Let's start with the course, shall we? If you're into such things, there's a pre-ride video below.
As Tim Johnson described it, the course is split into two major sections: those on the top of the hill in the venue and those on the side and below the hill. The lower sections are the more technical ones, including two sets of limestone stairs and a set of barriers that should be impossible (or not worth it, at least) to ride. This section also dives through a few tricky off-camber sections and has some tight turns with sharply uphill exits. The top section of the course is more wide open, constituted of long power sections and flowing turns. Though this is the section where it's most tempting to open the throttle wide, Johnson says the best riders will be holding back a little to have reserves for the tricky and more demanding technical sections on the lower half of the course.
What's more, the rain Austin has seen in the latter part of this week is constantly changing the nature of the course. While it was dry and fast on Monday, more rain is slickening up the track and changing the run versus ride calculus in some of the trickier sections. Unlike many other countries, cyclocross national championships in the United States last a week with races for nearly every age group (save those unlucky souls aged 23 to 29 years old). The effect of this is a much more dramatic chewing up of the course compared to countries where only a select few categories contest their national championships on the same course in the week. If rain continues to fall - and it should, at least intermittently (and maybe snow!) - we will see an entirely different course on Sunday, one that could tilt the scales towards Jonathan Page and Zach McDonald and even Jamie Driscoll.
On the men's side, it's hard to look past two-time national champion Jeremy Powers. The king of American cyclocross in the past few years is virtually undefeated on American soil this season, only losing to Sven Nys and Lars van der Haar at CrossVegas and to Danny Summerhill in a sprint at the Derby City Cup early in November. Powers is racing a pared down schedule this year, racing primarily C1 events stateside and focusing on the World Cup series. He has had more success than in years past in Europe, taking a 9th in the first World Cup in Valkenberg and vastly improving on his prior performances in Koksijde and Namur, finishing in the teens but minutes ahead of prior attempts. The chink in Powers' armor used to be tough, muddy, technical courses like those often seen in Europe. But, his extra focus on these weaknesses in training coupled with more World Cup experience seems to have filled some of the gaps in his skill set. The big question facing Powers is how his knee will hold up after a potentially season-ending knee injury in the World Cup round in Zolder, Belgium, two weeks ago. The injury seems to have healed mostly, but the reigning champion skipped tune-up races in the area last weekend to be careful.
Once you look past Powers, one of the biggest names is an absence - Timothy Johnson to be precise. The three-time national champion is in the twilight of his career, but he has slowed little, finishing third in last year's nationals. This year, however, Johnson has been suffering from back pain stemming from a herniated disc and two vertebrae in contact with each other. Though he raced in last weekend's tuneup races, he was not competitive and decided to skip nationals this year. Instead, Johnson will be in the commentary booth all weekend.
From there, he will be talking up the chances of a quartet of second-tier favorites, especially if the course continues to get muddy. Jonathan Page is the veteran in the field after spending years racing almost entirely in Europe. Though he is rarely in the top ten, the technical acumen this has given him should shine through as things get sloppy. Page has been on good form, notching up better than usual results in the Kerstperiode races this year. On the other end of the age spectrum is Zach McDonald, a fifth year college student and former downhiller who won both races last weekend and excels in the most slippery of conditions. Prior podium Jamey Driscoll and newcomer Allen Krughoff - who finished fourth at last year's nationals and was riding well this season prior to illness in late fall - will also be looking to dethrone the king.
On the women's side, it's hard to look past ten time national champion Katie Compton. Last year's World Cup overall winner has struggled with breathing problems stemming from allergies and asthma this season, but even on her off days she remains a favorite. Among other podium contenders is Compton's mentee Kaitlin Antonneau. The former U-23 national champion is coming off a strong season that saw her finish seventh at the Milton Keynes World Cup, a mere minute and one second behind Compton. Antonneau does best on muddy courses and the rain should serve her well. Also expecting to contend for the podium are 2014 CrossVegas winner Meredith Miller and Olympic mountain bike medalist Georgia Gould.
Though we don't have Sporza, nationals will be viewable thanks to Behind the Barriers and their sponsors. Check their live stream Sunday for Juniors, U-23, Elite Women and Elite Men's races.
As noted in the comments, the races today were postponed after a very confusing several hours. The main concern focuses on potential damage to the root system of some old growth trees forming a centerpiece of the park. A week's worth of racing, especially as the course grew muddier, stripped away the soil over the top layer of roots where the course traveled under the tree canopies. The course underwent alterations today to move it away from the roots in the few places of concern. Races will begin at 12:30PM CST tomorrow and will end at 5:25PM. All races will still be streamed live, for free, on the Behind the Barriers site linked above.