A roadie first, Chris Jones, of Team Rapha Focus, is no slouch at cross racing. Forced off his bike at the beginning of the cross season due to an injury sustained at the Tour of Britain, he came back strong in the latter part of the cross season. One such race was Friday night at JingleCross where after an early bobble – an endo while at the front – Jones mounted an amazing chase to close down the gap to the two riders ahead. Jones finished second that day.
In his fourth year of cross racing, the 31-year old would love to represent the United States at the World Championships but there’s a hurdle. For the past years, the same five riders have been part of Team USA, five names that have not included Jones but he’s not deterred. While racing cross, Jones is also getting ready for another full road season of racing mostly in Europe with UnitedHealthcare.
We sat down with Jones this past Friday, on the eve of the final Exergy US Gran Prix of Cyclocross weekend in Bend, Oregon to talk about his season, Worlds and more as part of our One-On-One series.. And of course, our chat had to include the hoopla surrounding his win at the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships (SSCXWC) where the community, known for not following rules, has been upset, some pretty virulent, with Jones’ decision to not get the winner’s tattoo. It got pretty nasty on-line and new official rules for the event have been drafted.
How happy are you with your cross season so far?
Since I’ve come back, I’m pleased. I haven’t won any races, seconds and thirds and close to winning this and that, but I’m happy with the way it’s gone the second half of the season. The first half of the season was a real disappointment. We brought Jeremy (Powers) on board and I was really looking forwards to have a really strong season all throughout the season so he and I could do the team thing. It’s only been the second half of the season that it’s happened but looking back on it the injury was probably a blessing in disguise. I crashed at the Tour of Britain where I tore a groin muscle, I couldn’t run so I took two weeks off, right after Tour of Britain, tried to race a little bit and then I ended up taking two more weeks off right before Louisville, so I took a total of a month off the bike completely. I think that’s benefitting me now, and I think throughout road it’s going to benefit me too. I’m pleased at this point, if I could get a win before this season is over (laughs), it would be a good year.
So you’re racing here (in Bend) and where else before the end of the season?
Chicago, Nationals and then maybe Worlds, we’ll see.
Let’s talk about that. You want to go to Worlds and there are five men going to Worlds, who are you kicking off the team?
(laughs) I’m not kicking anyone off the team, I’m always that sixth guy because my schedule is so full and we have five really good riders. We’ll be in Europe, we’ll be in Spain living there, getting ready for road season and if someone gets sick, injured or can’t make it, I’ll be there to take their spot. I’m not going to try kicking anyone off, unless I win Nationals and I get the automatic qualifying spot which could happen, or I just win every race from here through the season, that would be an honorable way to do it too.
Is that what you think needs to happen for you to be on the team this year – winning, or somebody getting sick?
I think that I need to put myself on the team by either winning, or consistently beating the guys that are ahead of me which in the second half of the season, I’ve done a really good job of being in the mix every single race but the rest of the guys have had a really good season all season-long. So yeah I just need to finish off the best that I can and then if someone does happen to get hurt, ill or something then sure I’ll take the spot.
I watched the chase you put on at JingleCross. What was going through your mind at that point? You had the early bobble, and then you put on an impressive chase to close that down, that was amazing to watch. Were you pissed off?
(laughs) I was focused on everything, I wasn’t mad, I felt a little silly that I crashed. It was just one of those things that just happened, I still don’t know why it happened, it just happened. It was silly but I felt really good. I knew going into that race that I was going well, and I’d just come from road camp and I felt well, just focused. I was determined. It’s rough when I make a mistake and those two guys, Jamey and Tim, got away and I felt responsible for those guys getting away. I was basically giving them the race so I was just determined to close it down.
They took a different line that you up that off-camber but sill they got a gap quick.
They did. They got a gap and so I wanted to catch them. Tim played it right, he was able to slow me down and the rest is history. Then I rode really strong the next day, and then I rode on Sunday but I was just a little tired from racing all three days. I was really the only guy that raced all three because Ben (Berden) was injured, Todd (Wells) eased up Friday night….
So do you wish you had sat out Saturday?
