Michael van den Ham (Easton – Giant p/b Transitions LifeCare) has participated in a lot of bike races in his career. Starts, finishes, attacks, counters, they all kind of come and go, but few, if any, of those races have stuck in his mind like the finish of the 2018 Pan-American Championships.
Racing on home soil in Midland, Ontario, Van den Ham put in a massive effort with two laps to go to bridge to race leader Curtis White (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld). In a tense bell lap, Van den Ham did everything in his power to drop his American rival, but when the two cleared the sand, it was clear the battle was coming down to a sprint finish.
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In the closing meters of the long drag, White timed his move perfectly, pulling around the Canadian at the last moment to take the win and the Pan-Am champ’s jersey.
For the last year, that Sunday in Midland has played back on repeat in Van den Ham’s mind.
“I don’t even know how many times I’ve replayed that finish in my head. Trying to figure out what I could have done differently, how I could have won,” he admitted. “I could go on, but let’s just say it’s provided no shortage of motivation through my training.”
The indelible memory the 2018 Pan-American Championships left in Van den Ham’s mind are a demonstration of just how important the annual continental championships have become for North America’s best cyclocross racers. Since the event started in Cincinnati in 2014, the Pan-American Championship jersey White has worn for the past year has become nearly as coveted as the Canadian Maple Leaf and the American Stars-and-Stripes.
“It’s been a real privilege to wear and represent the Pan-Am jersey. I took a lot of pride in my win last year, and I felt that same pride every time I zipped up that jersey,” White said. “It motivates me to get the most out of every training session and to bring my best to the start line every time. It makes me hungry for more.”
Regaining that jersey, however, will not come easy for the New Yorker.
“I am all-in. I’ll only be racing on Sunday saving it all for the jersey,” Kerry Werner (Kona Maxxis Shimano) said. “It’s not quite as high on my goal list as a national championship, but it would be a huge motivation booster and certainly I would wear the yellow, green, red, blue and black with a big smile.”
Sunday’s race in Midland will mark the sixth edition of the Pan-American Cyclocross Championships. The race was held in Cincinnati from 2014 to 2016 before moving to Louisville in 2017 and then achieving true pan-American status when it headed north to Midland last November.
With the emergence of Maghalie Rochette (Specialized x Feedback Sports) on the Women’s side and Van den Ham on the Men’s, the race has turned into a bit of an American-Canadian cross-border scrimmage with national bragging rights on the line.
“I find it hard to get super amped up for some of the mid-season races, but Pan Ams is different. There’s a jersey on the line and, even though we are racing in National team kits, I feel like it’s a big opportunity to represent my country,” Van den Ham explained.
“The whole Raptors run and ‘We the North’ probably made this point clear, but along with Maple Syrup and Timmies, there are few things Canadians love doing more than beating Americans at sports. So yeah, I’m motivated to kick some Star-Spangled butt. Sorry, eh?”
One unique aspect of last year’s Pan-Ams Champs was the clear home-field advantage the Canadian riders had. Cyclocross is still a growing sport in The North, but the fans brought energy and enthusiasm in cheering on Rochette in her battle against Ellen Noble (Trek Factory Racing CX) and Van den Ham in his epic finish against White.
“There aren’t too many ‘home’ races I get to do in a season, so I don’t think I really understood how much a bump it was going to be going, but wow, was the crowd amazing,” Van den Ham recalled. “Who knows how it would have played out somewhere else, but I felt pulled along by all those people when I was closing to Curtis late in the race.”
The venue for this year’s Championships is again Little Lake Park, set on the north shore of, yep, Little Lake in Midland, which is a small town about an hour north of Toronto. Little Lake is a glacial depression, so the park is set on the side of a natural bowl, with elevation increasing away from the beach that lines the little lake.
“I think the course is really well-rounded,” Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) said. “For me, I would like to see some longer drags, especially uphill. All in all, it’s a good course that has something for everyone and if the weather turns, then it’s a real tough one.”
Riders such as Kerry Werner have ridden a lot of cyclocross courses in recent years, so one thing going for the venue is it has distinct features that stick out in his mind. “It is a cool course next to a lake,” he said. “There is a fairly significant concrete stair set, sand on the beach with turns right before the finish and some tricky off-cambers. It’s a fun course and it’s technical enough.”
