Richard Fries Q&A: New England Holy Week and the growth of American cyclocross

Richard Fries waxes about New England Holy Week, the growth of cyclocross, advocacy and the world championships

Photo: Wil Matthews

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This weekend’s Great Brewers Gran Prix of Gloucester in Massachusetts signals the start of the New England Holy Week of Cyclocross and if there is one man standing at the pulpit for the biggest nine days of ’cross racing in the region, he is Richard Fries.

Fries, the English voice of the UCI road and cyclocross world championships and the promoter of the Providence Cyclo-cross Festival, which closes the week in Rhode Island on October 6 and 7, is crazed to share his love of the muddy discipline and bicycles with anyone that will listen. Fries is fresh off the Limburg worlds in the Netherlands, where his voice boomed over the action atop the Cauberg climb all week, and has his wheels pointed toward Gloucester.

VeloNews caught up with Fries on the eve of the Gloucester weekend — known widely as the New England World Championships — to talk about the Limburg worlds, the 2013 world cyclocross championships in Louisville, Kentucky, the growth of American cyclocross, and all things Holy Week.

VeloNews: We have Holy Week coming up. What can you tell the uninitiated about New England’s Holy Week?
Richard Fries: Well, sure. We’ve always had Gloucester, and after the 2005-2006 national championships, we wanted to sort of build an event around Providence where we hosted that, and due to some organizational stuff we didn’t really get started until 2009.

But, I kind of have to admit to being a little bit dopey; all I know is that I just wanted it to be within a week of Gloucester. So when I started doing Providence as a UCI event, I wanted to be back-to-back with Gloucester, and I never even looked at the calendar to realize there might be another event. So we kind of got… we were always up against other events. And even though we got very high marks, we had Providence and Gloucester, this is the first year that Providence will be a UCI Category 1, but it will also not be in competition with either the (U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross) or the guys in [the Cincinnati Cyclocross Festival], all of which are good guys, all of which do a good job. So this is the first time we will own the weekend.

Holy Week really is becoming what it is this year for the first time, where we’re going to have the best riders here all week. Part of the thing is… I think New England is the only place that has two Category 1s in the same region, which is rare, and then to have them a week apart is even more rare. I guess you could say Cincinnati and Louisville are in the same region, and Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, those are the places that have a pair of Category 1s, but to have them a week apart is super unique.

VN: What is it that makes Gloucester and Providence so special as a pair of races?
RF: Some of it is the New England market, which, I don’t need to tell you, it sort of has a classic combination of sort of the fun of the northwest, and the prestige of Colorado. So we have really good riders, but we also have a really big market. As they say in “Spinal Tap”, Boston is not much of a college town, so we just have a massive market.

But then the other thing that really sets these two apart as well, as all the Shimano races, in my opinion, the Shimano pro series races apart, are the venues. The venues are, you know, cyclocross is kind of growing out of its early days where we were just looking for vacant lots that you could destroy. And these are really prestigious, beautifully sculpted parks.

Oceanside Park is one of the most photogenic venues in the world. Now that I’ve been to even such places as Tabor (Czech Republic) and Koksijde (Belgium) in Europe, Gloucester is far prettier than nine out of ten World Cup venues in Europe, no? Gloucester is prettier than just about all of them, but then you go to Providence and it’s just as beautiful. And you see the [Roger Williams] Park, we’re very happy because they made where we work as a park. It was designed for outdoor concerts in the 19th century, it was built as a stadium. If you were to design a stadium, you would get Providence.

VN: When did you start with Providence?
RF: The first national championships we hosted at Providence is ’05. So we did the ’05 and the ’06, and those of course were in December back then. And now we then started it in the current incarnation as a UCI event on Columbus Day weekend in 2009. So this is only our fourth year.

VN: Looking at the 2012-2013 season, what are the big stories in American cyclocross right now?
RF: That’s a great question. I’m just trying to think, one of the big ones would be the European, I don’t want to call it an invasion, but the European interest in American cyclocross and the European participation is one thing.

But then I also feel like the, I think the classic thing this year is the old versus the new, the young versus the old. We’re seeing the twilight of Tim Johnson and some of the others, but I think we’re seeing all these younger riders. I think Zach McDonald is one of the most exciting riders in the world of cyclocross, not just for American cyclocross.

And then ultimately for me what I think is awesome is women’s cyclocross, notably just the size of it. We’re going to have three fields tomorrow, three women’s fields and they are full.

So I really think that’s the big thing, those are the three biggest things. That said, I’m really eager to watch this year. It’ll be good to have the Olympics over, a lot of the big mountain bike riders will be switching their focus over to ’cross. You have Lea Davison (Specialized) racing ’cross again in Las Vegas, which is exciting. So I think that’s going to be a little bit of an impact, some of the pro mountain bikers, I think they’ll start to race more complete ’cross.

And then the other thing is the industry finally coming around. The industry is realizing… Trek coming into ’cross for the USGP is a really big thing. It’s a good thing for ’cross.

VN: Is ’cross ahead of the curve for the growth of women’s racing?
RF: Yeah, and I think that it… has to do with the nature of ’cross. You only suffer for an hour, know what I mean? And then it’s extremely social, it’s something that really, I think it just appeals to women in a very unique way in that regard. It’s very social, even if you’re racing for 59th place, you’re still racing, unlike road racing where if you’re shelled, you’re just out in the woods alone. Mountain bike racing is very lonely. And I think women, and I know I’m going to draw some heat for this, women are very much more social about sport than men are.