Not necessarily. I don’t have that luxury because those other guys have maxed out on C2 points, I haven’t maxed out on C2 points because I missed the first half of the season so I have to take advantage of every opportunity.
Didn’t you go to Europe this year too?
I did. I went to Tabor and that was bad. I was pretty fatigued and I still wasn’t one hundred percent. It was a good experience but the racing wasn’t good.
We talked two years ago about the roadie doing cross. Are you still a roadie doing cross? Where are your technical skills now?
My technical skills are better. I’m still a roadie first, that’s my main job and that’s where the majority of my salary comes from and that’s where I guess my focus is always, on road. Cross is something I love to do and I’m really fortunate that I have such good teams in Rapha Focus and UnitedHealthcare that allow me to do both. And I guess I have the skillset that allows me to do both and the durability that I can race all year round. My cross skills are definitely coming better. I was second to Todd at JingleCross and I was in the mud, and I was battling in it and Todd is one of the best around in the mud – maybe Tim is better but they’re both really good – to be there, I don’t think a lot of people noticed that, but in my mind oh that’s just really good to be there with Todd in the mud.
Is it practicing and racing that increased your skills or did you do specific skills training? Is it following Todd to see what lines he’s taking during the pre-ride?
It’s a cumulative knowledge. Part of it is technical aspect that I didn’t really know like tire pressure, tire choice and then a lot of it is just experience, falling some many times and figuring out ‘hey maybe you shouldn’t do this’. (laughs) And then another part is following the good guys and just being observant, learning by seeing and doing. This is my fourth year doing cross so it’s finally starting to pay off.
How has cross impacted your road racing?
It actually helps out a lot especially now that we’re doing a majority of our racing in Europe, they’re very technical races, very aggressive and positioning is huge. Cross is given me more technical skills so now the positioning on the narrow roads is not a big deal and it’s given me a broader skillset on the road because not only now am I a GC domestique/helper type guy but I’m also part of the leadout train. I shepherd our sprinter Robert Förster around, I spend a lot of time in stage races on flat days getting him from A to B, and getting him to 800 meters to go with a leadout guy behind me.
No offense but there’s no way that Robert can draft behind you (laughs)
I know, I know, I sit up as tall as I can. (laughs) So that’s become my specialty this past season is taking care of our leaders whether it’s our sprinter or our GC guy and they’ve developed a lot of trust in me to place them where they need to be to win the race. And cross has given me the confidence that I can put my bike where it needs to go.
Is that why you started cross?
I don’t know why I started cross. (laughs) It was originally that I was living in New England, my coach at the time said ‘you need time trial training’, so you’re in New England and you might as well take advantage of it. And I started doing that to get that long hour of power and then I fell in love with it and I’m still here.
We talked about Worlds in 2011 but what about Louisville. You have a full road season before, how are you playing all this? What are your thoughts?
I think that actually that the way the cyclocross season is set up and with Nationals moving to January actually works really well with road season. I come from road and I have this huge depth, a lot of speed and everything so I can race, if I’m healthy, the first month, six weeks of cyclocross without training at all. And I can take a break like I did this year two, three weeks in November or late October and then start preparing for the road and while I’m preparing for the road, I’m actually racing cross. And that’s what we’re doing different this year. I’m not training specifically for cyclocross besides running, I’m just training with road in mind and it seems to be paying off. We’re trying something completely different my coach and I. Last year it was a lot of very specific motorpacing cyclocross intervals and things like that, but this year we’re training just for road with adding some running for cross. It’s paying off. We’ll look back after this season and kind of see how we need to adjust for Worlds and everything next year.
I think its doable. Again it will come down to the same guys. Those guys are getting better, I’m getting better, there are guys behind that are getting better. I was talking to my wife the other night, a couple of years ago it seemed that I was winning more but I’m stronger now and we were just talking about the depth of the field. There are a lot of guys who are there all the time now. But it makes it exciting for the fans, it makes it exciting for me as a racer and it helps me raise my game knowing that next year, everyone, Todd, guys who normally don’t go are going to want to go. So there’s going to be eight, nine guys vying for five spots so I really have to be on my game.
Will you be vying for one of those spots?
