Kentucky race fans might be more accustom to clutching a mint julep and cheering four-legged athletes around the oval at Churchill Downs, but this week Louisville is slated to crown 36 national champions as it hosts the USA Cyclocross National Championships.
Fortunately, Kentucky loves its mudders.
The forecast calls for rain throughout the week and sloppy course conditions, and that’s just fine with hometown girl Katherine “KK” Santos — who will compete in the collegiate division for Marian University and race U23s as a member of the Amy D. Foundation Team – a nonprofit organization created in memory of racer Amy Alison Dombroski.
Santos, 21, calls Louisville home, knows the nationals course well and is more than familiar with riding in Kentucky mud.
“I’ve raced the course once, and I’ve ridden over there a couple other time to check it out,” Santos said. “It looks like it’s going to be muddy, so you’re going to have to reset a lot when you slip or when you fall, and keep your mental focus. I want lots of rain, lots of mud, lots of rocks — whatever makes it more challenging, I prefer.”
The Santos family will line the course this week.
“I feel like there are some really good vibes because all my family and a lot of my friends are going to be there,” Santos said. “It’s going to be really challenging. There’s a lot of really fast girls right now. It’s going to take superfast legs.”
Santos won CX Nationals as a junior, racing 17-18, four years ago in Boulder. She’s shooting for a top-five finish in both races this week in Louisville.
A strong U23 finish at nationals could be enough to propel Santos to a spot on the U.S. team for U23 Worlds — set for February in Europe.
“I would like to make the U23 U.S. Worlds Team. If I do really well at nationals, I have a good shot,” Santos said. “It’s been a goal for a few years, but this year I’ve been riding my strongest.”
Amy D. Fountain Team Manager, Maureen “Mo” Bruno Roy, said she’s excited to see Santos race.
“KK is a really tenacious racer,” said Bruno Roy. “She really has nothing to lose. She races a lot like Amy (Dombroski) — she’s gritty and really tough, and can really work the bike. She could be anywhere in that top five or top 10 easily, and who knows, maybe she’ll get on that podium.
“She has been trying to make the worlds team … I think it’s still going to come down to nationals,” Bruno Roy said.
Fellow Amy D. Elite rider Emily Shields Werner, of Winston-Salem, NC, said the support she’s received from the team has set her up well for nationals.
“I’m excited. This is the first year I’ve focused just on cycling and that I’ve just being doing the elite races,” Shields Werner said. “I’ve done more big races this season than I’ve ever done before. In the past, I’ve always been in school or grad school so it’s been more the closer races, maybe one big race per month. This year I’ve raced almost every weekend since September, except one or two off weekends. The team support has helped a ton, and it’s so cool getting to be on a professional level team and feeling like a pro.”
Shields Werner won two collegiate national CX titles, once as an undergrad and also two years ago while she was in grad school.
Her best Elite level finish at nationals was just outside the top 20, but she’s expecting to move up the leaderboard this year.
“I really like the course. There’s a lot of climbing which is usually pretty good for me,” Shields Werner said. “But we’ll see what it’s like in the winter. All the fast riders will be there, so a top 10 finish would be amazing.”
Bruno Roy said she wouldn’t be surprised to see Shields Werner post a career finish at nationals.
“I would love to see Emily be in the top 15,” Bruno Roy said. “It depends on the conditions and where everyone’s head is on that certain day, but she has had a very, very consistent season, and sometimes that’s a better indicator than an up and down season. I would expect her to find that same steadiness and consistency at nationals.”
Amy D. rider Suzie Livingston has set her sights on a top-15 finish in the Elite race, as well. The Fort Collins resident and first-year team member will compete in the singlespeed race, too.
“In singlespeed, I’d like to be on the podium,” Livingston said. “Cross, logistically, is super challenging, but I think single-speed is so true to cyclocross — the extra suffer. First and foremost, I want to have fun and represent the foundation. I’ve never raced nationals before, so I’ll gain some really good experience.”
Bruno Roy said team rider Katrina Engelsted will be a last-minute addition for nationals, giving the Amy D. team four riders in the Elite race.
Engelsted, who traveled for UCI races for the first time this year, said she’s racing nationals for the experience as much as anything and hopes to finish in the top 50 percent.
Colorado native Stacey Richardson will be back to defend her national title in the Masters division (35-39). The second-year Amy D. rider battled through chest inflammation issues this season but said her training has ramped up in recent weeks.
She hasn’t given up on back-to-back titles.
“For 2018, they switched the time frame for nationals. In the past it has been in January, so, technically, I won in Reno in 2018,” said Richardson, who also finished fifth at nationals two years ago. “So, it would be really cool to get two national titles in one year.”
Bruno Roy said Richardson could emerge stronger after competing her way through her health problems.
“She just kept showing up, and that shows a toughness that most people might not have,” Bruno Roy said. “She’s another one who has nothing to save it for, so she can throw all her eggs in a basket and just show up. I think she’ll probably have a good race.”
The USA Cyclocross National Championships begin Tuesday, Dec. 11, with non-championship races. Masters and Collegiate races take place Wednesday through Friday, with Juniors and Singlespeed Saturday, and the U23 and Elite races on Sunday.
PEARL iZUMi is a title sponsor of the Amy D. Foundation Team.