Updated—Saturday, January 7, 8:24 pm CST
Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus) rode perhaps two corners behind eventual runner-up Cody Kaiser (Specialized) at the beginning of the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships U23 race, before making the pass, ripping a muddy right-hander in a controlled skid that Kaiser simply could not match, and riding off into the wind.
When McDonald wheelied victoriously across the line 53 minutes later, he was vindicated with room to spare after playing second-fiddle to Danny Summerhill last year in Bend, Oregon. Mcdonald had won his first U23 title by 2:21.
Kaiser held on for second and Jeff Bahnson (Van Dessel Factory Team) rode clean to claim third.
It was a perfect course for the Rapha man renowned for his technical abilities: muddy, rutted, and greasy, with a couple of fast downhills and tricky corners that had racers flying into the tape all day long.
“It’s a great course,” McDonald said afterward. “It’s probably the closest to a Euro course in the US I’ve ridden all year”
The day started out with the muddy frozen overnight into sculpted ruts that sent tires sliding in unintended trajectories.
“Death ruts,” Tim Butler is reported to have called them.
But by the afternoon, the sun and the unseasonably warm upper-30s temperatures prevailed, and the course softened up into a slimy, grassy pulp.
Kaiser grabbed the holeshot with McDonald and Bahnson in second and third, but McDonald took the lead before going into the first technically-challenging section of the course and ripped a fast right-hander, skidding gratuitously and opening up the first gap of the day after barely starting the first lap.
“I just kept applying the pressure and then up the hill I gunned it pretty hard,” McDonald recounted.
A long climb at the beginning of the course jabbed riders midway through with a very steep ramp before continuing at a more reasonable incline to the Badger Prairie venue’s hilltop overlook.
“By the first climb, McDonald was basically gone,” Bahnson said.
McDonald took full advantage of his poise on slick surfaces, railing the course’s deep ruts like a BMX track and sliding the bike around the course skillfully.
“You could build a house of cards on McDonald’s back,” announcer Brad Sohner proclaimed, as McDonald worked through the mud smoothly for the better part of the next hour.
Meanwhile Kaiser dropped further back, unable to match McDonald’s speed through the slippery stuff.
McDonald finished the race with a clean Rapha skinsuit—none of the ubiquitous mud stains marking the hips of the racers who went down—and a leg full of dollars.
So dominant was McDonald that after he wheelied across the line victoriously, fans crowding the finishing straight had to wait more than two minutes to cheer on second-place Kaiser.
“I gave it my all,” Kaiser said, “and then Zach gave it his all. And he got it. I think I have a bit of a bigger motor but he outhandled me … it was a good course for Zach.”
Nineteen-year-old Jeffrey Bahnson kept the pressure on Kaiser but could never catch the Specialized man, having to settle for third, 45 seconds further back. The first-year U23 from Delaware had no idea what to expect coming into the championship, not having enjoyed a nationwide racing schedule like McDonald and Kaiser.
“Chicago and this were the first I’ve left the East Coast all season. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’m definitely happy with the result.”
Bahnson shot off the line into third place and stayed there the entire race.
“I tried to stay on Cody’s wheel for as long as I could. I was trying to make up the gap but I just couldn’t.”
For the rest of the race it was about staying upright and cruising to the bronze medal for the Van Dessel rider who will need all the energy he can get tomorrow as he contests the division two collegiate championship.
Jesse Keough (Champion System p/b Keough Cyclocross) took the fourth step on the U23 podium, in the absence of his brother and teammate Luke.
Joseph Welsh (Raleigh Allstars Cycling Club) rounded out the five-deep podium.
McDonald will race tomorrow’s Elite Men’s championship with Rapha teammates Jeremy Powers and Chris Jones.
Note: Watch live streaming video of the women’s and men’s elite races from the USAC Cyclocross National Championships beginning at 11:50 am (Central time) on Sunday, January 8 on VeloNews.com. Go to VeloNews.com/live!