The 2019 layout is very similar to the course we previewed on-site last year, with what appears to be a few changes.
The sand section where Van den Ham and White battled before that fateful sprint has been moved to earlier in the lap, and the concrete stairs that ended Hyde’s race prematurely and their ensuing descent are near the end of the lap, right before the final drag.
“From what I’ve seen, the large run-up will be moved closer to the end of the lap, which works to my advantage in the finale,” the swift-of-foot White said. “I think the weather conditions will be the biggest variable. We saw how the course changed between the two days last year.”
Last year, the Pan-Ams weekend took place a week earlier, and although it rained on the days leading up to Saturday’s Silver Goose CX and Sunday’s big one, the course dried out pretty quickly and come Sunday, conditions were fast and dry. The week after, however, snow came to Canadian Nationals in Peterborough and left conditions some kind of epic.
Almost on cue, moving the race a week later in 2019 appears that it might bring, you guessed it, snow.
“It’s Canada in November, so you can’t really count anything out for the weather. We might get it all in an hour of racing,” Hyde said.
“Man it’s cold up there right now!” Werner admitted. “With that said, I wouldn’t mind for some early week precipitation. But maybe keep it dry for the weekend. Snow would be cool and epic. Basically, I am into anything but driving rain.”
Would snow give the Cannuck the advantage? “It’s been a couple of years, but I’ve typically been very good in the snow, good in the cold. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say anyone would have a huge advantage though. The best sort of just rises to the top in ’cross, regardless of conditions,” explained Van den Ham.
White agreed with Van den Ham’s sentiment. “If the conditions are at their worst, it’ll be about who has the most composure.”
The 2018 sprint finish victory at Pan-Ams was an arrival party of sorts for Curtis White. White was a star throughout his Junior and U23 years, and when he graduated to the Elite level at the start of the 2017/18 season, the U.S. cyclocross community was excited to see what he could do.
White was a force in the Vittoria Northeast Cyclocross Series in 2017, but he entered the 2018 Pan-Ams race perhaps a bit overlooked. That changed in a big way that November Sunday, and the win sent him on a trajectory toward a second-place finish at Louisville Nationals and seven wins thus far in 2019. Some have gone as far as to declare 2019 “The Year of Curtis White.”
“I’m focused on bringing my best to the start line, and doing what I’ve been doing all year long,” White said about his defense. “I’ve really upped my technical game over the last couple of years, I’m not concerned with not having the technical skills to match anyone. I’ve also noticed that I have become more composed and patient in high-pressure situations. As long as I perform to my potential and race the course well, the result will follow.”
So defending champ, adding new skills, winning the biggest races, White is a shoo-in to win, huh?
Yeah, not so fast.
The U.S. World Cups provided a major early focal point for riders’ seasons, but in a way, the early-season racing was a bit of a prelude to Sunday’s race. And for the Elite Men, that prelude has meant smashmouth, no-holds-barred, intense racing that is at a level of competitiveness not seen for years on the domestic scene.
“Everyone has been bringing their A-game and nothing is guaranteed, which is awesome,” Werner explained. “Sure it’s harder to grab the glory, but at the same time, it tastes so much sweeter and it’s more exciting for everyone to watch and follow along with.”
“There are probably 7 or 8 guys going well enough to get on the podium if Cincy was any indication, so I’m expecting nothing less than fast, aggressive racing from the start,” Van den Ham added. “Whenever you have that many people who think they have a shot, it’s utter chaos. Great for spectating, tough for racing.”
Two-time Pan-Ams champ Hyde laid out some of his competitors he expects to be players on Sunday. “MvdH is fresh off his new Maple Leaf and is going good. Curtis is as good as he has ever been and looking hungry for a repeat. Kenny is rolling hot and can never be taken out of the equation. Who knows what the Boulder boys will do, but there is some heat right now.”
Topping the list opposite White this season has been Kerry “Don’t Call Me Kenny” Werner. If we are being honest, the battles between White and Werner, Curty and Kenny, are the best thing going in cyclocross right now.
They kicked off the season with two bangers at GO Cross, splitting late-race wins, then split wins at FayetteCross, had two killer races at Charm City and split wins again at Kings CX.
You get the picture.
