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Is European ‘cross racing worth it for America’s elite men?

A decade ago, American men flocked to European cyclocross races. That's not the case for the current generation of racers.

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RENO, Nevada (VN) — When Stephen Hyde lined up for this year’s USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships, he was up against 37 men he hardly knew anymore.

It had been over a month since Hyde competed against the other strongmen of American cyclocross. He spent much of December racing in Europe on the World Cup and DVV Trophy series. Meanwhile, his American rivals trained in warmer climates, preparing for the country’s premier race.

“[Racing in Europe] does give you some confidence, but then the dynamic does change,” Hyde says. “It changes within the group. It’s much different, especially a race like nationals in Reno. That race was going to be a group race.”

Other than Hyde (who went on to win nationals, by the way), American men were largely absent on the European cyclocross circuit this season. That’s not the case with American women — this year Katie Compton, Katie Keough, Elle Anderson, and Ellen Noble, among others, competed in European ‘cross.

Why did so few men compete? There are multiple explanations. Some sponsors no longer value European exposure like they used to, and some riders prefer to train and race at home. Travel to and from Europe can quickly empty a budget. And for both sponsors and riders, grabbing fan interest and exposure in the European races is a major gamble.

It wasn’t always this way. Less than a decade ago, a dedicated group of American men regularly traveled to the European World Cups. At the 2008 World Cup in Hofstade, Belgium, for example, five American men toed the line the day after Christmas.

For the 2011/2012 season, a major schedule change made it more difficult for Americans to race during Europe’s traditional Christmas ‘cross races. USA Cycling shifted national championships to an early January time slot, the same weekend as national championships in European countries.

“At first when they moved nationals, I struggled with the prep, but last year I got it figured out,” says Jamey Driscoll (Donnelly), who was second at 2017 nationals. His preferred prep was to train at home — not race in Belgium — during December.

Despite the schedule change, Americans continued to race in Europe. In mid-October, 2011 at the Tabor World Cup in the Czech Republic, six Americans raced the elite men’s race. Yet by 2016, that number had tailed off. That January, only Hyde, Jeremy Powers, and American Allen Krughoff participated in the January World Cup rounds in Belgium.

In 2017 that number dropped even further. So far this World Cup season — excluding the two U.S. World Cups in September — Hyde has been the only American man racing abroad (apart from journalist Andrew Juiliano who started four World Cups). Hyde made the trans-Atlantic trip worthwhile. He finished 11th at the Namur World Cup and then 13th in Zolder.

Hyde’s team manager Stu Thorne believes there is marketing value in the European races.

“It’s important for our sponsors, and it’s important for the growth of some of the riders as far as their aspirations to ride on that stage,” Thorne said. “It’s TV time. Top-15 is OK but top-10 for sure. Stephen’s going to still get TV time if he has a good race. … When that camera lines up on the start, that’s important for everybody.”

Thorne also values pitting his riders against the best in the world for their personal development.

“To go over there and compete against the world’s best — It’s important to be able to have some experience racing against those people,” he said.

Not everyone has the motivation or the resources to support a European racing trip. A travel budget for a rider, bicycles, and support staff can quickly soar into the thousands of dollars. If a rider spends long periods of time in Europe, the bill for lodging and food can add more. For many teams, the budgetary demands of racing stateside are enough — a European trip would simply break the bank.

Riders and team managers must balance the cost of these trips with the value they bring to a rider and sponsor.

Donn Kellogg, who runs Driscoll’s Donnelly team, agrees that European racing provides a development opportunity. Yet Kellogg’s marketing goals focus on the United States. He operates a tire company, Donnelly Tires, and the lion’s share of his business interests are American. So rather than hiring young riders with European ambitions, he counsels riders who’ve already banked European experience to stay closer to home.

“Even though we’re a global company and we sell in Europe quite well, the commercial side of cyclocross in the Benelux is quite low,” Kellogg says. “That doesn’t drive us as much.”

Beyond the larger cyclocross teams, riders who run their own individual sponsorship programs take a similar approach. Kerry Werner (Kona) was third at 2018 nationals, and he says his one-man team’s budget is squarely focused on stateside results.

