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’Cross pioneers: from Austin to Vegas, and beyond

1978 cyclocross nationals flyer
1978 cyclocross nationals flyer

This weekend the Bay State Cyclocross races will conclude the North American Cyclocross Trophy, an eight-event series directed by Brook Watts. Watts has played roles in everything from CrossVegas to the Los Angeles Olympic Games to the Tour of Texas. He got his start racing and promoting ’cross racing in Austin, Texas, in the ’70s.

The Austin cyclcross scene, Watts said, sprung up as “a product of neglecting college classes and reading too many dog-eared issues of International Cycle Sport. We raced for 6-packs of beer for prizes and like fellow ’cross nuts elsewhere improvised everything from using syringes to put latex in tubulars —the dreaded goathead preceded removable valve cores — to gluing knobby treads on road tubulars.”

With much cajoling from then-Austin resident John Howard, Watts, while still a college student. hosted the 1978 national cyclocross championship in Austin,

“Laurence Malone came from Santa Cruz, crashed on my couch and crushed the other contenders in the 20-person field,” Watts said. “Three-time Olympian John Howard, a ‘cross vet from the ’60s, managed third on the day if my memory serves me.”

Watts also remembers Howard showing him how to seal tubular punctures with milk.

“Using a hypodermic needle, you would put whole milk into the tire through the valve,” Watts said. “It would leak milk for a day or two until the milk started curdling, and then it would seal up the small punctures. Then our solution progressed to latex carpet cement. And then to something like you use today — a Caffélatex or Stan’s.”

Brook Watts at the Cyclocross National Championships, 2008
Brook Watts at the Cyclocross National Championships, 2008

After working with the Tour of Texas stage race in the ’80s, Watts joined the Campagnolo support program, eventually working the Los Angeles Games. Watts recalls an interview with an Italian Campagnolo employee, who asked him what the next big thing was in cycling.

“’Cyclocross,’ I said, without skipping a beat,” said Watts with a laugh, noting that mountain biking would obviously be the big boom. “I told them Campy was uniquely situated — at the time they had a BMX pedal that worked great for ’cross — to take advantage. I missed that mark by what, 20 years? Kinda like all my other stock picks. But I was convinced in 1984 that ’cross was the next big thing.”

Together with Chris Grealish, Watts put on the first CrossVegas, which is now headed into its fifth year. Now Watts wants to take what he calls “twilight ’cross” to other American cities. Next season, the Gateway Cross Cup in St. Louis will host a nighttime cyclocross race the week after Cross Vegas.

“Who knows where that concept will go. But you’ve got beer, brats, funnel cakes, all those other things that make a festival setting,” Watts said. “I’ve not had many original thoughts in my life. The key is stealing good ones from other people. I did a fastest-lap contest that I took from the World Cup. And we do a second-lap sprint competition that I took from the Gazet van Antwerpen series.”

Watts still loves getting out there and racing himself.

“I’ve got shoes that are a lot older than some of the pros who are racing,” Watts said with a laugh. “But it’s fascinating that everything old is new again. This sport continues to capture the imagination. Where it’s going, I don’t have a clue. But I’m interested in becoming part of the growth.”

VeloNews recently profiled the birth of cyclocross in Santa Cruz, and a race in Memphis that Joe Royer has run continuously for 24 years.

ben-delaneyEditor’s note: Delaney is editor in chief for VeloNews. A journalism graduate of the University of New Mexico, Delaney is responsible for all editorial content online and in the magazine. Delaney joined VeloNews in 2005 as managing editor, having worked previously for The Santa Fe New Mexican, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News and as a freelance writer for various titles. He’s a former (but never very good) Cat. 1 racer. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two children.

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