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Road Culture

Notes from the Scrum: American cyclocross a brand all its own

Cyclocross in the States doesn't closely resemble its Belgian counterpart, and in some ways, that's just fine

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BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — At Sunday’s Belgian cyclocross championships in Waregem, 10 professional men finished, as 25,000 fans cheered them on. At Sunday’s U.S. cyclocross championships in Boulder, 5,000 people watched as more than 100 men took the start line in the elite race.

This is the ticker-tape summary of the differences in ’cross. In Belgium, it’s a spectator sport; in America, it’s a participant sport, even at the highest levels, and down through the categories.

In spite of its shared DNA with its older Belgian counterpart, American ’cross has evolved into its own, hugely popular helix. Hugely popular in Europe equates to enormous crowds, complete with the scale renderings of human behaviors: good fans, a few racers, and more than a few heavy drinkers and gamblers. In the U.S., hugely popular races are those that see big participation numbers in the amateur categories by riders who stick around to watch the pros afterward.

“It’s a great time to be in the sport. There’s tons of kids getting involved in it. It’s fun. Lots of parents are bringing their kids to the event and watching their kids race the whole time. I say it a lot, but it’s what mountain biking used to be. And it’s definitely … I think it’s a feel-good across the board. We have events that are driven by participation, and not just by the pro aspect,” said national champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus). “The pro race comes to town and people get excited about it … and there’s a good living in it in the States. You don’t have to go to Europe to make it in cyclocross now. You can make a living racing just cyclocross. And I think that shows the health.”

Economically, the sport is good for guys like Powers and other pros, though the number can probably be counted without using one’s toes. The competition here is elevating, and different riders are winning each weekend. The style of racing is different, though; it feels more like a strategic game sometimes than the guns-blazing elite events, like the Superprestige, in Europe. When ’cross is mentioned in Europe, it’s usually a singular thing: the professionals. In the U.S., it’s multi-faceted: there are the professionals, the masters, the juniors, the collegiate racers. The numbers illustrate the staggering rise in a once-obscure sport’s popularity.

In 2005, there were 237 cyclocross events registered with USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body in the U.S. In 2009, that number climbed to 381. By 2013, there were more than 500 races. The racer days corroborate the narrative and participation in a cruel, cold sport that bucks most of its riders at least a few times a season. In 2005, there were 31,828 racer days, according to USAC. Now, that number is 123,500; the sport has quadrupled in popularity in eight years.

For many, cyclocross replaced the sleepy and fatty shoulder season of cycling with, quite literally, a shouldering season.

“I like the amount of people who participate in the U.S.,” said four-time U.S. champion Jonathan Page (Fuji-Spy). “I think that’s remarkable, from the junior level all the way up to the masters level … I think that’s pretty darn nice. And they support the community of bike racing.”

Freshly minted national champion Powers agreed.

“In the States we have a really good feel and vibe at the races,” he said. “Everybody gets on outside of one or two events where there’s some brutal heckling, which means nothing, take it how you will. I think everybody gets that this is fun. It’s also a sport though, you know? There’s guys who are training hard for this. And I think people are impressed by technique.”

The Grandaddy of ’em all

Belgium is, and will remain, the solar plexus of ’cross. It is home to the highest level of competition, with an amoeba-like sea of fans, gambling, and beer. Big results in Europe will remain the results of reference for most.

“They get 30,000 people every weekend. Old guys smoking cigarettes, drinking beer. You’ve got grandmothers out there,” said Todd Wells (Specialized). “But the cool thing about the U.S. races is that everyone out there is out there also racing it. It’s more of a lifestyle thing here, if that makes sense, than in Belgium, where it’s like guys going to a football game or something. … Both are cool. It would be awesome here if we could get 30,000 participants all the time.”

Organizers estimated 6,000 fans for the elite women’s and men’s races on Sunday at Valmont Bike Park, in cycling crazed Boulder. It may not be realistic to think that number could increase tenfold. At Sunday’s Belgian national championships, there were reports of 25,000 course-side fans. Belgian broadcaster VRT, which produces Sporza, claimed that 1,214,975 televisions in Flanders (75 percent of the total in the region) were tuned into the race. Fourteen riders started in the professional category, and an additional 38 set off 30 seconds later in the elite with no contract division.

