‘Cross conundrum: Domestic racing needs focus

Despite a hefty calendar of races, professional domestic cyclocross racing lacks direction and organization. What's the solution?

Forget, for a moment, that cyclocross participation in the U.S. has grown 40 percent in the last five years. Ignore the fact that organizers pulled off a successful world championships in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013. Overlook, also, the fact that Cross Vegas opened the UCI World Cup this year.

Forget all of that. Because despite these high-level successes on American soil, the truth is that, for professionals, our domestic scene is a mess. There is no firm direction or organization at the top of the sport, and U.S.-based pros and their fans are facing another frustrating season without a consensus national race series.

“The one thing that is working is Pro CX,” says Adam Myerson, a race promoter and longtime pro racer. “There are pro-level races somewhere in the country, every weekend.”

But the Pro CX calendar — a collection of 45 domestic UCI cyclocross races — doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of a true national series.

“I think the Pro CX calendar is a total joke and a waste of time and allocation of money,” says two-time U.S. national cyclocross champion Ryan Trebon (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld. com). “For me, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s every race. How can you have a calendar of races where you have multiple races every weekend at different parts of the country and expect to have the best racers race each other all the time?”

Even USA Cycling’s vice president of national events, Micah Rice, admits there may be too many events on the Pro CX calendar.

“We wanted to be a little more inclusive than exclusive,” Rice says, pointing to the number of C2 races in the U.S. (UCI designations for cyclocross races start with World Cup events at the top, then C1 and C2.) “We wanted to include the promoters that didn’t see a reason to run a C1 but wanted to run a C2 and kind of be part of the calendar. We also wanted to push racer participation.”

The catch is that, though the Pro CX calendar was never intended to replace the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross (USGP), which faded away after the 2012 season, it has become the de facto series for American pros. So instead of following a clearly defined series and competing against the same top racers at every event, riders are left to pick events from a broad national calendar of all UCI-sanctioned races.

“If people stop looking at the distraction of a series and just look at the calendar, there are plenty of good races out there,” Myerson says.

But the problem isn’t lack of races; it’s lack of structure. With the reliance on the Pro CX calendar, the simple truth is that the $40,000 purse goes to the riders who travel the most. Jeremy Powers (Aspire Racing) competed in 12 Pro CX races last year and won 10 of those races. But he finished second in points — 938 to 989 — to Jamey Driscoll (Raleigh-Clement), who raced 26 Pro CX events last season.

“I think it has continued to grow, but I do think it is hard for fans to follow,” Powers says of the current calendar. “I do think it hurts when there isn’t a national series like the USGP. Of course it does.”

The women’s calendar yielded a different dynamic, with Caroline Mani (Raleigh-Clement) winning the overall after 19 starts but with just three victories, ahead of Courtenay McFadden (GE Capital-American Classic) who made 23 starts and had one victory. It wasn’t exactly a pitched battle for dominance at the front of the field.

“To be able to win that series, you basically have to do every race,” says Gabby Durrin (Neon Velo), who finished sixth overall. “I just think it’s more quantity over quality.”

Victims of our own success

When the Supercup started in 1996, cyclocross was a nascent sport in the U.S. There was plenty of leeway for the organizers to dictate the major events on the calendar, up until the series fizzled in 2001. The USGP had similar freedom, starting in 2004, as the curl of the American ’cross wave began to form.

Now, that wave is a monster. In 2005, USA Cycling counted 32,170 cyclocross racer days. Last year, it was 131,042. There simply isn’t much room on the crowded calendar for a new series.

“There are a lot of good individual events that stand on their own pretty well and don’t necessarily want to be soaked up by a privately owned company,” Rice says. “Starting that on a very crowded calendar is very hard.”

Trebon, twice a winner of the USGP, sees the USAC’s collection of license fees as a bit of a disincentive to create a smaller and more cohesive pro series. “As long as they get registration and get people buying licenses, they couldn’t give two shits about professional-level cyclocross,” he says. The simple fix, of course, would be to link the existing C1 races into a standalone series. USAC already favors C1s on the Pro CX calendar by giving those races three times as many points as C2 events. By focusing on those more valuable races, Powers ended up second overall in the series, despite a light domestic schedule.

Such a change would clearly help pros who now fly around the country every autumn. It would also benefit fans by giving them a compelling season-long narrative. But there would be an additional upside in terms of the health of the sport. Sponsorship investment keeps the teams afloat. Having a professional, unified product that compels them to use cyclocross to market their brands is the best way to support the athletes and U.S. cyclocross in general.

“Selling bikes is a business,” Trebon says. “Racing bikes is a business. USAC is a business. Why can’t race promoting be a business? The USGP was good at production. That’s where you could bring sponsors and show them, and they’d see how good it is. Now it’s like, ‘Is this in someone’s backyard?’”

But the two — a pro series and the nation’s thriving “backyard” races — aren’t mutually exclusive. The latter are both a cause and effect of the boom in domestic cyclocross. But for the long-term viability of pro racing, USAC needs to trim its Pro CX calendar or find a series promoter than can fill the big shoes left empty by the USGP.