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An interview with Jesse Anthony, January 12, 2005
America's Young Gun of Cross
One of America's best bets for a medal at the upcoming Cyclocross World Championships in St. Wendel, Germany, later this month, precociously-talented 19 year-old Jesse Anthony has dominated the local 'cross racing scene almost as soon as he set foot on the dirt. Can the six-time national champ take his prowess onto the world stage? Steve Medcroft finds out.
Cyclingnews: I read a profile In the Beverly (Massachusetts - Anthony's hometown) newspaper about you and it said that you got into cycling by riding with your dad when you were young. Was your dad a racer?
Jesse Anthony: My dad's always been into bikes but never raced a whole bunch. I got into biking more through my brother Josh. He's two years older than I am and we used to race together, starting in 1997.
CN: How old were you?
JA: I was twelve. Josh was fourteen.
CN: That would have put you in the junior category together. Could you beat your brother?
JA: Josh was always a couple of steps ahead of me, but the last couple of years we raced together I started to get closer to him. We mostly raced mountain bikes -- we have a pretty good scene up here between NORBA events and the local association. Our first race was the Turner Hill Classic. It was just a local event but we had so much fun I thought racing was awesome. Then in 1998, we did probably like five or six mountain bike races around New England.
CN: Are the trails around there super technical?
JA: There are some pretty technical trails but a typical New England mountain bike race is a mix of dirt roads and singletrack -- very little dirt road and a lot of twisty, woodsy singletrack. Technical, but not too hard-core.
CN: What did you like about competing?
JA: Honestly, I don't even really remember. When I was mountain bike racing, it was purely for the fun. As for the competitive side, the most I might focus on was to try and beat certain guys or try to get in the top three. I got more serious later, when I raced cyclocross. For me, that all started in the fall of '98 when Stu Thorne, who's owns a local bike shop (Bay Road Bikes) and cyclocrossworld.com, introduced Josh and I to it. Josh worked at Stu's bike shop so Stu knew us and knew we liked to race a little bit. Stu was also working back then with Tim Johnson, who was getting to be really good at 'cross by then. Stu's wife Emily raced 'cross too so he suggested we give it a try.
CN: Is this one of those hang-out-in-the-shop-after-group-rides shops?
JA: Definitely. It's one of the cooler shops around the north shore. As a kid, I just kind of hung out there. There were always group rides. Of course, being only thirteen or fourteen, 'going' on a group ride meant hanging on for dear life. I'd make it through some of them and sometimes I'd get dropped and have to ride home alone, but I loved riding. I did a lot of amateur races about that time and, like I said, started 'cross. My brother started racing 'cross at the beginning of the '98 season. Pretty soon he was racing every weekend so I was like, 'I want to race every weekend.' I picked it up about halfway through the season and did all the races from there on my mountain bike. It was so much fun, just trying to finish the beginner races without getting lapped.
CN: What was fun about it - the whole experience of going to the races or the actual event?
JA: Just doing the race, riding hard, and racing with other guys - I don't know. It was just a great experience.
CN: Do you have other brothers and sisters?
JA: I do. There are actually seven kids in my family. I have two sisters and four brothers.
CN: You're closest to Josh in age.
JA: My oldest sister is twenty-four. Josh is twenty-two and I'm nineteen so yes, Josh is closest. I've always kind of been his shadow - dragging along.
CN: Does he try to ride you off his wheel or is he protective?
JA: In the beginning, I wasn't even close to him. He was two or three years older and that's a big difference when you're that young. He would look after me on rides. As I got better and better, and got a little closer to him, it turned into a little brotherly competition. Never serious; we were both just out there to have a good time. We've actually never really competed head-to-head in races because he was always an age category above me. Wait, that's not totally true -- we raced together as juniors for one year. We were more like teammates than competitors though.
CN: What do you think made you good at cyclocross?
JA: One of the things that helped me have early success was always trying to chase my brother down. When we rode together, he would always have to wait for me. I spent most rides humping to keep up. Naturally, I was training harder in a sense. Beyond that, I don't know what made me good. I've had a great group of guys to practice with. With the influence of guys like Stu and Tim and the quality of the whole 'cross scene around here, I've had the best environment you could want.
CN: You said you only did a half-season your first year. The next year, you knew what you were in for. Did you race the entire season?
JA: Yeah. After mountain biking, we went straight to 'cross. We met a lot of road racing juniors during 'cross so we went right to road racing after winter. That was fun too. It was a completely different thing; new to us.
CN: Sounds like a lot of work. You typically don't see juniors put in those kinds of miles.
JA: No, no. It's funny, I remember being fourteen. I'd ride twice a week. Maybe ride Wednesday, ride Friday and race on Saturday or Sunday. Now, of course, I'm riding every day and I'm training hard. I put in lots of training hours in the winter and summer and training has become a huge ordeal.
CN: You went to nationals for the first time in 1999?
JA: Yes. My first nationals were in San Francisco and I won the ten to fifteen age category. That was the first year that they had a national championship for two different junior categories. If they hadn't, I would have stood no chance against the eighteen year olds (in the eighteen and under class). Not that my class was easy to win. I want to say there were probably fifteen to twenty kids in my category. There were probably sixty or more overall in the junior race (the two categories raced on the course together). When I finished, I didn't even know if I had won or not. The announcers didn't know. The officials didn't know. I waited probably ten or fifteen minutes and all I could think was 'did I win or did I not win?' I had to wait for them to print out the results and post them on the tent and I came up to the top of the list and I was like, 'holy cow, I won.'
CN: At fourteen, what does it mean to have a national championship jersey?