In Boulder, there were 120 men racing elites, with about 6,000 fans. That is the nutshell — the sport is so intense and specific across the ocean that riders are hand-plucked from a young age and dropped into the immense and rolling scene.

“They pretty much know if you’re going to be good or not, so they don’t have that huge participant base,” said Wells. “They do something else if they’re not going to be Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) or Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink). But here, everybody, we have a huge program. We probably have I don’t know, five times as many, 10 times as many, pro cyclocross riders as Belgium.”

That attitude, obviously, trickles down through the categories. And though Pete Webber, who designed the course here in Boulder and even won the masters 40-44 race, noted that many Americans don’t actually see the amount of grassroots racing that actually takes place, the Euro ’cross model is a juggernaut based on exclusive competition and spectacle. Courses are harder. People are meaner.

“There is grassroots-style cyclocross in Belgium, and not all cyclocross in Belgium is Superprestige,” Webber said. “Especially in Holland, people tend to think about Belgium, but in my experience, the local races done in Holland are awesome, with great fields, great courses, and very high-quality production, and most importantly, a good women’s participation, which you don’t have almost at all in Belgium. Most races don’t even have a single women’s category for the whole event.”

Where to go from here

Though it’s clearly salad days for American ’cross, it’s unclear where the sport can and should go from here. The popular U.S. Gran Prix series folded last year, and though USA Cycling stepped up to help push a new calendar to the front, the cyclocross circuit seems to lack true direction and long view.

Or, as multiple-time national champion Ryan Trebon ( put it, a true business sense.

“I love racing here, and I think we have promoters who do a good job. I also think we have some very mediocre promoters who put on very mediocre events. I would like to see USA Cycling more involved in setting the schedule, and do a real circuit — hit key areas of the country that have really big scenes, so we can have really good races instead of 50 races. We want to have 20 really good races,” Trebon said. “There’s a lot of people who are passionate and want to put on races, but they don’t do a very good job. I’d rather them look at it from a business side rather than the passion side. We need professionalism. We need a quality product that’s easy to sell to sponsors. The USGP did a good job at that.”

Page, who spends most of his time Europe, also said that U.S. courses are, generally, much less technical than their European counterparts, but that he was happy with the efforts in Boulder — perhaps a technical model that other organizers may follow, though if a course is too hard, it’s a big ask for the huge fields in myriad categories to ride them. Page didn’t think the U.S. vibe needed tuning, though.

“What needs work? Everything is a process. Now, I feel like it’s becoming more of a … you’ve got the history of cyclocross in Europe, Belgium, but I feel like there’s such a huge jump in the popularity of cyclocross. I don’t have any bad things to say, really,” Page said.

Economically, the sport can still be challenging for fledgling professionals, or promising juniors. If Belgium has a thick pipeline from a lake of talent straight to upper-level programs, the U.S. has a drip irrigation system, where many promising riders never pan out or switch to the road to make ends meet. Without Olympic status, cyclocross suffers a funding problem at the national federation level, and most of the national team must pay its own way to the world championships each year. One of the most exciting prospects in the U.S., under-23 national champion Logan Owen (Cal Giant-Specialized) told VeloNews last week that he planned to follow the money out of the mud and onto the tarmac.

Powers, for one, does his part to keep young American talent in cyclocross. His JAM Fund allocates grants to some of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley’s deserving youth, in hopes that they can stay focused on the very tall task of making the big time in ’cross. Johnson, a former director of the American Cyclo-cross Foundation, does similarly today with his Mud Fund.

“That’s one of the things that we’re really trying to do with the JAM Fund, is create a totem pole, so that you don’t get lost and have to go to the road,” said Powers. “I hate seeing the guys who get really good at cyclocross and then are forced to go to the road because they can’t find their way.”

American cyclocross has found its way. But where it’s headed, we’ll just have to wait and see.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.