VN: Having seen U.S. cyclocross grow for two decades now, where is cyclocross in the U.S. today, both as a sport and as a part of cycling?
RF: I would say in terms of competitive cycling, I would put it second, only behind road. But I think that it has a big continued upside. I don’t see the growth stopping any time soon.

I guess, if I had to say anything about ’cross as opposed to other flash-in-the-pan trends, it’s that with cyclocross, the emperor really does have clothes. You get there and it really is exciting, and it really does have marketing potential and promotional potential.

I have no desire to promote a stage race. I’m very glad that people do, but it’s a really difficult business model to promote a stage race. But ’cross is a really good business model for promoters at every level of the promotion, whether it’s a local ’cross race or whether it’s a regional event or whether it’s an international event. ’Cross is a very good business model, and it’s a sustainable business model. And I believe strongly that while the athletes need to get paid the most, and deserve to get paid the most, I think the promoters and the organizers need to get paid first to make anything sustainable.

I mean I’m in New England, and we’ve lost Mount Snow, and we’ve lost Fitchburg. Think about that. Those were super-established mountain bike races and road races that have gone away. Hopefully not for good, but I think that that’s really telling. I think that our industry and our culture needs to really look at that, and really fathom what we need to do because… if you’re losing events like that, you’ve really got to look at why. And then you look at cyclocross, we had 400 people at a Wednesday night race here the other night. We have another Wednesday night race this week. There’s something about ’cross that is sustainable as a promotional tool for cycling. If the next 20 years are anything like the last 20 years, we’re gonna have crowd control problems.

VN: You were the English-language announcer for road worlds in Valkenburg, Netherlands. What did you see there that grabbed your attention?
RF: The comprehensive nature of cycling there. You and I love to celebrate the competition of cycling, but then it’s also the advocacy stuff that is so cool. I’ve sent a tweet out that drunks in Holland can ride two-by-two better than 90 percent of American Cat. 4s. But it’s true; that’s what’s so cool, is just the large amount of cycling transit that goes on. And then you have the large amount of cycling for the competition, and the clubs are amazing. So if those people would stop smoking they’d live to be 150.

We’re just starting to really celebrate what [Davis] Phinney and [Ron] Kiefel did in the 1970s, so we’re starting to get those layers or that legacy of prestige, and that’s what really blows you away over there, is that they go back to the ’50s and ’60s, and we’re just going back to the ’70s and ’80s. We’re just coming along; we’re getting there.

We’ve just got to make it safer for people to ride bikes in America. It’s just crazy. That’s the whole thing. The advocacy, racing is really important to advocacy, and vice-versa. Racing is really important to advocacy, and advocacy is really important to racing. We need to really work together collectively. If people want to see America become more like Denmark or the Netherlands, they really need to focus as much on racing and clubs and charity rides as they do on advocacy and environmentalism both.

VN: Do you think that cyclocross can play a big role in advocacy for this country?
RF: Oh, my God, yeah, because it is such an easy entry point for the sport and the culture of cycling. Because it is really safe, it is typically done in proximity to people’s homes. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to Moab, but our own industry was pretty stupid when we advertised that we had to travel 20 hours to use a product. Think about that.

If people said, “I want to sell you cigarettes, oh, but here’s the deal: you’ve got to drive 10 hours out to Vermont or to Utah or some remote wasteland to go use it,” you wouldn’t sell a lot of cigarettes. And cyclocross is down the street. It’s an hour from home, and that’s what’s really awesome. So I think that’s going to make it a really good, accessible point.

The other thing that’s really good is you don’t even have to race cyclocross to be into cyclocross, much like the NFL, and that’s what we’re discovering in New England right now. We have a very good, sophisticated fan base. So we’re probably going to have 5,000 people in Gloucester tomorrow, and there’s only going to be 1,100 people racing, so that is why I think it’s great. You can bring a kid to watch and they get excited.

If you sold every spot on your plane, you could get 1,200 people a day, and they’re close to hitting that in Gloucester.

VN: As the UCI’s English-language announcer, what can fans in America, who haven’t had the worlds here, expect to see when ’cross hits Louisville in 2013?
RF: Joan (Hanscom) and Bruce (Fina) do a really good job. I’ve worked with them for years, and they will work so hard, it will look fantastic, it will be an amazing presentation. I think we’re going to see 20,000 people there.

I also think we’re going to see two Americans on the podium. I don’t know which racers, but I’m betting for two Americans on the podium. I’m pretty confident that they will do well.

You know what’s really interesting is the importance of CrossVegas to bookend our season. We open at Interbike… I got to tell you, there’s shop owners in New England that have never seen a cyclocross race until they were at CrossVegas. So that’s what CrossVegas does to open the season. Then to close it at worlds is going to be really important for the industry to finally get it. I think the industry is, so much of it is driven by Southern California, our industry, I think the industry is still a little bit slow to really get cyclocross and the accessibility that it has and that it provides. But they’ll come around.

And that’s what I think the worlds will do. I think CrossVegas and the worlds are going to really move the needle on cyclocross.

An American in France

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