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How Charm City Cross keeps pushing cyclocross forward

BALTIMORE, Maryland (VN) — Fifteen years ago, Kris Auer brought his New England cyclocross roots to Baltimore, Maryland. After moving from Keene, New Hampshire, where he grew up racing and training with the McCormack brothers, Adam Myerson, Jonathan Page, among other pioneering talents in the sport, Auer saw a scene that, as he describes it, was a bit of “jungle cross.” It was fun, but it wasn’t structured.

He missed his New England community, so he set out to build a new one in the Mid-Atlantic. He began teaching clinics every Wednesday from August to November. (He continued to do so for the next 13 years.) He started a race and called it Charm City Cross. (In 1975, at a meeting of advertisers, the nickname “Charm City” was given to Baltimore in an effort to improve the city’s reputation.)

Next, he started a team, and then he opened a bike shop, Twenty20 Cycling. The day he opened, he had a 50-rider club and a small pro team that supported the likes of Laura Van Gilder. They hit the ground running and worked diligently and methodically to craft their marquee event.

For the past 13 years, Charm City Cross has continued to evolve and push forward the notion that ’cross can be a professionally run, dynamic sport for both amateurs and professionals alike. Now it’s part of the Sho-Air U.S. Cup-CX, a new national series that is reinvigorating ’cross.

“I knew the type of product Kris put together — it’s very professional,” said series director and former pro Ryan Trebon. “I knew it’s a race that we could come into with the series and it would be an awesome show. It would make what we’re doing look good, and hopefully make him look even better. The Mid-Atlantic tends to get forgotten in the national scene, but it has a great history of races with fantastic events. This is a race that, now being here and seeing what it is, I’m bummed I never got to race.”

VeloNews caught up with Auer to discuss his and his club’s efforts to push ‘cross forward while standing under the gargantuan flyover that sat at the center of the Charm City course in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park.

In 2014, Twenty20 Cycling put up money to provide equal payout for the women’s field at Koppenbergcross. How did that come about?

That was Helen Wyman and myself. [At that point, Wyman had won the Charm City race four times consecutively, and Auer and Wyman had become good friends. -Ed.] I was over in Belgium during the Christmas period taking care of some of my riders. We were just chatting and she asked, ‘Do you think anyone would be interested in equalizing prize money in Europe, because the Koppenbergcross is interested in having this discussion?’ I immediately was, ‘I’ll do it!’

Why?

Because it needed to be done. There was no other reason than — okay, ego speaking — it’s really cool. I was like, ‘I can be part of one of the biggest races!’ The flip-side to that is, over there when you see an event, when the women can’t park where the men park, when they are literally making a tenth of what the men make. So it makes sense, and if you’ve been following ’cross for the last few years, quite honestly, the women’s races have been — in one guy’s opinion — better races. It’s not that the men aren’t talented and fast and exciting to watch. But the women’s races are not open and shut — you’ve got to learn it; you’ve got to watch it and know any one of 10 or 12 women could win. You never know who it’s going to be next. That’s really cool, and it’s more exciting as a fan. They’re providing the sport with great entertainment and great racing, and so we should provide for them.

I think it was good that an American did it because a lot of folks in Europe were like, ‘That’s not cool.’ So it made them think about it for a second. It made them say, ‘He did that? Wait a second, how’d that work out?’ It’s ridiculous that a bike shop in America sponsored one of the biggest cross races in the world. It’s absolutely absurd.

(After two years of supporting the race, Auer had sold out of Twenty20 Cycling. Even though he had the option to continue supporting the Koppenbergcross, he decided to pass. As the driver of the initiative, and guarantor of the monies, it was time to step back. Now, as he notes, it’s part of the culture and the UCI rulebook.)

What did Twenty20 get in return?

Primarily the satisfaction, and the fact that, I believe, we were able to take a step forward and get the ball farther down the field. We weren’t able to monetize that, but we really didn’t try to monetize it. We operated more along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’d be rad if … and people bought some bikes because of it.’

On the other hand, in my travels across the country and around the world, every now and again someone will unexpectedly say, ‘Oh, hey man, I know that. I know what you did.’ That’s really cool. Even though I don’t think it spread even through the cyclocross community completely, enough people got it that they respect it and the push that’s still needed. Now C1s offer equal payouts, C2s are equal, and now Trek has equalized a World Cup for the first time, and prize money is increasing. Helen Wyman has been a huge, huge factor in that.

How did the relationship with the U.S. Cup-CX come about?

Ryan [Trebon] gave me a shout. I’ve known Ryan for a few years. He hit me up and asked me if I’d be interested if this comes together. It was the same thing as with the Koppenberg. ‘Yup!’ He said, ‘I don’t really have anything but broad strokes.’ I said, ‘No problem, all good.’

