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Lunch With JPow
Jeremy Powers, or JPow as he is widely known, is the latest rider to join Rapha Focus, Rapha and Focus Bikes' fledgling pro cyclocross outfit. Jeremy is an established talent on the US cross scene with a wealth of ability and character to match. Slate Olson caught up with him over lunch.
Photography by Dan Sharp
Boulder, CO. August 11, 2011
As we sit at the bar of The Kitchen for a late lunch, I tell Jeremy that this isn't going to be a tough interview, more a discussion over a meal, like My Dinner with André. For some reason, I feel like everyone must have seen and loved this film as much I did. Turns out Jeremy Powers isn't much of a film buff.
What was the last movie you watched?
Last movie I watched (rustling around and trying to think back)? From start to finish, the full movie? Inglorious Basterds. But the last movie I watched in a theater was Avatar. I don't watch a lot of movies, I can't sit still that long.
Why do you like to race cyclocross?
I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The effort is short and fast in cross and I'm actually able to concentrate for an hour. It's perfect for me. I like to get things done quickly, that's sort of how my life is, I like to do things fast. And that's how cyclocross is, it's fast. A road race would take five hours, a cross race is an hour.
If road racing was just an hour would you prefer that?
I do great in road races that are under three hours.
Do you care much about the history and origins of cross as a byproduct of training for road racing?
Definitely. Historically it's traditionally been great a way for road racers to stay in shape. But it's not really a stepchild of road racing any more. It's grown into its own thing now and it's been cool to watch and be part of that growth. For me, it's always going to be cyclocross -cyclocross is fun and I love racing it.
If you could stop racing road tomorrow and focus solely on cross, would you?
If I could make a living, yeah. That's always been my goal, to just race cross and in the last year it's become very apparent that it could be possible. Not just because other guys are doing it but because I could be a better racer if I was just racing cross. With the World Championships coming to Louisville in 2013, I want to be able to just focus on cross. That was my goal this year and I definitely tried a lot of different avenues. It's harder than it seems to make living only doing cross.
What about guys that came up through cross and are now on the road, riders like Lars Boom?
The thing about those guys is that if they're talented enough to race on the road at that level, they probably should. Where cyclocross is different is that it's not that you have less power you're just gifted in different ways. Lars Boom, for example, or Zdenek Stybar can maybe do 400 watts for eight minutes and win a prologue, whereas I might be able to do 430 watts for six minutes but I can also ride a downhill section they're not able to ride. Or maybe I can run faster or come out of a turn quicker, things that neutralize some of their power. That's why cross is special in its own right. I'm not saying they're not more gifted in one area but because cross is multi-dimensional, there's more going on.
Are there guys right now that you enjoy racing against, or that you enjoy watching race?
I'm a huge fan of most of those Euro guys. I like Sven Nys because he's really, really pro and he's great at what he does. I respect that. I think Sven Nys is the best cyclocross racer, certainly of our generation, maybe of all time. He's been the best for so long. You can't make someone good for 10 or 15 years, it's just impossible to do. There are a lot of guys that I look up to - look at Jesse (Anthony) winning this stage of the Tour of Utah - sure he's a competitor and he beat me, but that's awesome for him.
You were ranked #2 in the world at one point last year and were the champion of the biggest US series. Is it kind of funny that you look up to other riders?
I don't think so. At some level we're all fans and you just have to say that you respect so-and-so. I hope they think the same of me. I respect Taylor Phinney because he's a great time trialist. I respect Stybar because he's a great cross racer. I respect Danny Pate because I had the chance to ride with him and because I know how good he is, how dedicated. It's not that they are better than me, it's just that I can appreciate and respect these guys.
Looking at the US domestic scene, what do you think of your competition, Trebon, Johnson, Wells? You have been racing against them for a while now, you know them pretty well.
