Rooted in Belgium, cyclocross looks to flower abroad

If 'cross is to grow (the Belgian variety, at any rate) it must break out of the tiny corner of Europe in which it enjoys its widest appeal

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HOOGERHEIDE, Netherlands (VN) — The buzz started a year ago, building steadily on a foundation of goodwill engendered by the imperfect but overwhelmingly popular 2013 cyclocross world championships in Louisville, Kentucky.

It built to a steady hum when world champion Sven Nys won CrossVegas this fall, and has lately built to a crescendo that has the whole world of cyclocross — which is to say, mainly Belgium — talking.

“Internationalization,” they say. “That’s what cyclocross needs now.”

And to some degree, it is true. If the sport is to grow — or, the Belgian version of the sport, at any rate — it must break out of the tiny corner of northwest Europe in which it enjoys its widest appeal.

Look at the World Cup, cyclocross’ one true international series. Roughly half of its stops in recent years have been in Belgium, a country barely bigger than Massachusetts. When the series leaves Belgium it has frequently visited cities like Hoogerheide and Valkenburg, in the Netherlands, and Roubaix and Liévin, in France. Liévin, by far the most distant of the four, is barely 30 kilometers from the Belgian border.

The World Cup has also made appearances in the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and a few further-flung French locales in recent years, but it is clear that the heart of the sport remains in Belgium.

The question of just how to grow the sport, however, is one that elicits dramatically different answers depending on whom one asks. Even the meaning of the word “internationalization” is hard to assess. All across Europe — in Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain, and France — there are thriving cyclocross communities, albeit communities that lack the star power of their Belgian cousins. And outside of the European continent, in America, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand among others, there are vibrant, growing racing scenes, each with a unique local flavor and character.

So what does it mean to talk about internationalizing a sport that has already gone global? For many Belgians, unsurprisingly, it means exporting their particular brand of racing.

“We were really charmed by the world championships in the U.S., and we proposed to Peter Van Den Abeele, ‘Give us a possibility and an extra date and we will try to set up something in the USA,’” Etienne Gevaert, president of the Superprestige series, told VeloNews in an interview earlier this season.

The United States, with its burgeoning ’cross community, Gevaert argued, is a natural place for the sport to grow, and the Superprestige organization, which once held races across Europe, is a natural choice to help facilitate the transatlantic leap.

“Normally, the whole month of September we should be racing cyclocross in America,” said Gevaert, hinting at another idea that has floated through Belgian cyclocross in recent weeks.

And Nys agrees.

“It would be good that three races of three overall rankings are [in the U.S.] in the beginning of the season,” said the reigning world champion, who also is a member of the UCI’s cyclocross commission.

“I don’t know if it’s possible next year, but that’s what we’ll be working for. Because then it’s easier to travel to the U.S. for three races. It’s going to be something special when three races start over there. And, if it’s possible next year, we’ll work for it.”

What Nys proposes is to transport all three of the major international series to the U.S.: Superprestige, the bpost Bank Trofee, and the World Cup.

It is an idea that is gaining traction, so much so that the Belgian Gazet van Antwerpen reported earlier this month that the UCI was giving serious consideration to making the most prominent U.S. race, CrossVegas, a World Cup event.

And though Las Vegas does not appear on the recently released World Cup calendar, Van den Abeele, the UCI cyclocross coordinator, confirmed on Saturday that it’s still possible that CrossVegas could achieve World Cup status next year.

Watts said the discussion was something that had evolved over the course of many years.

“Since the Gazet van Antwerpen story … it’s fair to say that the discussion with the UCI that began in 2008 continues still,” said Watts. “It’s gratifying that the UCI feels CrossVegas is World Cup-worthy and we’ve continued working though the myriad of details that might make it a reality. While it may seem a recent development to some, or by others as a response to other efforts to bring a World Cup to the U.S., it is in fact just a continuation of the long and complicated discussion.”

Watts, who has promoted both the massive CrossVegas and smaller-scale races in his hometown of Longmont, Colorado, added that he sees an opportunity to grow American cyclocross both by promoting major events and continuing to nurture the grassroots-oriented cyclocross community that has been growing rapidly there for more than a decade.

“We do have a combo of the two going on already and both are pushing the process along,” he told VeloNews. “The Euro stars bring prestige to every event they attend as well as satisfying the desires of our superfans to see the stars. …

“As far as a bottom-up approach, that is clearly needed and that should be the goal of race directors, through harder, more challenging courses, and team directors, though recruitment and retention of the best talent.

“We need sponsors who understand the need for U.S. riders to spend more than a five-day trip to Belgium for a World Cup event, we need more Belgium-based U.S. riders, and that’s going to require a sponsor with global perspective, not an isolated view restricted only to the U.S.”

Likewise, Geoff Proctor, director of the EuroCrossCamp and a member of the UCI’s cyclocross commission, told VeloNews that he too sees an opportunity to expand cyclocross by bringing the big series to the United States.

But, he added, such a move is not without significant challenges.

“If we don’t get the teams, if we don’t get the German national team, if we don’t get Ian Field there, what’s the point? That’s the biggest hurdle,” said Proctor. “We need to get people there to do it. That’s sort of the top-down model, where you put on the races, build it, and they will come. And then seeds of development start and countries like New Zealand say, ‘Oh, we need to do this.’ And Australia and China and whatever.”

