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In early December, a string of articles and tweets by several Belgian cyclocross promoters, pundits, and analysts suggested the sport may be losing its footing, even in the sport’s epicenter. TV viewership was down year over year by a double-digit percentage. Mathieu van der Poel’s domination was leading to predictable racing. A lack of strong rivalries in the men’s field was eroding any narrative to drive fan interest. And the calendar of races? That schedule, suggested the critics, was also to blame for the decline in energy surrounding the sport.
As an answer to cyclocross’s woes, Flanders Classics head Wouter Vandenhaute suggests redrawing the cyclocross season to mimic the classics road season as a unified, streamlined, more digestible entity. Cyclocross commentator Carl Berteele also proposes an entirely new calendar for the sport, with individual races at the start of the season, and then series racing starting in October and a maximum of one country per weekend for the majority of the season.
Another of Berteele’s proposals, however, was what most caught our attention: lose the U.S. World Cups.
“I am in favor of internationalization, but I am not a fan of the American competitions: it did have something a few years ago — a new world that seemed to be opening up,” Berteele said. “But what is the surplus if we take stock after a year or three? I happily drop the names of Kenny [sic] Werner, Curtis White, and Anthony Clark. Do you know them? They are the best American riders this season, Werner and White even won seven times. True? In the States, of course, but nobody knows that.”
Harsh? Probably. Uniformed? Seems to be. Simplistic? Definitely. If we look past the fact that he misspells Kerry Werner’s name, and he completely disregards the American women who have proven their athleticism and talent for years at the highest level of the sport, it does raise an interesting question: what has the U.S. gained — from the athlete perspective, fan perspective, community perspective — by hosting two World Cups, in Iowa (at Jingle Cross) and Wisconsin (at Trek), on American soil?
We spoke with racers, promoters, and team owners who gathered at the recent USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, to answer that question. Here are their thoughts.
Kris Auer, race promoter, Charm City Cross
“We’ve gained a lot of perspective on where ’cross is in America. And those two World Cups are amazing events. So well done. That said, it hasn’t born fruit in the way that I think cyclocross needs to grow globally, and it hasn’t really demonstrated what the U.S. has to offer. We had 16 American athletes and 16 Canadian athletes just to fill the field, which shows that globalization is not happening. We’re spending a lot of money on these big events when maybe we need to take a step back and focus on U.S. cyclocross. In my opinion, the U.S. World Cups aren’t really providing that domestic focus. It eats up a couple weekends where you can’t really do anything else in America.
“I’ve looked into hosting a World Cup, and it was like, ‘Wow, it would be rad to host the best in the world.’ I think it’s what we want to see: the best racing, on our turf, and show what we can do. But we’re certainly not getting support from the rest of the world on that. They need to do what we’ve always done — [travel across the ocean] — and they don’t want to do it. And they don’t have to do it. There’s so many UCI races in Belgium alone, so ‘Why come to the U.S.?’ It’s so expensive; they want to do it not with two bikes and two sets of wheels, they want 12 sets of wheels, four bikes, and guarantee their comfort zone. I just don’t see the world wanting to do it right now.
“I want to believe [Berteele] looked at it like, ‘Hey, we’ve done his grand experiment and it hasn’t worked yet.’ What sucks about his comments is he likely hasn’t been to the U.S. He probably knows zero about racing in the U.S. He’s uninformed. If he wants to have a great opinion, he should come watch some U.S. racing and look outside his very small box. I love Belgium, I have a Belgian announcer at my race, I’m all in. But I think that guy needs a lesson in reality. Someday, Belgium is going to step away from ’cross a bit and they’re going to be left holding nothing. They’re cycling mad, but nothing lasts forever. He’s shortsighted. I don’t think he’s looking at it like it’s a failed experiment, I think he’s saying, ‘Why bother?’ And I think he’s dead wrong. We should bother. Maybe it is a failed experiment. But we had to try. Nothing great happens by saying, ‘It’s cool.’ Something great happens when people get fired up about something. That’s when greatness comes.”
Stu Thorne, general manager of Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com
“It’s just good for the sport. It’s a World Cup series, so why should they all be in central Europe? If we want to make it a true World Cup, being in the States is a good thing.
“You’ve gotta have that pinnacle series that people aspire to. You’ve got to have something at that top level that people can latch onto.
“A good number of U.S. racers would love to race in the World Cups. Are they all going to be at the front of the race? Some of them, for sure they will not. Are they there just to participate and gain experience? It’s not the worst thing in the world. Every league has their team that doesn’t do well. Does that mean they should be kicked out of the league? These riders that are trying to gain experience, I don’t think they’re there just to fill out the grid, even if that’s ultimately what they’re doing. It’s important for everyone to be there if you’re going to be inclusive and have a true World Cup. Otherwise, we ought to just call it the Belgian Cyclocross Cup.
“I have friends that don’t know anything about cyclocross. But when I say, ‘Kaitie Keough won a World Cup,’ it legitimizes it when I tell somebody that. It brings people into the sport; if we could do that with a lot of people that would be phenomenal. How do we do that? I don’t know. But a World Cup across the world is a start.”
Katie Compton (KFC Racing), 15-time national champion
“We get points and don’t have to travel across the ocean, which is an issue. We’ve got our support from teams, and families, and friends, and bikes, and equipment. But beyond that, it shows the world what the U.S. has to offer for ’cross. It’s different from Belgium. It’s never going to be like Belgium. And it shouldn’t be like Belgium. Our business model is totally different. But having those World Cups puts us on the world’s stage and shows what we have to offer, which are really fun, challenging courses, a different scene, spectators who are really into bike racing and know the athletes and support first through 50th place. And if we’re going to grow the sport of ’cross, we need to leave that little pocket in Belgium where it exists now. For a true World Cup, it doesn’t need to be a Belgian Cup.”
Kerry “Kenny” Werner (Kona)
“From the fan perspective, for one, it’s cool to see those guys come over here. For people that are passionate about the sport, that’s what keeps the sport alive: ‘Holy s***, those guys are fast, and for real!’ For kids that see Wout [van Aert] and [Mathieu] van der Poel, from a development standpoint it … I’m of the mindset that the reason they’re so good at ’cross over there is that they’re exposed to the highest level of racing when they are 12 or whatever. And it’s getting better here.
“From the racing perspective, there’s the exposure. And I don’t know if we gain much from that in the short term — from those two weekends, it’s not like it necessarily makes us better; to do that you need long-term exposure to a higher level of racing — but it keeps you hungry. I’ve had a pretty good season, but I know I’m not that good in the grand scheme of things. My world ranking right now is 18th, and I’m proud of that, I worked hard for that, but if I got a top-20 result in a European World Cup, that would probably be the best result of my career.
“It’s hard. I understand what [Berteele] was saying because it’s true, it is an inconvenience for them to come over here and race. But we do that all the time. Otherwise, we’d all wait until the end of the season to head over there.”