Peruse the cross results this year and the name Chris Jones (Champion Systems) pops up in the top 10 of the USGP and a few others races. Noteworthy was CrossVegas where Jones along with eventual winner Jamey Driscoll escaped early on and kept the star-studded field at bay. The 30-year American is better known in the road racing scene, as he finished his second season with Team Type 1 capping it off with another top 10, this time at the USA Cycling Road National Championships in September.
Jones is currently in 7th spot overall in the USGP series with 4 races to go, and 8th in the NACT with 2 races left in that series. He will be racing at the two USGP races this weekend in New Jersey.
So how does a stage racer crack the top 10 of cross races, especially as he had no off road experience when he started in 2007? He answered these questions and more during our chat earlier this week.
Let’s start with the basics. When did you start racing cross?
2007 with Nerac was my first season.
And why? Were you bored? (laughs)
No, everyone was telling me that was the thing to do in New England, Adam Myerson and I were teammates on Nerac and he kind of talked of me into it basically. He talked me into it, he set everything up with bikes, the equipment and the team, I had no idea what I was doing, he took me around to show me the basics. I’d done a couple of races in 2006 so I kind of knew what it was about but he took me under his wings for the first half of the season, he taught me a lot of the basics, he cut the learning curve down. He’s been doing it forever and it was huge for him to be willing to help me. That was my first year, I didn’t really know much at all, I was just raw power then, as soon as it got wet I was down, I was crashing multiple times a race and things like that, it was quite the learning season but it was good, a ton of fun, I was hooked from the beginning.
Were you cracking the top 10 pretty much from the beginning?
Yeah, I did a lot more New England races because I was living in Connecticut, I was leading the Verge series at one point and I ended up second overall to Jesse. I had some success, I was third both days at Gloucester and I had a bunch of other podium places that year at smaller races. At the GP and things like that when everyone was there, I was just cracking the top 10, I think I was maybe eleventh or twelfth at Nationals that year. It was okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but I was no where near the top guys, they were gone and I was in the second group, racing for first place out of the second group.
How did that piss off the cross guys having this skinny road guy getting top 10? (laughs)
(laughs) It went pretty well for me, maybe they were afraid of Adam or something. That’s why they started calling me a roadie because then it was apparent that my skills were definitely on the road and I was a little of my league in cross. Like I said I was hooked, it’s a blast, it’s an hour of pain, intense, the fans are right there in your face, they let you know that they think, good and bad. It was awesome. Then in 2008, last season, I was signed up with the Sonic-Jittery Joe’s team, I had scheduled to race a full season with them but I got a parasite at Vuelta a Mexico and I wasn’t really able to race until the middle to end of November when I got well enough to race so I missed a lot of last season. Even then when I was able to start racing, I wasn’t full strength, I was doing it like I said because I had so much fun, I figured ‘well I’m healthy enough now I should go race’. Then obviously this season, I didn’t have that problem with the whole parasite thing so I’ve been able to focus on it a little bit more.
This season, you’re coming close quite often but you’re not doing a lot of races, so why not do more?
(laughs) I’d love to do more. A lot of it has to do with the road season. I raced from Tour of California all the way through Tour of Missouri non-stop, pretty much any stage race that we had in or out of the United States that the team did, I did. I raced, I don’t even know how many days, 60, 70, 80, I lost track of race days. I raced a ton on the road, so I’d love to go to every single cross race, but I can’t, physically I can’t. I kind of have to focus my energy and also the team program, the way the budget is set up for this year, we don’t have an unlimited budget to send me to every single race so we’re just targeting the GP races, that’s a huge focus for Champion Systems and for Focus.
Were you surprised given how well you are doing? Did you train specifically to improve your cross racing or did it just happen by racing?