I'm not going to give away their little secrets. In a cyclocross race, it's about knowing where you can apply pressure in areas where the other guys aren't as good. So, you ride a couple of laps in a race and see where they're not going well in a particular section; in barriers, corners etc, so I know where I'm running in the back of them. Next lap, if I decide to make the move, that's where I put the pressure on, at their weak spot. If it doesn't work, you just keep applying the pressure until they make a mistake. When the rubber band snaps you get away and you win.
Any of these guys have signature tells?
Everybody does. As soon as the legs start going down, guys start dabbing, or you hear "shit", all those are things that you look for and play off.
Is there a weakness that you're known to have and that you have to work on?
Running. Last year I trained a lot in that area but I'm definitely not the strongest runner. Also, riding in the mud. It's one of those things you just have to keep working on. I'm not that awesome in the mud, depending on the conditions, but especially if it's that really heavy, boggy stuff. I've been working on low cadence efforts, running, and different stuff to help that. But a really long, 80% muddy race, that's been a little like my Kryptonite. I'm getting better at it every year. Last year I didn't really have many problems in the mud.
Do you think that has any impact on your results over in Europe?
I think it's about being consistent across the board. You don't want to say, “Oh man, I'm so good at such and such.” You want to be good at everything. That's the great thing about cyclocross and the great thing about focusing on one sport. You can find that one per cent that you're missing and work on that every day. If you told me that my number one goal was to win every race in the mud, I could do that. But I just can't go do 5-6 hours on the road and race all these big tours. If I raced only cyclocross, then probably in, say, February or March, the boys and I would go out and make a sprinkler system, till the field, make a track, mud the shit out of it, and I would ride it twice a week. I’d do that instead of intervals for road racing.
You're pretty well known for your starting ability. Why are you so strong?
My mom. It's in the genes. That probably doesn’t account for all of it but it's most of it. I'm good at finding the pedals and that makes a huge difference. That's actually one of the things that I think helped Tim (Johnson) out with a lot last year. Getting in his pedals fast was a weakness of his. He worked on that a lot leading up to Worlds and it made a big difference. It's not something you focus on a lot, but again it's that one per cent.
Do you know who is terrible at starts?
Yeah, true. But I was also thinking about Chris Jones (JPow's new teammate at Rapha Focus). Chris had some slow starts last year because he was having a hard time finding his pedal.
Speaking of Chris, you're on a new team with new teammates this year. What are your thoughts on Chris and Zach McDonald?
They are both really good riders. Didn't I recommend Zach to you last year? Anyhow, I think that he is definitely one of the best bike handlers. If he keeps working on his engine a little bit, then given the way he approaches racing he’ll do fine. I don't know Zach that well yet, so I'm looking forward to hanging out with him. I think Chris and I can both learn from each other, you know? I know Chris is a great rider and is super strong on the road. This season I'm looking forward to hanging with him on the road and being a teammate and then playing off each other in the races, you know?
Zach admitted to me last year that he sometimes ‘falls asleep’ at the start, drops back into the teens then has to work his way back through to the front. Is that even possible at the top level?
You can't do that. You can lose 45 seconds in the first lap of cyclocross race if you slip back that far. How do you make that up on a course where you can maybe only gain five seconds a lap going full speed? If you lose 45 seconds in that first lap and that top guy is smashing it with that sort of lead on you, you can't make it up. That's the problem when you go over to Europe and you don't have enough UCI points to get a good start spot. I'm not going to be doing faster lap times than Sven or Stybar, so I'm going to have to be at the start with them and then play my cards from there. If I lose five seconds a lap from there, then I'm in good shape because these guys are going to do big, big numbers out of the blocks. That's definitely an area where you can look for a spot to improve, so if that's Zach's thing, then maybe he needs to warm up for 20 more minutes so he can be ready to freak out at the start.
Speaking of freaking out, you're known for your extraverted personality. Is this because you have an abundance of energy, or was it that you watched a lot of WWF growing up and decided to create a persona?
