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Chris Jones: A Man for all Seasons
INTERVIEW: Tom Southam
PHOTOS: Jeremy Dunn at Jingle Cross, Iowa City
All my life I have been something of a road racing purist. In 17 years of racing, I have never taken part in any races that weren’t on the road. I considered mountain biking a fad and I thought track racing was for people who were scared of getting wet. And as for cyclocross, I thought it was just stupid. A half measure, a vain attempted to make up for the lack of proper racing in those dark, empty winter months. Nothing more than an excuse for Belgian men of a certain age to get out of the house to do what they love most: get blind drunk and yell their heads off at some poorly paid athlete. I also could not for the life of me see why anyone would want to dilute their racing career by racing through the winter.
How wrong I was though. On all accounts (apart from mountain biking - that won’t last). These days former track riders dominate the world rankings, from the stage races to the classics. While cyclo-cross not only has a lineage as noble as road racing itself, but it's also growing in popularity at an impressive rate. So much so that I have even found myself toying with the idea of doing some races before the year is out.
Naturally then, I jumped at the chance to go and catch up with one of the Rapha-FOCUS team, Chris Jones, while he was over racing at the Tour of Britain, riding for UnitedHealthcare team where he plies his trade during the road season.
TOM SOUTHAM: So I did a little reading up on you and firstly I have to say; what’s with a two-day off-season?
CHRIS JONES: Yeah, well that’s the way I roll… haha… I’ve done that for a couple of years now. I did it coming into this year, but this winter coming will be different. I started 2011 in January in Langkawi and raced through to June, where I took a pretty good long break, and then I started coming back. I’ll race until the middle of October and then I’ll be racing cross again in December.
The way the U.S. schedule is set up this year moving the nationals from December to January lets me take a big break like anyone on the road would do. So, after the season I’ll go on vacation and then come back and start training for the road, and by then I should be ready to get into the cross.
I always found that I wouldn’t lose much base fitness in my break but coming back and hitting an event where I would have to be doing those max efforts would have been really hard.
Well it’s the first time I’ve done it this way so we’ll see. It might hurt to start with…
Your part of a three man team in the cross races now, how does that work? I never envisaged that it would be like road racing where a teammate could make a difference.
Well I’ve never been in a team with guys that have been this good before, you know - right up there with you - so I can’t be sure. But I think it’ll make a difference for sure, especially in a place like the States where there are only really eight guys that are going for the win. By having two of us up there in eight it should be just like being in a break on the road. We’ll see how it works out.
This is your second year at Rapha?
Yeah and my third with FOCUS.
I saw pictures of your bike from last year on the net - that FOCUS looked so cool.
They (FOCUS) painted one up for me specially - it’s beautiful. It's actually in the Rapha Cycle Club in San Francisco, they took it apart, each and every piece and put it up on the wall in there as an art piece. It was a genuine one-off.
How many bikes do you have at races? Do you have to change bikes all the time? I wanted to go off and ride cross this year in the UK but as soon as I said that I wanted a bike I got told I needed at least two or I would be a disgrace…
I’ve got four bikes, three of which travel to races. Sometimes you have to change all the time, but hopefully not. Those are the really muddy races.
How wet does it get over in the States? Belgium looks like a quagmire in all the pictures I see.
Yeah, it can get pretty bad in late October through to November. It starts raining in the States then, and then it can get pretty muddy. I mean, we have two full-time mechanics, and a third guy that helps at the races. Considering there's only three riders, you can see the importance of those guys. You can change bikes every half a lap, so it can get pretty intense.
Are the U.S. races different in any way to the races in Europe? I mean in road racing each country can be quite diverse, what defines the U.S. cyclocross scene?
In the U.S. we have the USGP; that’s the biggest series, and those courses are modeled on the European courses. They are big, wide, open, fast courses, but then the smaller events can be much tighter and technical, more like mountain bike races.
Which do you prefer?
Big and wide and open – like crits on the grass.
That’s weird; I had you down as a climber on the road?
Hmm kinda – but I’m also a leadout guy. Today [in the mass sprint into Exmouth won by Mark Renshaw – Ed] I was second last guy, so I start at about 1k to go. I’m pretty snappy. It plays into cross really because that can be very punchy stuff - 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off kinda thing.
Oh. Well there goes my cross career. I think I am the opposite kind of road rider, takes me half a day to get going… How does it go managing the two though? Not just the workload: juggling teams and programmes can’t be easy either?
Carefully. I mean there is a definite advantage in me riding cross, and the sponsors see that the skills set I bring to the road is valuable. Some guys can’t do it (mix the two), and even for me it’s hard because road is what I do, it’s what pays most of my salary, but cross is something I really love. I do have to sacrifice a bit of energy to do both, but I think I do ok. If it came to it and my road team didn’t want me to do cross, I’d have to say I’d go for the road. Having said that with the sport growing so much in the states if I could have a career just doing cross, that is something I would consider too. The way things are going, I could see that happening in three, maybe four years.
So you consider yourself a roadie first?
Ah well.. I suppose..
It’s O.K. if you are man!
Well you know I originally started cross because I was horrible at time trialling and my coach suggested I do it to work on my acceleration, but I went well in it and you are attracted to the things you're good at. Plus, the scene was really chilled, the people were all really cool, I suppose it was a bit more like mountain biking used to be. I just really liked it.