JA: I was psyched. Mostly, I remember that I was the first rider in the Essex County Velo Club to win a national championship - that was cool. I got a special award at the next club meeting. But it was exciting just to win a race. I had done mostly eighteen and under races in New England and I was finishing maybe tenth on a good day. Winning that national championship set me up to believe I could win the next year. Although I wasn't sure. I knew a couple of fifteen year olds from New England who were pretty good. I figured there had to be other kids from around the country who were fast too.
CN: How did you do the next year?
JA: I won that one also. That was the national championships in Kansas City where it snowed and it was, I think, fourteen degrees when we were racing.
CN: That sounds awesome.
JA: (laughs) It was freezing.
CN: But in hindsight, not thinking about the pain of the day, it had to be a memorable race because of those conditions.
JA: It was awesome to race in snow. Worst than the snow was the wind though. We had thirty to forty mile-an-hour winds. There had been freezing rain on Friday with already eight inches of snow down so we raced in more ice than snow. Then we had more wind than ice. Epic racing conditions.
CN: You were too young to qualify for a trip to worlds that year?
JA: You had to be seventeen the year of worlds, so yes, I wasn't able to go. I remember talking to the manager of the national team. "You think you can make an exception for me?" He was like, 'I don't know, the UCI is pretty strict about it. I did go the next year. In Zolder, Belgium.
CN: How did that go?
JA: Well (laughs), I wouldn't say real well.
CN: Did you get any European experience beforehand?
JA: I did one race the week before. And that was just like 'holy cow.' Worlds was definitely an awesome experience but I was just in shock of being in Europe. It was my first time flying overseas. First time in Europe. First time in international racing.
CN: Were your parents there?
JA: My Mom came for the race.
JA: Josh was there, so I had my brother to help me along. He had been to a couple of world championships.
CN: You've been every year since you turned seventeen?
JA: I have. Twice as a junior then Monopoli Italy in 2003. In 2004, I raced in Pont Chateau, France as a U23.
CN: Your coach is Mark McCormack. How did you get associated with him?
JA: Mark coached Emily Thorne, Stu Thorne's wife. Josh hired Mark as a coach too. Knowing that coaching was going to be the key to getting to the next level in racing, I started going to Mark about a half a year later.
CN: It must be pretty sweet to be coached by a guy who can win a national championship himself?
JA: I can't think of a better coach than Mark, especially when I get to race along side him. Although that can be difficult as well -- if I do something stupid he'll give me a 'what did you do that for? You should know better.'
CN: How often do you get to race with him?
JA: I've road raced with him a lot in New England. Obviously he's on a pretty busy pro schedule (as leader of the Colavita Olive Oil Professional Cycling Team), so he's traveling a lot, but he does a lot of races around here. Of course, he's always racing the big East Coast 'cross races. I see him more during road than 'cross races because he's always a couple of minutes ahead of me in 'cross races but in a road races, you know, we're all in a pack. Mark's been the only real coach I've ever had, about three or four years now. He's coached me through a couple of national championships.
CN: Your season ended with the ultimate American prize (his sixth national championship, this one in the U23 category) but in the first few races, you weren't doing so well. What happened?
JA: I've had a bit of an inconsistent year. I had back problems up to the middle of the season. I got them worked out before the last U.S. Gran Prix. In races when my back felt good, I had ridden really fast; a huge improvement over last year. I just had more bad days than I usually do. The inconsistency has bothered me a little bit but I think I've gotten all the kinks worked out and I think the rest of the year will be pretty good.
CN: You're headed over to stay with Geoff Proctor's European Cross Camp based out of the U.S. national team house in Belgium. You'll get what, six weeks of prep before worlds?
JA: Five weeks. I'm heading over right after Christmas.
CN: You hinted that if you are going to grow in cyclocross, you feel that you'll have to do full seasons in Europe and skip the domestic racing?
JA: Eventually, I probably will race mostly over there. I don't know about next year though. I'd like to race a little more over there every year until I eventually stay over there full time. Right now, there's a lot of good racing in the U.S.
CN: You've achieved a lot. You've worn a national championship jersey six times now. It would seem you have a somewhat unlimited future. What do you want to achieve in cycling?
JA: My ultimate goal? I really want to win a world cyclocross championship. Whether it's in the U23 category or the Elite category doesn't matter to me. Along with that, I just want to be able to make some money at it, to be a professional. Unfortunately, there's probably ten dominant European U23s, some of which I know personally and are actually friends of mine, always fighting it out amongst themselves. So I have a challenge ahead of me.
CN: What starting row will you be on for worlds?
JA: Last year I got a second-row start. This year, I'll probably be second or third row.
CN: Does the ten minute difference in the length of the race (most U.S. Elite races are 60 minutes and the U23 world championship race is only 50), require a change in your tactical approach?
JA: Very slightly. I don't think it will be a difficult transition from the one hour. It will be quite nice to do a race that's ten minutes shorter though. Tactically, I don't think the racing will be much different that what I've seen all season. I think the guy who's feeling good in the early part of the race will try to rip the legs off everyone else and get away. Then it will either be a group of guys who try to sit on the guy in front or it'll get strung out. You never know.
CN: Do you like your chances?
JA: I've raced enough in Europe to know what's going on. Every time I go over and race, I'm always impressed with how fast they race but they're just people, there has to be a way to go faster than them. The again, I am only nineteen and the age difference to the twenty-two year-olds is so huge as far as the strength goes. I'm going to go over there and give it my best shot. If I have a good day and the course favors me I can get a really good result. You never know what can happen. Even the guy with the absolute best form can have a bad day. And if he's not going to win, I want to be the guy right behind having the day of my life.