You have to hang out with me for a couple days and you'll realize it's always the same. I leave a lot of things around. I forget to do a lot of things. I'm very ADD, it’s real. In my old age, I'm 28 and very serious now (he smiles), I've got better at relaxing when I should be relaxing and putting energy in when I should focus. That's definitely helped. As you grow up, you try to figure out how you get more out of yourself. So, I might not go to the club Saturday night and DJ until 3am. I might not go out with my friends and get hammered, instead I might have one beer and then go home and put my legs up. It's these small things that you start to do. But back to the question, I try to be outgoing and to be a good person. I think what comes around goes around and I try to be myself, I don't try to do things that aren't me.
That's what people say about you, that you never say no to people, that you'll hang around and chat with everyone. Are you very conscious of the fans?
I like to create a good time. At the end of the day we are entertainers. We're athletes, but we're also entertainers. It's about sport, about doing my best, but it's also that I want to entertain these people who are fans of my work. It's the same as being an artist or a musician. Any time you have a person that is trying to do their best and push themselves, people are into that. Especially at the top level. So if you can create something cool, you try and write a blog, you make some videos and try and show people what’s going on.
You just sort of quoted Steve Prefontaine.
I enjoy that kind of stuff. I like having something to be a fan of. If you're a rider and you don't have something that people can follow then how can you expect people to be into what you do?
You and Tim Johnson are friends and long-time teammates, so now that you're with Rapha Focus, how is that going to play out?
Tim and I aren't going to make each other crash to win. We're still great friends and there is a ton of respect there. But I do think people will see great racing. The cards are on the table. We both have something to prove and we both have sponsors that want to see us win. Same goes for Ryan (Trebon), same for Todd (Wells). These guys all have a lot of pride and a lot of talent and they want to win, too. So we'll see. Ryan has just left a stable gig and now needs to prove himself on his own with a new sponsor. People don't typically want to sponsor someone that isn't winning at his level, so I think we're going to see a fresh and super-hungry Ryan Trebon. Todd is the national champion so he definitely has to show up fit. He's not going to come and get spanked around. There are a lot of guys. Tim is one of many that I am going to be up against. But definitely, he and I will have our good and bad days and then we will have our even days. Those are the days that I hope people watch, follow along and enjoy. I enjoy racing that kind of race. Like Portland’s USGP last year, that race was awesome.
Did you know that Tim Johnson won't share bedrooms on the road?
Tim is very serious about his hotel selections. He's really particular about how he travels and his accommodation, which is awesome. It's something that I appreciate. When you travel so much it's important to feel comfortable where you're staying. We spend a lot of time on the road.
What is your favorite food?
Probably what I just ate, prosciutto. I like a lot of things. I love arugula. We have a big garden this year. We like to go to Chinatown when we're down in New York. I can enjoy a good meal. But I am lactose intolerant, which is ironic because my family owns an ice cream business. That's where the ice cream truck comes from in our GranFundo. I do like a Chipwhich or ChacoTaco from time to time.
What about school?
I'm 12 credits shy of a double-major in criminal science and environmental studies. I wanted to do environmental protection, protect the birds. But I didn't. Don't poach birds, poach eggs.
You're sort of a music guy. If it was just announced that your favorite artist was playing a live show here tonight, who would that be?
That's a hard one.
Come on, tickets are selling out right now, who’s it going to be?
That girl who won American Idol like three years ago?
No, Clinton Sparks is a dude from Boston. He's a DJ and a friend. If he was in town tonight I'd ditch you guys. Definitely. Hey, do you pee standing up or sitting down?
Standing up most of the time. You?
I sit down at night, it's a cyclist thing. If you have respect for anyone that you're rooming with, then you sit down at night. If you're new on any cycling team and you piss standing up and wake someone up because it's really loud, you're fit for an ass whooping. You can get a beat down for that. I'd punch you in the stomach for waking me like that.
What are the best and worst things about being a professional cyclist?