What are you looking forward to in your cross season, anything in particular?
The Nationals is always huge, but at the moment I’m looking forward to the first block of racing. I’m racing six weeks in a row, and in the last two weeks we’ll be going to the first World Cups. I think now I’m just looking forward to getting going, getting into that change of scene. I mean the road can become quite a grind by this time of year, it’s a really serious scene, and cross has a completely different feel.
I have to admit it looked pretty good when I first started seeing what you guys have going on over there. I met a few of the guys from Portland last year and I saw a bunch of pictures in a book Simon Mottram showed me of the scene. I was amazed, I come from this very stuffy traditional scene and there were people actually having fun at a bike race, both riders and spectators. Why do you think this has happened in the U.S?
I think it’s a real working man’s sport, the guys who work a 40 hour week can still train to be competitive. Their races are 30-40 minutes long and if they crash it’s on dirt. So it isn’t as intimidating as a road race.
At the local races it’s great, the guys have the beer hand-ups and stay around in the beer tent and watch us race. It’s really good for people starting racing, and it’s amazing how the crowds are growing each year. It’s really cool.
What kind of stuff have you been doing over here in Europe? The Italian calendar?
Yeah a lot of the Italian races, as well as Spain, Portugal and a few other places.
How do you find the Italian races? They are hard bike races. Even the ones most people haven’t heard of.
I loved them. They are hard, but I like them because positioning is so important. In the States the roads are so big you can sit at the back and move up when you see the climb coming, but here it’s exciting, you have to stay at the front and be in the right place all the time. It was harder at first because we were a new team and had to break our way in, but Charly Wegelius knows everyone, and Forster [Robert] has been around a while, so once we got a few results we began to get a bit of respect. I love it here in Europe.
How do you find being in a team environment here? I imagine being in a cross team is a lot like being in a mountain bike team, where due to the slightly more individualistic nature of the sport, you don’t get that real team interaction like you do in a road team. Being in a team that gets along has always been a big thing for me; I like the team environment.
I think it’s different. In cross there isn’t as many different personalities as a road team but you certainly get a lot closer to the guys you are with, and you also get a lot closer to the staff. Zach [McDonald], who was in the team with me last year, I got to know really well. We spent almost every weekend together in the same hotel room, so you don’t feel like you're on your own.
But the cross season isn’t like the road season, where you’ll have that week or two weeks when you’re with your teammates every single day. Even in the race you spend time talking to your teammates. In cross there isn’t any time for that, you just go off and do your thing.
In cross I suppose you are used to a certain level of success, how do you feel when you come over here, doing races that are so hard, even if you got in the top ten it would be a massive result?
It’s completely different. This year in Europe I’ve gotten one top ten and I was stoked. I rang my wife and told her “I was EIGHTH today”. It’s just a different thing, but anyone who has been over and done those races knows how good any results at that level are. It’s nice to go back to cross and win, but it’s not why I do it, it’s just a different thing. I’m happy to say ‘I helped this guy win today’ in a road race, and I’m happy too when I can say ‘I won today’ in cross.
What’s good riding for my cross team too, because of the scale of it, is that you are so close to the sponsors. If I won the stage here today, I’m sure my sponsors would be happy but the boss of the company wouldn’t call me up, whereas if I won a cross race, Slate or Simon, or the guys from FOCUS would call me up and be stoked for me. That’s really nice, you know you are appreciated.
I have a technical question for you, what kind of warm up do you do for cross. I hate warming up, I just can’t do it. I’m worried that it (along with having no acceleration and hating the cold) will be the ruin of my as yet unborn cyclocross career. How do you go about yours?
My warm up’s not too big. Some guys do a full on time trial warm up, but I don’t do much. I go out ride the course and then do a few sprints that’s normally enough. You’ll be ok – as long as you can suffer till you open up. First lap might be a bit hard…
My next issue is how do you go with the cold? You’re a skinny guy. I personally hate the cold; tell me you hate it too?
Ah I like it, I grew up in New England where it is so cold in winter, I just got used to it. Plus I have a lot of good kit. We have winter skinsuits that are fleece lined to keep us warm, and I put plenty of embrocation on…
Talking of cold and rain. What did you make of the UK?
It was good, I liked the UK, but the food is really bad [very true - Ed]. It’s been a good Tour, there were surprising numbers of people out at the finishes, and it’s great down here in the South.
So what does the future hold for Chris Jones?
Well I didn’t turn pro until I was 27 so I started late…
Wait…you’re older than me?
Yeah, It’s the Californian sun; it keeps you young… haha. Well I just re-signed for another two years here at UnitedHealth, and I have another two years with Rapha-FOCUS. And man, I love what I do, so I want to keep this going for as long as I can. I think I’m lucky in a couple of ways, firstly I had a job before I raced so I have a good perspective on how good this opportunity is, and secondly I find that the cross helps keep things fresh for me. I do the domestique role on the road through the year, and by the time I’m done with a road season, I’m excited to do cross. I get good results there and by the time that comes to an end I love being back out on the road. It’s a great mix and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.
2011 Jingle Cross action in Iowa City, Iowa