It's cyclocross national championship time! "Nats" are back, following the cancelled event that should have taken place in 2020 except for the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is my preview and race predictions for the Elite Men's and Women's 2021 event.
When and where
1S151 Winfield Road
Wheaton, Il 60189
(outside Chicago) USA
Amateurs/Masters and non-championship races take place the week of December 7-12, 2021, with the national championship U23, Junior, and Elite races on Sunday the 12th.
How to watch
The rights to broadcast in the USA are now held by FloBikes, who offer the stream as part of their subscription package. Sorry, no more free streams on the USA Cycling YouTube channel. Hopefully this leads to a higher quality, more reliable broadcast.
If you're a USA Cycling member, you can apparently get 20% off a FloBikes subscription by following the appropriate link inside "My Account" on the USA Cycling website, if you aren't already a subscriber. FloBikes also has the cyclocross World Cup races for the 2021/22 season.
The course map shows a 2-way pit, long start/finish straight (reminiscent of Lakewood, WA) and 4 key spots that could force riders from their bikes: the Shimano barriers, New Belgium stairs, the Pony Shop sand pit, and ABUS hill:
Weather for Wheaton, IL (DuPage County)
In the forecast: some rain and snow showers are currently forecast for Saturday, December 11 - the day before the Elite races. Throw in 5 days of amateur racing the week prior tearing up the course, and the track could be a mess.
What's typical: Hi temperature 35°F, overnight lows 26°F, and about a 50/50 split between dry days and rain/snow days. In other words, potential for pretty miserable conditions, or it could just be cold but dry.
Recent photos of the course construction show dry conditions, but that could change by race day.
Elite Men's Prediction
Realistically, 3 riders have the best chance: Curtis White, Kerry Werner, and Eric Brunner. White hasn't looked as dominant as he has previously, while Brunner certainly turned some heads with his comeback performance Jingle Cross weekend following a mechanical, and just won the Pan-Am championships 7 days prior to Elite nats. Can he make it 2 in a row? Werner still looks strong but perhaps not the same rider who split virtually every major stateside race win with White 2 years ago.
Outsiders: can't count out former national champs, and Stephen Hyde owns 3 of those titles. He'd need some help and luck to get past the favorites based on his 2021 results thus far. Defending champ Gage Hecht did not appear to be close at Pan-Ams, finishing 6th, 1:25 back... but no one picked him in 2019, either, so....
Not on the start list: 2021 Pan-Am U23 winner Scott Funston, who is registered for the U23 category at nats as well.
My pick: Curtis White
Why: he's good in the mud, and has the Euro chops for racing in the cold and wet, which is possible in Chicago. One of his best performances in Europe was the Dendermonde World Cup, a muddy slog. And he's due.
Elite Women's Prediction
Clara Honsinger is the overwhelming favorite. She's returning from Europe as the winner of the Koppenbergcross, her #1 early-season stateside rival (Maghalie Rochette, Canadian) isn't here, and barring illness, injury, or major mechanical, can be reasonably expected to repeat as national champion.
Not on the start list: the two women who finished second and third to Honsinger at the last USA cyclocross national championship, which took place way back in 2019 in Lakewood, WA - Katie Compton (retired / suspended) and Rebecca Fahringer (head injury) will both be MIA. Honsinger's teammate Kaitlin Clouse, who has shown results Europe recently, is in the U23 race, as is Madigan Munro (recent U23 Pan-Am winner), so both are missing from this Elite race. Ruby West, another strong performer at Pan-Ams, is Canadian.
If Honsinger falters: throw a dart. It's a wide open field behind Honsinger, with Pan-Am winner Raylyn Nuss (Honsginer did not attend), Sunny Gilbert, Crystal Anthony, Caitlin Bernstein, Hannah Arensman. Remember Sunny Gilbert's silver medal in the Louisville mud, on a course that featured more running than riding? Keep an eye on her if conditions force a lot of running.
My pick: Clara Honsinger
Why: anything less than a win would probably be considered a disappointment, based on her palmarès and history against the riders on the start list.