“I love the hype!” Werner said. “Curtis is a great competitor, and I love battling with him. I think we each make each other stronger every weekend. Curtis is a freaking horse. He has a huge power bank and compared with last year, he has really stepped up his technical game. He can also run competitive 5k times with a bike on his shoulder.”
“Kerry’s always been a technically proficient rider, and he’s made progress with having more depth,” White said about his rival.
It is kind of crazy to say, but the two-time Pan-American champ and three-time defending U.S. National Champion Hyde enters Sunday’s race a bit overlooked, a bit of an underdog.
It’s a designation he is totally okay with. “I am just sitting in my quiet corner tapping my fingers like Mr. Burns,” Hyde said. “I am itching to return to form and get back where I like to be.”
Adding extra motivation for Hyde was the addition of Pan-Ams to his 2018 House of Horrors. After breaking his sternum at World Cup Waterloo in a crash, Hyde fought back from the injury, only to crash on the stone stairs and suffer yet another devastating injury.
“It was really my ‘comeback’ race and to have it end so badly was just brutal,” he said. “Honestly, it broke me. I am happy and excited to return with some decent for and hopefully get those stripes back. Two years wasn’t enough for me.”
While Maghalie Rochette is looking to hold off the American invaders in the Elite Women’s race, Van den Ham leads the group of Canadians looking to capture the Pan-Ams jersey from the Americans.
Van den Ham’s trajectory into the Pan-Ams weekend is similar to last year when he really brought it both days of racing. Last year, he finished 11th and 7th at Cincinnati, and this year, he was 8th both days. Also, as he said, those Canadians love beating Americans at sports.
“It typically takes me a month or so of racing to really get into the swing of things and start feeling my best, so I’m usually not really going well until we hit mid-October, which matches up nicely with my goals at Nationals and Pan Ams. For me, it’s also just a really big event. Maybe it’s just me being a Canadian, but I see Pan Ams as the most important event of the year.”
A look back at last year’s results sheet shows that nothing is guaranteed from year to year in cyclocross. Fourth and fifth-place finishers Jack Kisseberth and Anthony Clark have been absent from the UCI cyclocross scene in 2019.
Graduating to the Elite level are Brannan Fix (Alpha Bicycle – Groove Subaru) and Lance Haidet (Donnelly / Aevolo), who finished 7th and 12th, respectively, at Pan-Ams last year. Those two riders have been acquitting themselves well at the Elite level, with Haidet especially putting his name in with Werner, Hyde, White and Gage Hecht (Donnelly / Aevolo) for the upper echelon of U.S. cyclocross this season.
Cody Kaiser (LangeTwins / Specialized) is another rider with a strong result in last year’s race, and Marc-André Fortier (Pivot Cycles – OTE) looks to build on his strong second at Canadian Nationals last Saturday.
The weekend in Midland kicks off with the Silver Goose CX UCI C2 on Saturday, and then the Elite Men’s Pan-Ams race takes place at 2:35 p.m. EST on Sunday. Check back here this weekend for results.
The Elite Men’s start list is below.
Elite Men’s Start List: 2019 Pan-American Championships
|Alex Lefebvre||Guelph – Canada|
|Alex Schmidt||Vancouver – Canada|
|Andrew Dillman||Fairdale – United States|
|Brannan Fix||Fort Collins – United States|
|Cameron Jette||Toronto – Canada|
|Christian Ricci||Oshawa – Canada|
|Cody Kaiser||El Dorado Hills – United States|
|Curtis White||Delanson – United States|
|Derrick St John||Gatineau – Canada|
|Dylan Postier||Stillwater – United States|
|Grant Ellwood||Boulder – United States|
|Gregg Griffo||ROCHESTER – United States|
|James Driscoll||PARK CITY – United States|
|Jared Nieters||Amissville – United States|
|Justin Minicola||Bowmanville – Canada|
|Kerry Werner||advance – United States|
|Kevin Fish||Austin – United States|
|lance haidet||san luis obispo – United States|
|Luke Hlavenka||Alliston – Canada|
|Marc-André Fortier||victoriaville – Canada|
|maxx chance||Boulder – United States|
|Michael van den Ham||Chilliwack – Canada|
|Sjaan Gerth||Ottawa – Canada|
|Stephen Hyde||Easthampton – United States|
|Trevor O’Donnell||Oro Medonte – Canada|