gazeebo and flyover area I was riding right on his wheel and trying to apply as much pressure as possible. I was constantly accelerating out of corners trying to get by him but he never let me.”
Leading through technical sections is most often where racers want to be, and Chance had hardly given up first wheel the entirety of the race. As the finish line was closing in, Chance was even more determined to maintain the lead through the final technical sections leading to the finishing straight. But Chance’s plan came to a crushing halt when a devastating mistake handed Haidet the lead into the final 500 meters.
“Through one of the last off camber corners I was coming on the inside of him trying to make a move and he washed out his front a bit,” Haidet said. “I went by him and I looked back and he was working with his chain. When I saw him drop his chain, it was unfortunate for Maxx, but I was like ‘yes’.”
What does the US National Cyclocross Champion title mean to the rider who struggled to find the podium during the regular season?
“Redemption,” Haidet said without pause. “I think it will take a couple days to fully appreciate it. I am stoked after having such a terrible year to have a good race at the most important one of the year. At the moment I’m almost more stoked that I’m feeling super good than winning the national championships, but in a couple days I’m sure that will change. Especially next year when I get to rock the stars and bars.”
Crazed cyclocross fans expected a mega battle between Stephen Hyde (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Jeremy Powers (Aspire Racing) for the stars and stripes jersey, and they got mostly what they envisaged. Hyde scored his first championship title in predictable fashion, but it was the steadfast and unflappable Jamey Driscoll who claimed the second step of the podium, matching his best ever national championship result when he was a first year elite in 2008.
Kerry Werner (Kona Racing) rounded out the podium with an outstanding performance for third.
A superb technical rider like Driscoll was unfazed by the slick and treacherous conditions. In fact, you could say Driscoll relished the conditions on a day when he knew many riders had talked themselves out of contention before the gun even went off.
“A lot of the “usuals” were mentally taken out,” Driscoll said. “It’s really just mental fortitude. If you fall down or slip out, it can’t faze you at all. Once that happens to someone and they lose a wheel, they mentally throw up their hands and think they can’t catch back up. They’re mentally out of the race.”
Like Haidet, Driscoll didn’t have the season he was hoping to have either. A lackluster start to the season was followed by the exciting birth of his first daughter which rightly kept him at home much of October and November. But after a solid block of training in the California sunshine over the holidays and then a quality pre-ride on Saturday, Driscoll lined up with renewed confidence.
“I have been a little behind fitness wise of where I’ve wanted to be this year, but I’ve had the best prep for nationals training wise in the last five years,” Driscoll said. “I was a lot more confident in that way. I taught myself to not set up any expectations before I knew what the course was going to be like.
“Once I rode on Saturday I was pretty excited about how I was doing,” Driscoll added. “The conditions were super challenging, but I was happy with how I was riding in them. I was definitely excited about it but had this nervousness because it’s the biggest race of the year.”
Never one to be at the front of the race immediately, Driscoll stayed cool, calm and collected in the chaotic opening laps as he conceded positions to overly ambitious riders who later found themselves having done too much too soon.
“I didn’t have the best legs today but I did feel really, really good technically,” said Driscoll. “People were able to use their fitness or strength to stay near the front early on, but the inefficiency in the hard sections took its toll in the second half of the race. I knew I had to ride within my limits and not make mistakes. Even if they were riding away from me early, I knew that would take its toll later on. It was about being smooth and steady. I did that and was able to catch everyone but one guy.”
Finishing second at the national championships is a proud moment but a hard one to swallow when the win is almost within reach.
“I do feel great but when you get that close to the jersey…,” Driscoll lamented. “Getting second at any other race is great, but this race, it’s a tough one because everyone remembers who gets the jersey but they don’t remember the minor places. Getting that close is in my mind awesome, but again you have that bittersweet feeling because everyone was racing for the win today more than any other race of the year.”
“Stephen is a very deserving winner,” Driscoll added. “I think if it had been more pedally, I think he would have won by even more. Hyde was the guy to beat. He’s got the legs and he’s got the skills.”
With his wife and mother and father on site during the awards ceremony, Driscoll briefly held his two-month old daughter, Layla, on the podium to share in the day’s celebration with him.
“Having family there was extra special motivation,” Driscoll said. “But I’m still learning how to use it as positive motivation and not ‘man, I have a daughter now and I have to do well because of that’. It was one of the highlights of the day. She captured the room in that moment. It was super special.”
Photo credit: Meg McMahon