KANSAS CITY - The USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships opened on Thursday with just over 50 master-aged riders tackling the demanding course at Kansas City's Tiffany Springs Park. Gary Thacker (Louisville, Colo./Chipotle-Titus), Phil Bannister (Putney, Vt./Putney-West Hill), Rob Lea (Taneytown, Md./Team Fuji), and Walt Axthelm (Durango, Colo./Durango Wheel Club) won the first of 34 stars-and-stripes jerseys to be awarded at this year's competition.

With sunny skies and temperatures comfortably in the 30's the first national championship contest went off at 1:00 p.m. After the early week snow and the morning's B races, the well-broken-in course made for a slow start to the master men's 55-59 contest. The slick corners were however no problem for Louisville, Colorado's Thacker who moved to the front on the first lap and never looked back. The 55-year old veteran mountain biker took up cyclo-cross only three years ago, but has quickly taken to America's fastest growing cycling discipline.

"I spent most of the first lap just trying to get to the front," explained Thacker, a first-time national champion. "There were some loose corners, but the course dried out as the race went on. This was a goal of mine from the beginning of the season. You have to do it while you are young, you know."

Fred Whitworth (Charlottesville, Va./Van Dessel Factory Team) wrapped up second place, with a time of 39:02, nearly two minutes behind Thacker's winning time of 37:09. Torre Smitherman (Gainesville, Ga./GTC) finished just over a minute later in third, but the real battle was for the last two podium spots with five additional riders finishing in under 42:00. After a fierce battle, Joseph Brown (Walled Lake, Mich.) and Michael Longmire (Missoula, Mt./Northern Rockies) ultimately rounded out the podium in fourth and fifth place.

In the men's 60-64 contest it was all Bannister as he opened up a huge gap in the first pair of laps. With the majority of the 17-rider field dismounting for the off-camber downhill sections, Banister displayed superior technical ability, riding a few of the declines on the hilly course. Appearing to be at ease, the first-time national champion took control and went on to take the convincing win.

"I had a friend on his bike giving me readings all over the course, which deemed helpful," said Bannister. "It was a really hard effort for me and luckily I was able to know how far out I was toward the end."

Bannister's only real challenge came from multi-time national champion John Elgart (Sacramento, Calif./Webcor-Alto Velo) who significantly closed the gap on the final lap. The 18-time national champ has four cyclo-cross titles to his name and although he was denied another today, he solidly rode to the silver. After 15 years of racing cyclo-cross Elgart has as much experience as almost any American.

"The course is well-designed, but tough as the off camber corners are slippery and it's hard to go fast on this course," said Elgart. "It would be a faster course with grass, but the mud makes it more technical. It's great to see everyone out here as the sport of cyclo-cross has grown so much in the last decade or so."

In the day's most exciting finish, John Rubcic (Hemet, Calif./UC Cyclery-JW Flooring) won the sprint for third over Cal Giant's Frank Cuaresma (San Jose, Calif.) who had to settle for fourth.

With six starters racing in a group with the 60-64 age division as well as the 70+ entrants, Lea took the men's 65-69 title by three minutes over Joe Saling (Bridgewater, N.J./Team Somerset-Van Dessel). Axthelm won the 70+ stars-and-stripes, finishing in 50:37.

The USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships will continue Friday, with both junior and master's men and women battling for their shot at a national title.

2008 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships
Kansas City, Missouri
December 11-14

Thursday's National Champions:

Men 55-59: Gary Thacker (Louisville, Colo./Chipotle-Titus)
Men 60-64: Phil Bannister (Putney, Vt./Putney-West Hill)
Men 65-69: Rob Lea (Taneytown, Md./Team Fuji)
Men 70+: Walt Axthelm (Durango, Colo./Durango Wheel Club)

About USA Cycling

Recognized by the United States Olympic Committee and the Union Cycliste Internationale, USA Cycling is the official governing body for all disciplines of competitive cycling in the United States, including road, track, mountain bike, BMX and cyclo-cross. As a membership-based organization and sanctioning body, USA Cycling consists of 64,000+ members, including 57,000 competitive cyclists, 1,500 coaches, 4,000 student-athletes, 2,200 officials, 350 professional cyclists, and 200 certified mechanics. USA Cycling also sanctions 2,500 competitive and non-competitive organized cycling events throughout the United States annually, as well as 1,800 clubs and teams. Associations of USA Cycling include the United States Cycling Federation (road, track & cyclo-cross), the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (mountain bike), the BMX Association, the National Collegiate Cycling Association and the United States Professional Racing Organization. USA Cycling is also responsible for the identification, development, support and promotion of American cyclists through various athletic initiatives and programs including the USA Cycling National Development Team, the USA Cycling Women's National Team, the USA Cycling Junior Development Team, Talent Identification and Regional Development Camps, domestic and international race calendars, direct athlete funding and support programs, and educational camps and seminars. USA Cycling also fields and supports U.S. National Teams for various international events, including the Olympic Games, World Championships, Pan American Games, Continental Championship and World Cups across all levels and disciplines of competitive cycling. USA cycling further supports grass roots and locally-based initiatives through its 32 Local Associations and comprehensive network of licensed and certified coaches and officials. Additionally, USA Cycling conducts National Championship events for amateur and professional cyclists, awarding more than 600 national titles annually to men and women in junior, U23, masters, elite, professional and paralympic categories throughout the various disciplines of competitive cycling. To learn more about USA Cycling, visit www.usacycling.org . For media-related or general inquiries, please contact USA Cycling Director of Communications, Andy Lee at 719-866-4867 or [email protected] .