The U.S. needs a series and I was like, ‘Why not?’ It’s being well received. There’s probably going to be some good feedback. Sho-Air is awesome to that relationship. They’re a huge supporter of cycling and I’m psyched they’re in ’cross now. It may not be that my race is perfect; it may not be that the series is perfect. Certainly nothing in bike racing is perfect. But we learn every time to do things better; I think the potential here is huge.

I hope we’re part of the series going forward. It’s important for the series to have a [UCI] C1 race. That might not honestly be something we can continue to do. It does almost eliminate all possibility of any profit. I’m not talking about profit that allows you to go to Hawaii. I’m talking profit — in dollars — that helps you continue to grow the race. We didn’t achieve that last year as a C1. And no one gets paid. It’s all volunteers.

I think it’s important for the U.S. to have a series. Our problem with ’cross is scheduling and the size of the country. We need to have big races to have the best people at them. For our race, the pros are just the cherry on top. For a series, we need the professionalism that something like the U.S. Cup brings.

What did it take from a race organization perspective to be part of the U.S. Cup-CX?

There’s a little bit more infrastructure and amenities — an air-conditioned media tent, for example! [laughs] We’ve never even had a media tent before. We may not get the full-on national respect here in Baltimore; we just try to focus on the product and aren’t maybe the greatest self-promoters. But the series helped motivate the staff — even though we didn’t know what the U.S. Cup was going to be — to take that extra step forward. We’ve always thought about the ways to make the event bigger and better — an infield with food trucks and a kid’s race with a mini-flyover — and this really helped push us forward. While it didn’t monetarily cost us anything, per se, to be a part of the series, it made us move forward.

Whose idea was it to build the mammoth 20-step flyover this year?

That was me and Jay Lazar, my partner in the race. The opportunity came up through one of our sponsors, who had a connection with this scaffolding company, and we talked about how we could do it. Believe it or not, it’s smaller than we were going to have it. In hindsight, maybe it should have been a bit smaller still [laughs]. This was four full days of work — it was labor intensive.

We had just over 1,600 pre-registered athletes this year, which is just slightly higher than last year, and I think that’s because we were a C1 and part of the U.S. Cup-CX. Hopefully, after this year people will get the message — I think we did something special. We may have overcompensated a little bit this year, in a good way [laughs].

Basically, we had this silly idea. It was a ridiculous thing to do. And so we had to do it. I’ve never seen one this big in the States. I’m not trying to outdo anybody, I just thought why not? It shows opportunities. We’re always trying to push it forward.

What’s your philosophy as a race director?

To me, ’cross is about getting off your bike. If no one got off their bike on this course, I wouldn’t be interested. Here, depending on how skilled you are, you may be off the bike five times a lap. It teaches people to have skills again. Not just strength. I want both. Strongest, smartest, and most skilled wins: That’s my dream winner. There’s a place for grass tracks, so to speak, but I want to see people dismount, I want to see people screw up a remount, I want people to have to think things through. So much bike racing is formulaic, it’s nice to see something more dynamic.

I like to believe that people see what we do and they think about their courses, even if it’s for five more minutes, and add a feature or something to their course that makes it better. I hope that’s what’s happening. If you put on a race tomorrow and put up a bigger flyover than us — which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody [laughs] — I would think that was the raddest thing in the world. I’m all for us going back and forth with every club in the area and blowing things up. It’s not like we want to be better than you, it’s about all being better together.

You’re a soft-spoken person. What has made you so successful as a leader?

I’m a quiet guy most of the time, but put me in a bike race or put me around bike people, my people, and I’m an opinionated son of a bitch. I’ll put my opinion out there. It’s not always right or popular, and eventually, I see my faults.

But more importantly, I genuinely appreciate every volunteer here. It sounds idiotic, but I usually give a little speech at the end of the race weekend, and I damn near bust out crying every year because it’s everybody doing this. That’s rad. We live in such a huge country, with so many people, to find a community you can be in and be tight with even if you don’t always agree, is really meaningful to me.

What’s the story behind the name, Charm City Cross?

I came here for a summer and I stayed for 15 years. It was a really great place for me to be; it was a really easy place to create something. That’s a lot of what still goes on in Baltimore. Baltimore is just not recognized, people look down on it, and people here use that as a strength. Trust me, it’s not without its issues. Coming here from New England, I heard the name Charm City and I just didn’t get it at first. But two years in, forget it. I don’t know about the advertiser thing, but it really has its charms. We call it ‘Smalltimore,’ and a few other less nice names at times, but the community is so easy to get into here. You can create here. There are no shackles.

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