Ryan Trebon may be key to the future of U.S. ‘cross

Pro cyclocross has been rudderless since the collapse of the U.S. Gran Prix in 2013. Has it found its unlikely captain in Ryan Trebon?

The trick, it seems, is to get everyone on the same page.

Ever since the shuttering of the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross in 2013, American cyclocross racing has been scattered, its stars often spread across this large country or even outside it, its races frequently thinned by a haphazard calendar. Media didn’t know which races to focus on because the riders didn’t, either. Coverage suffered. Racing suffered.

Cyclocross, a niche once so clearly ascendant, began to plateau, according to race license figures published by USA Cycling. Cycling’s new cool kid, gravel racing, began to supplant ’cross in the minds of America’s dirt-fond cyclists. When the USGP died, so did a piece of American ’cross, and American bike racing.

This fall, Ryan Trebon and Scott Tedro will try their hands at resurrection.

Tedro is the man behind Sho-Air, a company that specializes in tradeshow shipping and which already sponsors the US Cup XC, a national mountain bike series. He brings cash and passion — Sho-Air has sponsored teams and races for nearly a decade. Trebon brings his history inside the sport, as both a pro racer and team operator, and acts as series director for the new US Cup-CX.

Their goal? Get everyone back on the same page and, in doing so, make ’cross the next big thing once again.

“The more prestigious the races, the more it benefits everyone at the event,” Tedro says.

“EVERYONE SAW THE SOLUTION, but it didn’t happen,” says Trebon, affectionately known as “Treefarm,” a longtime pro cyclocross racer and mountain biker who retired last year and whose stature is very much in line with the nickname. The problem was a decline in sponsorship cash injected into pro American cyclocross, caused in large part by the lack of a clear calendar.

“The cross calendar has been almost too much of a good thing,” says USA Cycling’s technical director Chuck Hodge. “It is big and robust, but if [media] are trying to figure out where to go and athletes are trying to figure out where to go, it can almost be too much.”

The solution, everyone knew, was another multi-race series like the USGP. Not slimming the calendar down, but giving it some structure. That series had held the sport together in this country; it provided a narrative, and a place where all the big names were guaranteed to meet and clash. It provided a living for those pros, directly through prize money and indirectly through exposure they could sell to sponsors.

“There was no question that those were the races we were going to,” says Meredith Miller, a retired pro who raced through both the USGP and post-USGP eras. “The rest of your schedule fit around it. It was the series.”

That is precisely what Trebon and Tedro will attempt to re-start this fall. Trebon conceived the US Cup following a lengthy Facebook rant last winter. (The gist: why don’t we have the national cyclocross series we all keep talking about and know we want?!) It was formally announced in June and will consist of four race weekends, and seven races total. It hops on the back of existing and popular events — KMC Crossfest in Connecticut, Charm City Cross in Baltimore, Cincinnati Cyclocross, and the Derby City Cup in Louisville, Kentucky — and unites them into a single, cohesive series. The winner of both the men’s and women’s series will be handed a $10,000 check, winner take all.

[pullquote attrib=”Ryan Trebon”]“For this project, we want to drive cyclocross racing in the U.S. so that sponsors start coming back, and people can make a living at it again. To do that we can’t suck.”[/pullquote]

Everyone will be there. The four weekends are split into pairs, with an off-weekend in the middle. The races in each pair are within driving distance of each other.

“You can do this series in a van,” Trebon says. “That was key.”

Trebon paid close attention to the World Cup schedule, which will still be the primary focus for many of America’s top ’cross racers, and made an attempt not to clash with other major U.S. races.

“We’re for sure going to do all of them,” says Ellen Noble, the reigning under-23 champion who rides for Aspire Racing alongside Jeremy Powers and new-addition Spencer Petrov. “But it’s not my main priority. It’s super cool and an amazing resource for people like myself because it doesn’t conflict. But I can’t put all my eggs in one basket.”

Trebon has been receiving some pushback from races on competing weekends that aren’t part of the series. “They feel like we’re stealing a bit from them,” he says. “But it’s one of those things that’s impossible to totally avoid.” There are simply a lot of ’cross races smashed into a relatively short time frame.

Competing promoters are right to feel a bit putout if the start lists for the US Cup come together as expected. Prior to the announcement of the series, Trebon sent an email to more than 50 cyclocross pros and their managers.

“We don’t have start contracts, but I’ve spoken to most of the team managers and they’re all coming,” Trebon says. “I made it clear how important it was for everyone to be part of it. People I’ve talked to said they changed their program to make this work.”

That is precisely what Trebon and Tedro were hoping for — to get everyone back on the same page.

“I WANT TO NOT SUCK,” Trebon says.

He’s a pretty direct guy, well known for speaking his mind, occasionally to his own personal or professional detriment. In his racing days, he was known for an occasional temper. He will tell you when he thinks you’re wrong. He’s not a politician. Maybe that’s why, when the US Cup was announced, a few of his former racing compatriots responded with some version of, “Wait, Ryan? Ryan’s doing what?”

Ryan, it turns out, is trying to fix cyclocross. And that starts with not sucking.

“Not sucking is big. It was always what I tried to do, or not do, when I was racing,” he says, with half a laugh. “For this project, we want to drive cyclocross racing in the U.S. so that sponsors start coming back, and people can make a living at it again. To do that we can’t suck.”

In a realm with little cash and low, often negative, margins, not sucking is harder than it looks. The USGP folded largely because of the financial burden of producing a series of pro ’cross races in-house. Simply breaking even is incredibly difficult. When a major sponsor, Exergy, failed to live up to its financial obligations, the cycling industry came together to keep the series running for one more season, but that was it.

That’s where the US Cup series has a distinct leg up.

First, Trebon and Tedro are not running the races. A different, established promoter was already organizing each race weekend. The US Cup merely comes in and ties them together. Second, cash is not a problem.

“Why were we able to make this work? Primarily because Scott [Tedro] wanted it to happen, and he wasn’t concerned with a monetary return on it,” Trebon says. “He was like, ‘Hey we can do this, and I’m not expecting a 30 percent return.’ You can accomplish a lot when you’re not expecting to make your money back. It allows you a lot of flexibility.”

Flexibility, yes; sustainability, perhaps not. Trebon described this first season as an “exploratory” phase. In the future, US Cup wants to bring additional sponsorship to the table, on top of what its race promoters already have but without clashing with existing sponsors. The cash would be used to increase media coverage, with a focus on bringing live streams to the events, and increasing the prize purse.

There will be no live streaming this fall, “it’s just too expensive,” Trebon says. There will be high-production-value recap shows, however. US Cup wants to add amateur races, too, rather than just focus on the pros. It may add races, depending on how the calendar works out.

The US Cup vision of cyclocross starts at the top. Trebon argues that if you build the professional side, amateur growth follows. The pro ranks can’t grow without more sponsorship dollars, a reality inherent in the very definition of “professional.” Sponsors go where they will see a return. Ever since the USGP died, that hasn’t been cyclocross.

That’s what the US Cup wants to fix. It wants everyone — all the racers, promoters, media, and fans — to get back on the same page. It wants all ’cross-interested eyeballs on its four weekends of American racing. Because only then, the theory goes, will the money come back. Only then will professional American cyclocross truly come back.

It’s Trebon’s vision, but it’s also cyclocross’s vision. Everyone wanted this, yet nobody was doing it. “What I really want,” Trebon says, “is to use this as a way of making ’cross racing what I think it could be.”