I think it’s a combination of a few different things. Obviously I came out with great fitness from our Road Nationals and Tour of Missouri and that carried me through the first half of the season. The road fitness gives me the speed and the strength that some of the other guys don’t have. I’ve been riding my mountain bike a lot, I got a mountain bike about a year ago, I’ve been riding that quite a bit to pick up some handling skills and I’m slowly getting better. I think those two things together along with the fact that this year I have a lot of support from the sponsors, they have enabled me to get all the equipment that I need, I have a full time mechanic this year so everything has come together, we’re doing the program right whereas before I was just operating from the trunk of my car, we had a couple sets of wheels, you don’t really have many thread options, you just pump the tires up and go. This year it’s a little bit more focused, Chris my mechanic is really technically savvy and he pays attention to those types of things and he’s helping me out a lot in that respect. That’s showed to make a difference, I got third that first day at Gloucester when it was really muddy when in years past I probably would have been out the back or slopping around somewhere, I stayed upright the entire time and able to pull a third against pretty good competition.
So if I do more mountain biking, will I become a better cross racer?
(laughs) That definitely helped, I had never ridden a mountain bike before, really I had no off road experience. The mountain bike is a good way for me to get out there and see more trails and get used to sliding around in the dirt in a little better.
How much do you watch the other guys to see which lines they are taken?
That’s a huge way for me to learn that I have my eyes and ears open to what the other guys are doing, whether what lines they are riding, or what tires they are running. I also spend a lot of extra time, I get to the course a lot earlier than anyone else to walk around and look and see what the other categories are riding as well. And when pre-riding Chris is walking around and we talk a lot about sections. It takes a little more prep I think for me, definitely observing the others and seeing what they are doing helps a lot.
What’s tougher for you, mud, sandpit, flyover?
I think the mud, the really technical things, the mud is still really tough for me. Sand can be just as tough for me as well. And yeah that stupid flyover at Louisville, the steps go all the way to my waist, it’s built for [Ryan] Trebon and [Barry] Wicks (laughs) definitely those technical races, I’m still learning a lot. When they’re wide open and fast like CrossVegas, it’s perfect.
As a road guy, as a stage race guy, you are known to have more endurance than short intense bursts. [But cross is all about intensity] How does that work for you?
Originally when I started, I talked to Dr Testa, he’s my coach and it was something like ‘I think I might do this cross thing’, and he said ‘that’s great, it will be good for your timetrialing’. Cross isn’t exactly a timetrial but it’s an hour full gas, there’s a lot of off the gas and on the gas but it’s still an hour full out and we thought that would be a good idea. I don’t know, it’s weird, but my timetrial has not improved (laughs)
I was just about to ask you that.
It’s marginal, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. I don’t know, I can’t explain how I can go from a 6-hour race doing well, a 6-hour race like US Pro or something like that, to a 1-hour race where it’s full gas. I haven’t figured out.
Did you notice if you do better in rainy crits now that you do cross?
You know, I’ve always been really good at rainy races. Any rainy race on the road I’ve done really well at. My first breakthrough ride on the road when I was just coming on the scene was with Nerac and what made me get on Team Type 1, was at Rochester Twilight Crit, it was raining, it was dark and I lapped the field with four or five other guys, and they were the Navigators guys and a few other huge names. And then right before that, I lapped the field in a rainy twilight crit, the same situation, with Dominique Rollin. Those two rides were both in the rain and they were back-to-back.
So do you have good bike handling skills or are you fearless or both?
Both maybe. (laughs)
And you’ve always just done road. No track either.
I just started on the road. When I was younger, I raced motocross a lot, maybe that helped a little bit.
You’ve said this before that road season is more important to you than cross season. Any thoughts of one year focusing on cross, maybe going to Europe and seeing where it leads you?
Well, yes and no. If the money was there in cross, yes sure I would love to give it a go. It’s hard to say that I deserve to be in Europe, and that I should be racing over there, it might be a little disrespectful to the guys that are winning here. I’m not winning every weekend, here in the States. First I need to do that but in order to do that I think I have to put more emphasis on cross.
It’s kind of a catch-22, hopefully this season has opened doors with sponsors and things like that. They’ll see that it’s worth investing more money in me so I can focus more on cross. I would love to have the opportunity to focus one hundred percent and put all my energy into one season, I think that I could do really well because at the beginning on cross season when I still have road fitness, I have the engine to do it. I’d loved to be able to do this all season, to be able to do a Eurocamp and go to Worlds. In 2007, when I was in Nerac, I went over and did a World Cup and another of the smaller races, one of the GV races, I got slaughtered, I had no idea what I was doing but I just thought ‘well I have some extra time, I’ll just go over and do the race’. It was embarrassing, I would definitely like to go back and see how I’ve improved.