And indeed, as soon as the news broke of a possible American expansion of the traditionally European series, Sunweb-Napoleon Games manager Jurgen Mettepenningen spoke out, telling the Belgian press he found the idea impractical at best, and that Sunweb riders would not participate.

Of course, the top-down model is working already. Louisville seems to have been the spark to ignite a real desire for evolution in a country where cyclocross is deeply rooted in tradition. The World Cup will expand next year — its first-ever stop in Great Britain was confirmed when the UCI released next year’s calendar on Saturday.

But there remains a bigger question: whether exporting the cyclocross circus that surrounds a series like the Superprestige is the right model under which to expand the sport at all.

“I think (the World Cup) is the pointy end,” said Simon Burney, the race promoter for next year’s UK World Cup. “I think at the base, Great Britain has a huge cyclocross base, we have hundreds of people racing every weekend, all over the country. But we have no elite end at all. We’ve got the girls, but they live in Belgium. Everybody else is just working full time and doing it for fun, a lot like the U.S. model.

“So if we’re talking about elite-level racing, the World Cup, to my mind, should be the pinnacle, should be the big series. And for that to be international, to be a world cup, it needs to be a little bit more international than it is.”

Others have suggested different models — perhaps compatible models — through which the sport could prosper. Among them is New Zealand national champion Alex Revell, who has become something of a star in Belgian cyclocross for both his gutsy racing and his geniality.

“While there are many countries with fledgling cyclocross scenes growing around the world, struggling to get the sport known, and getting by … with their riders living and working in order to afford to spend some small time racing in Belgium the only way they possibly can, it’s ironic that in Belgium, where it is so set up and successful, there are professional — or everything but — riders getting called up behind me at race starts due to competition for UCI points being so extreme there. Yet if they were to go and race elsewhere they would be on podiums around the world wherever they went,” he said.

“I understand that it’s essential to race where your sponsors have their focus, but to me it seems the greatest asset of Belgian ’cross is conversely one of its biggest weaknesses.”

Revell suggested that the sport and its riders would be better served if the UCI’s scheduling guidelines encouraged some competition between race organizations to attract riders to more diverse locales. He argues that New Zealand’s growing, but grass-roots cyclocross community allowed him to develop as a racer faster than his Belgian counterparts have. And distributing talent more widely around the world rather than exporting one-off races would spark interest and growth in more diverse markets.

Helen Wyman, British champion and another cyclocross commission member, echoed Revell’s thoughts, but wondered whether international growth is something that can be compelled by any means other than organic, local growth.

“That is the big question,” said Wyman. “How do you globalize a sport that is only really legitimate in one country?

“Do you make the riders leave the country to compete elsewhere on the off chance that people in that country might take up the sport? Do you use the Belgian business model of races and take it to other countries to implement so that they can have successful races too? Do you somehow find a way to televise the sport across all countries so people can at least see what cyclocross is? Is it the organizers’ responsibility to increase popularity or is it the racers or is it the governing bodies or is it the UCI or is it all of them? I really don’t know.”

Elsewhere in Belgium, meanwhile, another model has appeared: importing talent. In 2013 Christoph and Philip Roodhooft, managers of Niels Albert’s BKCP-Powerplus squad, launched the Kwadro-Stannah team as a home for non-Belgian riders who opt to race on the Belgian scene. The team is specially focused on meeting the needs of riders away from home during a long, dark winter season.

“For young foreign riders it has become increasingly difficult to reach the top of the sport,” Christoph Roodhooft told the Belgian sports network Sporza. “Moreover, it’s all but mandatory they race in Flanders every week. If we want to internationalize, we have to develop stars from abroad.”

Already the team has had success, helping to boost Czech Martin Bina to the best results of his career. In 2014 the team picked up Swiss champion Julien Taramarcaz, who has also raced with increasing success in the World Cup and major Belgian series. And, more to the point, the team’s very existence may have played a role in sparking the interest in internationalization in Belgium in the first place.

And then, of course, there is the Olympic Winter Games, long a dream for cyclocross promoters. Though the rules of the Olympic Committee currently prohibit the inclusion of sports that don’t require ice or snow, news reports this year suggested a change may be in the works.

For cyclocross, say the leaders of the sport, the Winter Games represent an opportunity to draw global attention — and the money that comes with it — for the sport.

“[The Olympics] would change the sport, because then a lot of money would go to the sport from other countries,” Nys told VeloNews earlier this month, adding that the inflow of money on a global scale would likely lead to real investment in rider development. That, in turn, would lead to the rise of new, perhaps non-European stars, driving a feedback loop that could see the sport grow exponentially.

For now, however, that remains just a dream.

Still, a process seems to be unfolding. The list of contenders in the world championship races in Hoogerheide contains more non-Belgian riders than ever before: Lars van der Haar and Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands; Zdenek Stybar and Adam Toupalik of the Czech Republic; Philipp Walsleben of Germany; Francis Mourey of France. The top six in Saturday’s women’s championship featured five nationalities: Marianne Vos of the Netherlands; Eva Lechner of Italy; Helen Wyman and Nikki Harris of Great Britain; Sanne Cant of Belgium; and Lucie Chainel-Lefevre of France. Too, there was pre-race favorite Katie Compton of the United States, derailed by an asthma attack.

And, perhaps most importantly, the talk of internationalization goes on. For many followers of cyclocross, a sport whose popularity for the better part of two decades has remained anchored in Belgium — a country not exactly known for its willingness to embrace change — the discussion itself is already a positive sign.


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