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Cyclo-cross puts a different spin on biking

US champ Powers dazzles at Gloucester Gran Prix

Racers had to negotiate obstacles during the recent Gloucester Gran Prix cyclo-cross event.
Racers had to negotiate obstacles during the recent Gloucester Gran Prix cyclo-cross event.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff)

When Jeremy Powers used to drive the ice cream truck along the beach, he drove slowly and the children always heard the catchy jingle before they saw him.

Now, as the reigning USA Cycling Cyclo-cross national champion, he leaves just about everybody in the dust.

On a recent spectacular fall day, he has just won the elite men’s division of the Gloucester Gran Prix for a record sixth time in a row. After a polite sip of a celebratory mug of beer from a local sponsor, he is escorted to a private area by a US Anti-Doping Agency officer to provide a urine sample.

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Friends tell him to think of Niagara Falls, but he returns a few minutes later with the vial only half-full. He drank no water during the race.

“This is all I’ve got, and it’s not enough for a sample,” he says sheepishly.

Jeremy Powers was a little spent after winning the men’s elite division in Gloucester.
Jeremy Powers was a little spent after winning the men’s elite division in Gloucester.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

He grabs a bottle of water, takes a gulp, and waits for nature’s call. Meanwhile, he tries to explain the phenomenon of cyclo-cross.

Called the “steeplechase of cycling,” cyclo-cross is a mixture of road racing and mountain biking on an obstacle course. It has been very popular in Europe for more than a century and is an up-and-coming sport in the United States. Nationally, cyclo-cross participation has almost tripled in the last eight years, according to USA Cycling.

In 1999, when local rider Paul Boudreau staged the first Gloucester event, there were just 125 cyclists in a one-day meet. Now it is a two-day international event with a city-imposed 1,000-rider limit and even more spectators, a beer garden, and races for ages 5 and up.

“Cyclo-cross is cool,” says Powers. “It’s awesome no matter what the weather. It’s a great sport to watch and take the kids.”

On this picture-perfect day, no one disagreed.

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Stage Fort Park in Gloucester offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. There are sandy dirt roads, some gravel and grass surfaces with exposed roots and rocks. In some stretches, riders dismount and lug their 15-pound modified road bikes up steps or leapfrog hurdles. The pros make the transition seamlessly, but the pounding of the bike seat looks painful.

“You just get accustomed to that — it’s second nature,” says Powers. “You hit the inside of your hamstring. We’re not actually hitting our groin.”

The Gloucester course has twists, turns, and plenty of dirt and dust.
The Gloucester course has twists, turns, and plenty of dirt and dust.(stan grossfeld/globe staff)

Talk about the road less traveled: Powers’s path is unique. He grew up in Connecticut, and his mother still has pictures of him ripping up the lawn as a daredevil kid on his bicycle. Later he worked in the family ice cream business, getting up at 5 a.m. to stock the trucks and working 15-hour days.

After attending Westfield State, where he studied criminal justice, he decided it would be a crime not to do what he really loved.

At age 21, he sold his ice cream truck and moved to Belgium, where cycling is the national sport. Sometimes there were nearly 100,000 fans at the televised races.

“It’s bigger than the Super Bowl here,” says Powers. “It’s like Jets-Patriots every race. I ingrained myself in that culture and really studied my sport.”

It was a real eye-opener.

“People at the starting lines smoking cigars and gambling, it’s just a whole different world,” he says. “All the riders wearing menthol eucalyptus, stuff on their legs, an array of hot creams, shaved legs, foreign languages, and mud everywhere.”

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Powers struggled but eventually thrived. Today, he makes a six-figure salary, mostly on sponsorships.

This year for the first time, the cyclo-cross World Cup was held in the United States. Powers finished an impressive sixth in Las Vegas, the highest a North American male has ever finished.

Racing as an American around the world has its challenges. Near his Easthampton home, he sees a lot of porcupines while training, but in France, he hears a lot of barbs.

“Sometimes they’ll call me ‘Lance,’ ” he says. “If someone goes over there and does what Lance [Armstrong] did — kind of skanks up their race — I hear about it. But I’m not Lance. “

Cyclo-cross is not for the faint of spirit, as Ally Stacher can attest.
Cyclo-cross is not for the faint of spirit, as Ally Stacher can attest.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff)

The rowdy crowds at Gloucester treated Powers and fellow American Katie Compton, who won a World Cup last year in the Netherlands, like rock stars.

“We’ve got fans,” says Powers.

Steven Thompson, a racer from Dallas, is one of them.

“The strongest survive, the best attitude wins every time,” says Thompson, “and that’s why Jeremy Powers is a great competitor and drives this industry right here. He’s got a great attitude and everybody loves him.”

Powers calls each race “a chess match.”

“It’s just the spirit of competition,” he says. But once the race begins, he shifts gears from nice guy to ruthless in a heartbeat.

“To be a great cyclo-cross rider, you’ve got to have a lot of kill,” he says. “Am I a nice guy? Well, I just sliced 85 guys’ throats, right? And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but that’s what I did.”

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Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.