So this year your schedule is USGP races and Nationals, right?
Yeah, the two remaining weekends of USGP, finishing off NACT race, then Nationals. I think if everything keeps going well, I should end up top 5 in both series, that’s a pretty successful season especially considering in the Trophy series, I didn’t go to Toronto and I dropped out of the first day of Toronto, I missed a few opportunities for points there.
No plans for Europe then this year. Are you planning to take some time off before road starts?
Unless I win Nationals then maybe I’ll go. At this point, we’ve got a nice vacation planned after Nationals, take some time off and then , our training camp for road is last weekend in January. So there is not much time to switch gears.
How important are team tactics in cross especially coming from road where team is extremely important? I was surprised to see teammates racing each other sometimes.
I think a team does play a big part, it’s just that there are not that many teams here. You look at what that Cannondale team is doing this year, there’s the three of them and they’re all riding very well right now, we’re all ones and in the case of the KONA guys twos so it’s easy to have two or three strong guys, that are all in the same front group, manipulate that group to the outcome that you want. I think that in Europe even that teams make a big difference. You still have to have the strength, it’s not like road where one team can get on the front and ride tempo all day but there’s definitely team tactics at stake. I don’t know if this sport keeps growing in the States, hopefully there will be more and more sponsors attracted, more dollars and more guys will start racing the sport and we can have bigger teams.
What’s your strategy then to go up against the three Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com and two Konas this weekend? Is it to go as hard as you can?
It’s hard. The first lap is so full of gas, it’s start at the start, you have to get a good start and get into good position, right now, Jeremy [Powers] is getting really good starts. He puts the gas on and forces someone else to chase that is not on their team, that person gets burned off and then Tim [Johnson] jumps across and a couple other people chase, those get burned off and then Jamey [Discoll] jumps across, or some combination like that. I don’t know how to prevent it yet. It takes a concerted effort from all the guys from the top group that are riding strong. Ask me after I’ve won one of these races how I did it.(laughs)
Oh I will. So the first lap is the most important lap of the race?
Richard Fries always talks about the first lap is half the race or something like that. I think that’s probably true, the start is sixty percent of the first lap probably. That first lap just stretches out, a lot of times the gaps that are formed are irreperairable, the guys are gone. It’s really important to be at the rest place at the right time at that first lap. And you know, you’re taking it from me and I’m still learning all the time. (laughs)
Have you started doing your road training yet? How can you do both?
How can you do both, that’s a good question. The first half of cross season you probably shouldn’t, I haven’t really trained. This season, I just don’t train that much, I shouldn’t say that I don’t train, I ride my bike but I don’t specifically train. I took some time off, actually right before Boulder and I took it easy that week. Now I’m actually starting to train again for Nationals with road in mind as well. I started to train, but most guys this time of year on the road are doing long base miles and things like that, I’m not doing super long miles, started to mix them into in the end, with an eye of Nationals. After Nationals, I take a break and do road.
That’s what you did last year and it worked for you, right?
Yeah, I had a great road season last year, it seemed to work out well. The question is just going to be this year is how much energy or how much energy do I want to direct on road if I want to do cross full-time next year? That’s all to be determined. Like I said, it comes down to sponsorship. If the sponsors come in to play early on and I know that I can do full cross, I think I can still have a successful road season and full cross season, it’s just balancing it right. Thankfully, Max is top notch and is a great guy to have supporting me.
So what’s going to happen this weekend at USGP? Put your prediction hat on.
(laughs) I’ve never raced there, I think it will be interesting. It’s time for one of the non-cyclocross guys to win and you know who actually is looking really good to me is Adam Craig. He’s fast, he’s the real deal so he and Kabush are actually guys that I’ve got eyes on this weekend. Once the points reset and he’s able to start closer to the front, that guy is talented, he’s a fun guy and I’m glad he’s come out. Carl Decker is out there too. I haven’t raced in a couple of weeks, you don’t really know until you get out there, the first lap. I would definitely like to be on the podium this weekend.