By Bruce Buckley
Christmas came early for Jeff Bahnson this year. His podium finish in the Junior Mens 17-18 field at USAC Cyclocross Nationals on December 12 gift wrapped the Thule-Van Dessel rider’s discretionary spot on the junior world cyclocross team, earning him a chance to represent the U.S. at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic, in January.
The junior worlds team has been on the 16-year-old’s wish list since last December when he captured his second consecutive Junior 15-16 national title in Portland, Oregon. During a post-race car ride to the airport, Bahnson set his sights on Tabor while discussing his prospects with USAC Cyclocross Program Director Marc Gullickson and team coach Geoff Proctor.
“Before nationals last year, I hadn’t thought too much about worlds,” he says. “People had mentioned it could be a possibility, but I never really considered it much until then. That’s when I knew I had a chance.”
Despite earning enough accolades to place him among the top up-and-coming riders on the U.S. `cross scene, Bahnson remains modest about his abilities to a fault. He has earned a reputation on the junior’s circuit as quiet and unassuming off the bike, and calmly confident once the gun goes off. Bahnson approaches racing as a personal challenge, not an opportunity to grandstand.
“Obviously I’m competing when I race, but I don’t consider myself a competitive person,” he explains. “I just try to be good at pushing myself to ride harder.”
Bahnson’s abilities were borne out in the hotly-competitive and often-eccentric Delaware `cross scene. He hails from Newark, Delaware, an East Coast hub of cyclcocross that is also the hometown of Katie Compton, Molly Cameron and several regional heavy hitters. His mother, Lauri Webber, is a two-time Masters podium finisher at `cross nationals and an active organizer within the Delaware `Cross Coalition of Delaware.
Bahnson began racing mountain bikes at the age of five, frequenting races and training rides with his mom and mixing it up among much older and stronger riders. At age 11, he caught the `cross bug and soon found himself among the colorful characters of DCCoD.
“My mom took me to a `cross practice one time and I remember I just wanted to keep up with those guys,” he recalls. “They were super-friendly and supportive. It was a great culture. People would take time to teach me things. They never treated me like a little kid.”
At age 13, he spent a year in France with his family and took the opportunity to hone his emerging talents. He raced `cross and mountain bikes on the regional circuit, earning a few victories along the way.
Bahnson’s true potential became apparent upon returning to the U.S. for the 2007 season. Rather than focusing on junior races, he opted to enter older categories. In his first race—the UCI-C2 Charm City `Cross in Baltimore—he took 5th in the Mens B (Cat 3/4) race, besting older and much more experienced riders.
“We knew he was good and he was fast, but none of us expected that,” says Marc Vettori, a DCCoD race promoter and racer with C3-Athletes Serving Athletes. “We were in awe. We knew he was headed to a different level.”
Bahnson went on to grab podium spots in the B fields all season, including the USGP Mercer Cup, Wissahickon `Cross and his local favorite, Granogue `Cross. The strategy paid off at `cross nationals in Kansas City, where he captured his first Junior 15-16 title.
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed by sponsors. For the 2008 season, Bahnson signed on with Van Dessel. Team manager and fellow racer Adam McGrath was familiar with Bahnson from the Delaware `cross scene and saw the combination of his character and skills as the right fit.
“I knew that when I was in a position in the sport to help support a junior, Jeff would be the one,” McGrath explains. “He came up through that Delaware crew of `cross racers, where they take care of one another. He learned to be a good racer, but also worked the pits at races for people like me and others. It’s kept him really humble, but also taught him how to race right.”
With a freshly-minted Stars and Stripes jersey to his name, Bahnson stormed through the 2008 season with 13 wins and four second place finishes in 20 races. In preparation for nationals, Bahnson raced the Elite Men’s field at the MABRA Championships, where he nearly outgunned then-USA Short Track and Marathon Mountain Bike National Champion Jeremiah Bishop (Trek-VW, now of MonaVie-Cannondale), falling to second on the finishing straight.
Despite battling Lyme disease in June and suffering through numerous bouts of the flu in 2009, Bahnson kept himself on track for worlds. His focus shifted to elite level U19 and Junior races, where he racked up six wins and four second place finishes in 15 races, including the USGP Mercer Cup and Great Brewer’s Gran Prix of Gloucester.
With his first Junior 17-18 national title on the line in Portland, Bahnson established an early lead selection with Cody Kaiser (California Giant Berry Farms) and Skyler Trujillo (Black Sheep). Bahnson saw the icy conditions as an opportunity to attack and broke away from Kaiser and Trujillo until he flatted far from the pits and was passed by the duo. Although he ultimately reeled in Trujillo, Kaiser remained out of reach, landing Bahnson on the second step.
Shortly after the race, Bahnson was packed and on his way to Belgium where he has teamed up with other top U.S. prospects at Euro `Cross Camp. While Bahnson counts among the top hopefuls for U.S. juniors at worlds, he takes his first taste of World Cup competition, not surprisingly, with dose of humility.
“This is a learning experience for me,” he says. “I’ll get to race against the best. I’m going in with no expectations except to race as hard as I can and to learn so that hopefully I can do better in the future.”