Best thing is that you get to see the world. But that can also be the worst, when you get out there and see how people act. Like this guy on the airplane yesterday who started kicking my bag because he thought it was coming into his leg space. Or sometimes, when you're riding down the road and somebody flips you off. It makes you wonder and a little sad for that person that their life is so bad that they have to flip you off for just riding your bike. It makes you appreciate that you have a good life and can appreciate the things around you. I've raced in Cuba, where a girl snatched a sleeve of Oreos out of my hands because she was starving. Or you go to the Tibetan highlands, where people live in a mud hut, where they don't have any clothes and they’re eating with their hands on a dirt floor. When you get to see the world like that, you get perspective, an appreciation for what you have. I'd like to think that makes you a better person.
But it's also hard being on the road so much. A blessing and a curse, you know? Sometimes you race so much that you fall over. You can't get out of your own way and you have to go into hibernation. That is the worst feeling, when you're absolutely fried. You are so far gone that you're just burned. You have to get out of that. Best way is sleep, you have to sleep but I go a little crazy if I'm not riding because I do it every day and I get good energy from that. So when you're not riding and you wonder what you're going to do with yourself. There's always ton to do, house projects, whatever, but it's tough to be away from the bike. I schedule time off but I've found it's better for me to take like ten days away and then come back and ride again. I usually take February off but that's hard. Hard to take a month off the bike
Do you actually get to look around and see where you're racing?
Oh yeah, of course. I don't really win a lot of road races. So, yeah, I get the opportunity to take a peek. I think everybody does. You take away the big things, like the mustard fields in Asia. Beautiful.
You made the decision to spend some real time racing cross in Belgium when you were younger, what do you think of Belgium?
They have great beers. They have crappy weather but despite the weather everyone there is very cool, they're nice people. Everything that people say about Belgians is true, they are hard people. You can just look at them and see how hard they work. They're different. Think about the French and then think about the Flemish part of Belgium, those guys are hard workers. They do dirty jobs. And they love cycling. The Belgian riders are national heroes in a culture that is really supportive of cycling.
Any truth that you have a sweet tooth?
I love those rice tarts you get in Europe and I love speculaas cookies. I know there is a lot of talk about speculaas cookies now, but I was eating those in 2003. I'd bring bags and bags of those home with me, pounds and pounds. I have JellyBelly all year, so that takes the candy spot for me. My favorite food though would, again, probably be something savory, like prosciutto or a good cheese like gruyere. But cookies, I'd kill a man for a chocolate chip cookie.
At the US Nationals last year, you had a mechanical as you were sitting at the front of the race. It was a palpably anxious moment for all us watching - what was it like for you?
I felt a general sense of dejection. Why did this happen again? I knew I'd crash, so I was ready for that. Sometimes you're like, ‘I won't crash, I'm invincible.’ But this time I told myself, ‘Okay, I'm going to crash, so how am I going to handle it?’ The year before, at the Nationals in Bend, I crashed and sheared the shifter off, bent the bars and hit the deck pretty hard. That sucked, I couldn't fix it but I kept my cool and got back to the pit. Then more shit happened, a cable slipped and things kept going wrong. But in 2010, when I crashed over Todd (Wells), he stepped on my brake caliper and put it underneath my wheel. I couldn't see it and couldn't figure out why my wheel wouldn't spin. So then I ran with the bike for a while and I was in a weird space. I was looking at the wheel and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't spin, it wasn't bent, it had to roll. So I got to the top of the run-up, out of the mud and finally figured it out, fixed the caliper and started riding to the pit.
I didn't watch the race until May this year. I watched it on the plane on my way to the Tour of California. My coach told me that I had taken back something like 10 seconds a lap, and I had. I gave Todd and Ryan, like, a minute with the mechanical and I only finished 20 seconds down, so over four laps I got around 40 seconds back. That's hard because I was probably the strongest rider that day. Not the best, but the strongest. I ate shit and didn't fix the bike fast enough and that sucks. But it might not have been the right time for me.