“I know for certain that Jake, the president of Kona, values me winning bike races. When you’re winning in America there’s quite a bit of exposure,” Werner said. “Going over to Europe, I think that the people at Kona see that as more of like something I would do for myself as a development thing. What I can go over there and learn and then bring back to here and be more proficient here.”

Werner said that Kona’s European marketing objectives hinge more on enduro mountain bikes than they do on cyclocross sales.

A pro cycling team is the marketing arm of its sponsor, and if the sponsor lacks the motivation to go abroad, then that dictates the riders’ schedules. Former national champion Powers runs his own team, Aspire Racing, and funds it largely through sponsorships from Rapha and SRAM. He notes that the weak bike industry has made it hard to justify major European trips even though his sponsors have global marketing goals.

“The value’s not there, but it’s expensive and there’s less money,” Powers says. “The real story is that there’s less money in the sport. That’s a fact.”

Building a fanbase overseas presents another challenge, Powers says. The European pack is stronger, and fans are less familiar with American riders. It’s a real challenge for a rider and a sponsor to gain exposure in such a climate.

“We take our fans that we have here, and we showcase ourselves there, but we’re not gaining a lot of new fans there [in Europe],” Powers says. “We still need to build here.”

Apart the bike industry’s economic woes or the marketing challenges that crop up in a wild media landscape replete with social media, podcasts, videos, and more, there’s a simple reality: It’s difficult to travel a lot and race well.

These challenges also impact America’s female pro cyclists. Courtenay McFadden (Pivot Cycles-DNA) rode through three difficult seasons trying to make December European ‘cross campaigns work.

“I spent three years going over there for Christmas, and there’s nothing I liked about it,” McFadden said. “Living on the West Coast, you do a lot of travel. … I’d hit December, go and race all jetlagged and just fatigue myself out, and then have nothing left in the tank.”

Yet America’s women have fared far better in the European cyclocross scene. American Katie Compton owns 24 World Cup victories, and her countrywoman, Katie Keough, currently sits in second place in the UCI rankings (Compton is third and Noble is 15th). It’s far easier to justify the expense for America’s talented women, since their results often justify the marketing expense.

“For someone like Ellen [Noble], it makes a lot of sense. Ellen’s on TV; she’s doing well; she’s riding on the podium often, and that has value to our sponsors,” Powers says.

But simply setting up shop overseas doesn’t guarantee success. Jonathan Page, who recently retired after nationals in Reno, spent 13 years in Belgium. Though he had a brilliant second-place finish at 2007 worlds, he never broke through as a perennial favorite in the European races.

Hyde seems a likely candidate to follow Page’s path. However, at 31 years of age, Hyde recognizes that his potential to continue developing as a racer is limited.

“How much better am I gonna get as a 31-year-old to make that difference?” Hyde says. “I don’t see the appeal for a [European] team owner right now to hire an American, especially at my age. I’m over that threshold of junior or under-23 rider.”

Practical financial considerations also make racing full-time in Europe less lucrative. Hyde won the $10,000 series purse in the US Cup-CX, and while that’s not the only reason to continue splitting time between the U.S. and Europe, it is better than the heavy taxation a rider faces as a dual citizen.

“It’s difficult to make money unless you make money and pay taxes [in Europe],” he says. “If you’re a dual citizen or you’re bringing money back to the U.S., you’re getting both governments taking out of your pocket.”

And finally, Hyde doesn’t want to be isolated. A friendly, talkative fixture on the ‘cross circuit, he wouldn’t want a long-term European campaign to strain the relationship he has with his partner, Hayley. He wouldn’t want to leave behind for a European team. He wouldn’t want to lose touch with the friends and fans he sees at races in the U.S.

“I got into bike racing because I like the people,” he says. “Yes, there is a community here [in Europe], but I have a community already.”

Maybe that is the balance point for most American cyclocross racers. By staying a bit closer to home, they can watch their bottom line while rekindling domestic fan interest, which has waned since the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross ended in 2012.

“We still need to build here,” adds Powers. “We still do need to have big races here that can build up big names and can build up big fan bases, and that’s going to allow us to bring those fans and bring them [the riders] across the pond.”

It doesn’t have the same glory as a win in Koksijde or Namur, but maybe it’ll be America’s next step toward a ‘cross superstar fans can call their own.