Yeah, definitely. I think that anytime you have a chance to go to Worlds and represent the country is huge. And UnitedHealthcare has been really supportive in recognizing that Worlds is an honorable thing and something that adds to their program as well so they’re very supportive of me wanting of me wanting to go to Worlds.
We talked about you taking breaks but how do you not get tired mentally? It’s fatiguing to be on the road all the time, it’s not easy. You’ve been doing twelve months after twelve months for four years now.
We try and keep it fresh. I definitely have to compartmentalize. When I’m on the road racing road, I’m racing road and I’m just thinking and focusing on the road. And then, when it comes to be cross time, I switch gears and I’m thinking about cross, I’m not really thinking about road as much. They are the same sport but they’re really two different disciplines and the cross scene is so laid-back and it’s so much fun to me. When I get to cyclocross, it doesn’t feel like I’m still racing another three or four months, it’s really refreshing when I come here, it’s like I’m hanging out with my friends every weekend. And then by the end of the cross season, I get excited for road again. And I’ve also learned over the past couple of years that when I’m not on the bike, I need to have something to distract me from the bike, I really have to step away from it. I’ve picked up a couple of hobbies that have enabled me to do that.
I spend a lot of time fly fishing, it’s something that allows me to be outdoors and it’s very therapeutic and it’s something that I can take with me on the road. I travel with my fly road a lot.
That is cool.
So I’ve learned to do that. I just love racing. I had a real job before this, I understand what the other side is and this is a gift that I’m able to do this and make a living at it so, yeah, just trying to do it. There are a few other guys that do it well, like Todd does it pretty well. Jeremy kind of does it but he focuses on cross. It can be done, and I think maybe that’s one of my physiological gifts that maybe I don’t put out the max watts that some put out but I’m able to handle a really high workload year long.
What’s next after Nationals?
(laughs) I actually go to Chicago, I go to road camp (Palm Springs), come back for Madison, go back to road camp and then we go straight to Spain.
Okay, you know I have to ask about tattoo-gate. Did you even think that this might happen?
I didn’t realize that people were going to be so upset with me. It was my idea to go into the race, it wasn’t Focus, it wasn’t Rapha, I wanted to go to the race because the people in Northern California were super stoked on the race. I don’t get to race in Northern California very often and that’s my home, so I wanted to support the race. I talked to Focus into setting me up a single speed and Rapha decided to come and they decided to make it a bigger thing for them which was cool. I knew going into the race that Barry (Wicks) hadn’t gotten the tattoo, I had actually googled single speed cross worlds rules to see what the rules were, just so I knew. And there was a rule that Seattle has used that if you won and didn’t get the tattoo, you’d still win but couldn’t the next year. So I thought fine, no big deal, I don’t expect to win, I didn’t go there to win, I just wanted to have fun. And there were a lot of guys, there were two guys that were former World Messenger Champions there, I had never ridden a single speed cross bike, I saw it that day like an hour before the race (laughs)
I didn’t expect to win and I won and that race was the most fun I’ve had in a race in a long time. I was laughing the entire time, some guy did a mid-race interview with me (laughs) it was hilarious. It was just over the top ridiculous, but ridiculous fun. And I walked away from the race and we were having dinner that night, and I told my wife ‘man that was so fun’. I had no idea that the backlash was going to be so severe. I have thick skin, you know when you’re a professional athlete, people like you, they don’t like you for whatever reason but people have been really, really, very mean, aggressively over the top mean and it’s made me wish I hadn’t done the race which isn’t a good way to be you know? I didn’t mean to offend them by not getting a tattoo and I’m still not going to get the tattoo, they’ve come out with their decision. People have been really, really mean which is just weird, which is a bit of let down.
When I left there, (I was thinking) ‘man this is a really cool scene, I don’t understand why more people aren’t doing it’, and now I see that the flip side is the way they treat other people. They don’t want other people, I feel like they don’t want people like me, whatever I am (laughs). They’re not very inviting. It’s a great event, I know that the single speed community isn’t really keen on me and they’re not very happy with me but I’m really happy they let me do the race. I guess we learned our lesson.
Jones’ next cross races will be the Chicago Cyclocross Cup New Year’s Resolution on December 31 and January 1.