Thursday, February 06, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Jeremy Powers’ day job takes him around the country and overseas on a regular basis.
It has a dress code, required equipment and even a busy season, which will wrap up on Sunday in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, at the Cyclocross World Championships.
As a professional cyclist, Powers spends the day training and his evenings in his Easthampton home with his wife, Emily, and their dog, Moose.
On Super Bowl Sunday, hours before football fans pack into their living rooms and sports bars nationwide, Powers will be on the hunt for a World Championship, wearing the nation’s colors on his chest.
On Jan. 12, the Rapha-FOCUS rider won the US National Championship in 59 minutes, 16 seconds in Bolder, Colo., giving him the privilege to don the stars and stripes of the American flag this weekend and throughout next season.
“When you win Nationals you get to have the jersey. You get to be national champion and wear the jersey for the year,” said Powers during a week home between winning the US Championship and jetting off to Europe for training and a few World Cup races before Worlds. “You get to represent your county for the entire year. It’s that display of who the stronger rider was. It’s the one that everyone knows is the mantel of cyclocross. ... Winning Nationals, is the one. It’s a career definer.”
Powers took the lead in Bolder on the first hill and never trailed through eight obstacle riddled laps. The challenges of sand and mud pits, unrideable paths, flights of stairs and steep hills that require riders to dismount and run with their bikes aren’t unique to the National Championship, but define the short, closed-circuit racing discipline.
The up coming racing season, which runs September through February, won’t be his first raced in glory. He won his first national title in 2012, which he still believed was the top moment of his racing career.
“I’d raced my whole life and that was my first significant win,” Powers said. “I had been trying for Nationals. I’d been second, second, third. I had been in the lead, winning the race and then I crashed. All these things and finally in 2012 in Madison, Wis., I was able to win. That was a big one.”
Cyclocross is the 30-year-old’s sole focus now. He estimated he had another five years left and believed he was physically in his prime to go as far as possible in the European-dominated sport.
“I’m not the first American to go race in Europe, but I do think that there is an opportunity (to succeed) in the next five years while I’m at the peak of age and fitness,” Powers said. “This is the time I have to do it if I’m going do it.”
The journey to being a two-time cyclocross national champion started in Niantic, Conn., when Powers and his childhood friends picked up mountain biking in the late 1990s.
Powers was an energetic kid and the traditional sports like basketball, baseball and football didn’t cut it. Riding with friends around town turned from friendly rivalries to heated competition in high school.
“We were all going, everyday like, ‘Yo, Justin. Let’s go hit this trail and connect it to the Dunkin’ Donuts trail and then like, you know, that one behind McDonald’s that goes into the forest,’” he said. “There were 30 of us riding pretty seriously, trying to outdo each other.”
Riding gave him a sense of freedom and became an instant love. Bikes and races turned into an obsession, which quickly became a career.
In 2001, as a high school junior, Powers turned professional in mountain biking. He went on to have a stellar season, racing around the world, ranking in the top five nationally and winning a Junior World Cup leg in Napa, Calif.
“The riders that were coming up like that were going to pro teams immediately and signing for good money,” he said. “You’re on that path, so I had no interest in going to college because I was like, ‘I’m going pro.’ My mom, everybody was on board with that.”
The pieces fell into place for Powers to climb the rankings, but illness skewed his plan. He got mononucleosis during his high school senior year and racing took a back seat for almost a year.
In 2002, Powers enrolled in an environmental science and criminal justice program at Westfield State University as he recuperated. It was a good fit as the course work could lead to a job outdoors and the Pioneer Valley had a strong cycling community.
As Powers’ health improved, the same couldn’t be said for the state of mountain biking. Sponsors were pulling out and moving to road racing. Luckily, riders Powers met in the Valley kept his cycling career alive.
“They put me in with the right people and basically six months after I started riding again (after having mono), I signed with Jelly Belly,” Powers said. “Which was really cool and a massive experience and door-opener for me because I was able to turn pro with them before I could drink. I was 20.”
His 10-year contract with Jelly Belly ended after the 2013 season, capping his road cycling career. In 2007, Powers signed with cyclocrossworld.com, before moving to Rapha-FOCUS in 2011.
“I went on the road and I won races, I did all that. I made a career on the road and now cyclocross is that same thing,” Powers said. “For me, the end of my book will get written if I’m able to be on the podium of a World Cup at the elite level, or be on the podium of a World Championships ... (but) my ultimate goal is to refine and repeat and continue to get better. Self develope and being my absolute best no matter whatever that is, (even) if that’s fourth place at a World Cup.”